Bruce Hood, psychologist: ‘Happiness focused on oneself doesn’t go very far’

In his new work ‘The Science of Happiness’, the expert and former teacher of Laurie Santos compiles dozens of studies on what helps improve psycho-emotional well-being in a lasting way

Bruce Hood photographed in the garden of his home in Bristol (United Kingdom).
Bruce Hood photographed in the garden of his home in Bristol (United Kingdom).KIM JACOBSON

There was a time when Bruce Hood viewed everything surrounding positive psychology with skepticism. He thought it was a sphere filled with naivety and platitudes, with its universal recipes and direct highways to happiness. Intermingled in a sweet-smelling haze were beatific smiles, spirituality for modern times, definitive bestsellers and, on occasion, a certain scientific substratum. To Hood, it all seemed too vague, like an apothecary’s shop offering suggestive balms that are not very effective in the long-term.

Something changed in 2018, when this British-Canadian developmental psychologist — famous for his analyses of the notion of the self and superstitious beliefs — found out that a former student of his, Laurie Santos, was teaching a course called Psychology and the Good Life at Yale University. “She is very rigorous, I knew that she would not be promoting something that did not have good science behind it,” he says via videoconference.

At that time, Hood had begun to detect alarming levels of disquiet among his students at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Anguish was rampant, fueled by excessive demands, social media and the pressure to display joy 24/7. Hood wanted to give evidence-based wellness a chance. He created a program similar to one developed by Santos, which he named The Science of Happiness. His latest book of the same name brings together six years of experiences, his own research and dozens of studies on the habits and attitudes that we know — based on data — make us feel better in a lasting way.

The work revolves around one central idea: living happier means eliminating egocentrism, that powerful temptation that crosses eras and countries. With his commitment to allocentrism, Hood encourages us to stop navel-gazing and start looking at others. His book invites us to adopt an expansive perspective that goes against the current trend. “In recent years, we have been told that, to be happy, we have to take care of ourselves, put on our oxygen mask before helping others.” Losing sight of ourselves, he argues, doesn’t mean embracing an extreme altruism in which our needs don’t count at all. Rather, it is a matter of avoiding falling into a loop of self-absorption: “Happiness focused on oneself does not go very far; it is very limiting to be both the origin and the recipient of our actions.”

Countering egocentrism is about more than turning outward. It also requires us to question who we think we are, and what we think defines us. In his 2012 book The Self Illusion, Hood had dismantled the permanence of the self, which is inherent to every human being. The Science of Happiness expands on the idea of the self as a mirage. “It is nothing new, Buddhism has been asking the same thing for millennia; I have limited myself to giving this idea a scientific vision.”

The self as a “coherent narrative helps make sense of our confusion,” Hood continues, “and that perception of continuity, that we will always be essentially the same person, makes us believe that we make decisions independently.” The ego (which means “I” in Latin) seems real, it feels very true. The experience of the ego, Hood admits, is undeniable. But it is, at its core, a fallacy, a subtle deception: “There are many factors, most in fact, that are beyond our control, both external issues and unconscious internal dynamics.”

Do these quasi-ontological reflections contribute to our happiness? Hood is convinced that they do. “If you want to be happier, you have to give yourself the opportunity to see yourself as a product of your interaction with the world and not as an isolated island,” the book reads. Conceiving ourselves as a reality that is under construction, the author argues, is enormously liberating. It allows us to flow more freely and look at ourselves from a greater distance. It helps us to loosen our moorings and navigate through life without deterministic judgments, always open to change.

With an allocentric gaze and an ego in the process of being destroyed, everything becomes softer, less severe. “We become more compassionate with ourselves and with others, it is automatic. If you start to see yourself in a more detached way, you see that the emotional pain that we all suffer originates from a set of causes for which, to a large extent, we are not responsible.” It also reduces pessimism, a mental pattern that tends to take root among egocentrics, who tend to “extrapolate negative events — if something bad has happened once, it will happen again — and to continually blame themselves.”

Hood argues that optimism, like any beneficial cognitive habit, requires continuous learning. It is not enough to grasp the message and expect it to remain in our minds forever: we must apply the teachings every day. There are, of course, truths that help us understand why we grapple with stress, struggle with intrusive thoughts, or battle with anxiety. One basic truth is that “the brain is optimized to look for negative information, to detect problems to solve, instead of enjoying things when everything is going well.”

There is a strong evolutionary reason for so-called negativity bias: “Threats, real or imagined, acquire more value. Countless studies show that we pay more attention to what we judge as negative.” In his new work, Hood refers to anxiety (fear in the absence of pressing danger) as a “hangover from our times on the savanna.” Even without the threat of lurking lions, our neurons are still experts at generating worry. Knowing that they are just doing their job (albeit through often dysfunctional mechanisms), and that the fight or flight response — with its unpleasant physical sensations — is activated for strange reasons, can help us stay calm in moments of psychoemotional turbulence.

With the awareness that our minds are designed to create unnecessary torment, we must strive to focus our attention on other things that are more worthwhile. Ruminating less is not always an easy task, but it is key if we are striving for solid well-being. To achieve this, The Science of Happiness offers a wide range of recommendations: meditation, immersing ourselves in our hobbies, admiring nature, trying psychological distancing... According to Hood, these are resources that have been sufficiently proven in reliable studies.

Much of the book addresses the relational component of a more or less stable joy. Hood recalls that loneliness consistently comes up as the factor that most reduces life expectancy, and that “social death” tops the list of human fears. “Our priority goal is not to be excluded, since evolutionarily we have needed to belong to a group to survive.” Although it is not entirely impossible to be a lonely and happy person, anyone who achieves this will be the exception that proves the rule.

When we relate to others, it is important to be clear that comparison — validating ourselves as a system with respect to others — is an inexhaustible source of sadness and is sure to pave the way to feelings of unhappiness. As children, we are our only reference point. But as soon as we become aware as social beings, we begin to score ourselves in a growing market that is getting so big that, thanks to the online world, it encompasses the whole of humanity. Once again, this is fertile ground for recalcitrant navel-gazers: “When an egocentric view of the world predominates, we make endless erroneous comparisons. And there’s always going to be someone better than you in every aspect.” Gratitude proves to be an excellent antidote to envy and self-flagellation. For one obvious reason: “It teaches you to feel fortunate.”

The Science of Happiness synthesizes the most relevant research on the great aspiration of human beings. Hood is aware that he is facing a devilishly complex field of study, multifactorial like few others and highly dependent on context. “Happiness means different things in different places and to different people.” Among the hundreds of questions raised by this issue, Hood highlights the link between socioeconomic and emotional well-being. What is the minimum amount needed to be happy? For the moment, it’s a shadowy figure: “Psychologists and economists continue arguing about it without reaching a consensus. There is ongoing debate.”

Given the proliferation of scientific literature around what makes us happy, a meta-analysis published earlier this year in Annual Review of Psychology dissected the scientific aptitude of dozens of publications. Few passed the test. “I think that too rigorous criteria were applied, leading to a somewhat unfair evaluation,” says Hood, who acknowledges, however, that there are no shortage of studies that are “statistically poor, with dubious methods or samples that are too small.”

The professor from the University of Bristol insists that, although there is still a long way to go, a robust body of evidence is emerging that illuminates the path to happiness. He says that happiness requires a pick and a shovel: “Perseverance is essential. Certain habits must be consolidated; if not, you are likely to experience setbacks.” And he warns of the counterproductiveness of aiming for perpetual joy: “You have to experience problems and the ups and the downs. We must not seek a delirium of happiness, but rather learn to be resilient, to look forward, with a certain idea about how we want our life to be.”

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