How to Have a Happy Life

Economist and former Mckinsey partner Caroline Webb recently released a book titled, How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. She attempts to show readers how to use behavioral economics and psychology to improve their quality of life. She does this by applying the science to daily tasks and routines. In a recent interview, Webb was asked what could we do in the morning to set ourselves up to have a good day? Her response immediately drew me in. She explains that our brains are only able to process parts of reality at any given time. So while there may be lots of objects around you — chair, table, wall, flower, lamp, picture carpet, noise, hair on your arms — it’s impossible for you to pay close attention to everything that is in your space. Thankfully, our brains filter out most of what is going on around us.

She goes on to explain that since some things are getting filtered out, we’re all experiencing a very subjective, incomplete version of reality. Once we understand “the rules,” we can shift the way we perceive whatever happens. So what are the rules, at least according to Webb?

The Rules

Webb explains that our brains consciously notice whatever is at the forefront of our minds. So if someone is in a bad mood (she gives the example of spilling coffee on yourself), the brain will recognize that you’re in a bad mood and will begin to shape your perception of everything else in a way that confirms the world is a terrible place. The same goes the other way. If you put yourself in a positive mood, you’ll start to see the world in a more positive light. Another term for this is “confirmation bias” or “selective attention.”

As another example, she points out that if we’re meetings with someone we believe is a jerk, we’re more likely to notice things about them that confirm our judgment. We end up missing qualities that may paint this person in a more positive light. But if we go in aware of our assumptions, we set ourselves up to see and appreciate the good qualities in this person, instead of only noticing the negative.

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