Three Good Things: The Science of Happiness Podcast

It’s not often that a new positive psychology podcast gets me thinking about Shakespeare and science. But, here goes.

Positive Psychology Podcast

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – Hamlet

“Nothing is as joy producing or as misery inducing as we think it is.” – Sonja Lyubomirsky

What do the subject of Shakespeare’s case study in melancholia and the author of The How of Happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want have in common? They both came to the realization that our happiness has less to do with our economic and social status than we think. Though Hamlet was Prince of Denmark, a position of wealth and status that most of us will never attain, he thought of Denmark as a prison.

Admittedly, Hamlet was handling some serious trauma, so I won’t judge him. I never had to deal with my uncle killing my dad to marry my mom. But, while revenge may make for good drama, it’s a fatally flawed recipe for happiness. As Nicole Kidman says in The Interpreter, “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.”

If smartphones had been around during Hamlet’s time, he might have been able to work through his melancholy by trying out some of the practices from The Science of Happiness podcast. I can think of three good things to recommend it.

1. Concise and Portable Positive Psychology Podcast

The first two episodes of The Science of Happiness podcast run about fifteen minutes. They’re more focused distillations of the research and practices covered in the Greater Good Science Center’s free online course.

Though I think that overall smartphone use tilts more toward depression than well-being, as a delivery device for this beneficial content, they’re a useful tool.

Each episode consists of a summary of a happiness practice, an interview with a happiness guinea pig (who has tried the practice out), and gives a brief summary of the research suggesting why the practice is helpful.

2. The Happiness Guinea Pig

Host Dacher Keltner’s interview with someone who has tried the practice gives it a personal spin.

I shared my own account of how the “Three Good Things” exercise, featured in episode one, helped me reframe my uncomfortable relationship with Thanksgiving.

Freelance journalist Shuka Kalantari, the first happiness guinea pig, found similar counter-intuitive benefits. One day while driving to a coffee shop to meet for an interview, she realized that she had left her wallet at home. The good thing she discovered that day: “Some days things just suck. Some days it’s really hard to find three good things.”

This realization allowed her to stop beating herself up and just let the day unfold. Once she did, three good things helped her reframe the rest of her day.

    • She had only enough spare change in her car to pay for sixteen minutes of parking. The interview lasted an hour, but she didn’t receive a ticket.
    • When she explained her situation to her interviewee, they bought her a cup of coffee, and the hard luck became a nice icebreaker for their conversation.
  • The interviewee recommended a book on happiness.

The practice of writing down three good things made Ms. Kalantari stop and think. There have to be three good things in my life today. Is there any way I can make room for a good thing myself? Is there something I can create?

This strikes me as a potentially good cue to put on the breaks and show ourselves a little proactive self care when we’re caught up in a funk for most of the day.

She said that she will keep the practice up not just when things are hard but when things are going well. It makes you stop and process what’s happening in the moment. It got her to start writing things down and reflecting. She thinks any positive reflection is good for your well-being.

3. Why the Practice Works

The scientific explanation portion of the podcast is where we get to the jargon. I have a skeptical reaction to the phrase studies show. In my experience, psychological theories are built on the law of averages based on experiments that may or may not prove the hypothesis they test. Plus, if the theory doesn’t happen to apply to us, it’s an invitation to social comparison.

In Keltner’s interview with Lyubomirsky on the data supporting the “Three Good Things” practice, the researcher defines “hedonic adaptation.” Most people are remarkable for getting used to changes in their lives, especially positive changes.

To test whether this theory applies to you, think about how excited you were when you got that new boyfriend, girlfriend, bicycle, smartphone, car, house. Compare that to how you felt six hours, six days, six weeks, six months, or six years later.

While habitually taking good things for granted can take a toll on our happiness, it can be a real plus when it comes to adversity.

Lyubomirsky cites a study in which two-thirds of women who have breast cancer said that their condition led to positive changes in their lives.

It gave them the opportunity to:

    • Gain a new appreciation for the preciousness of life.
    • Discover their true priorities and who their true friends were.
  • Find strength of character they didn’t know they had.

Lyubomirsky also cited studies finding that most parents and children are quite a bit happier a few years after a divorce.

This is where citing research seems potentially counterproductive to me. If the challenges we’re struggling with don’t stack up to cancer or divorce, it makes us feel like wusses. If we’re depressed because of cancer or divorce, it can lead us to think we’re abnormal and that nothing will work.

The goal of the podcast is to introduce potentially beneficial practices and offer some motivation to try them.

My take is that if a practice sounds promising, give it a test run. If it doesn’t, better luck with the next one.

Ten Minute Exercise

The Greater Good Science Center has been researching well-being for fifteen years, so I’ll be investing ten minutes per episode (listening to the podcasts at 1.5x speed to whittle it down from fifteen).

If you care to join me:

1. Follow this link to The Science of Happiness podcast.

2. Click on one of the episodes.

3. Listen to the episode of your choice at 1.5x speed.

Extra Credit

1. Click on the instructions for either Three Good Things or Self-Compassionate Letter.

2. Try a ten-minute version of the exercise.

Three Good Things revisited on The Science of Happiness podcast.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.