A few years ago, Chade-Meng Tan, one of the company's first engineering employees in Mountain View, noticed many of his colleagues were stressed out and unhappy at work, so he decided to do something about it. He persuaded his bosses to let him create a course that would teach employees mindfulness skills to enhance emotional intelligence and promote wellbeing, and he transitioned to the HR department to run it. In a nod to his employer, he called it Search Inside Yourself, an admittedly corny name that is also the title of his book about the course's techniques.
At the 2014 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, I was curious about Meng's panel, called "Make Yourself the Happiest Person on Earth." Not surprisingly, given the talk's promise, every seat and spot of floor space in the hotel ballroom was filled. Meng promised he was going to teach us the "scientifically proven" secret of happiness in three easy steps.
I was fascinated, but naturally skeptical. So in the weeks afterwards, I decided to try Meng's three-step advice for myself to see if it made me happier. I also took a closer look at the science that he claims support his techniques. Could there be anything to it? Let's look at each of the steps in turn.
To introduce his first piece of advice, Meng led the SXSW audience through a short collective breathing exercise to calm the fluffy particles in the "snow-globes" (his metaphor) in our skulls. He advocates finding easy ways to take pauses during the day and be mindful of your breath. "If that's too hard, then just think about nothing for little bit," he joked.
His book goes into more detail, focusing on what meditation is and how to begin practicing it, citing a study
by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School that mindfulness-training reduces reported anxiety.
Meng is not the only one to suggest that meditation and mindfulness is good for our mental health. For example, the monk Matthieu Ricard, who the press has dubbed "the world's happiest man" has written a book on the topic
But does it work? There is some evidence that mindfulness can help stave off negative thoughts. A recent review of 209 studies found that the practice can help treat depression, anxiety and stress
. (Some researchers even claim that the stress-reduction promised by meditation could help slow the effects of aging
It's worth pointing out that dealing with depression and anxiety is not necessarily the same thing as boosting happiness. Still, Meng's first piece of happiness advice appears to have growing scientific credence.
Step two: "Log moments of joy"
This means simply saying to yourself -- as you sip a great espresso, laugh at your friend's joke or buy that shirt you've wanted -- "I am having a moment of joy!" When negative things happen to us throughout the day we tend to hold on to them, while the good things are more fleeting and ephemeral. So, by consciously acknowledging the good things, says Meng, we increase our chances that when we reflect on our day, we conclude it was happy one.
The hypothesis that noting positive experiences counterbalances, or outweighs, negatives makes intuitive sense. We can all relate to the power of a single, even short-lived incident tainting a whole day, but rarely does the reverse seem true. As Johnny Mercer sang, you have to "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
Recent studies have tried to explore this effect, including one by positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, which concluded we need a 3:1 positive-to-negative ratio
of thoughts to free our minds from the tar-paper effect of negative thinking. However, this particular study has proven controversial, with some researchers questioning the mathematical claims
made in the paper.
One 2006 study, however, found that people who wrote down their positive experiences in a diary
reported greater feelings of life satisfaction, and the effect lasted for up to two weeks afterwards.
Step three: "Wish other people to be happy"
According to Meng, altruistic thoughts benefit us because we derive a lot of joy from giving, even more than from receiving.
Meng makes eloquent arguments for the (I think) self-evident need to infuse your life with more compassion, but only cites one study -- on people performing acts for others
-- to back his claim that "kindness is a sustainable source of happiness."
In his book Happiness: A Very Short Introduction, the philosopher Daniel Haybron supports Meng's case by citing other researchers, particularly psychologist Michael Argyle who has suggested "only dancing generated higher 'levels of joy' than volunteer and charity work." Fredrickson, too, has studied the benefits of a form of meditation that involved thinking positive thoughts about others
. She asked people to try the technique for a few minutes a day for several weeks, and many reported feeling more joyful and hopeful.
But we're still far from Meng's logic leap that just thinking well for others is enough. We'd be kidding ourselves if we think that wanting someone else to be happy is the same thing as actually doing something to make them happy, such as giving them a gift or, apparently, taking them dancing.
Science versus experience
In fact, the more I looked into Meng's claims the less convinced I was that his claims are heavily supported by existing research. Many of the findings in these studies are tentative, and need to be replicated. According to Haybron, there are actually other happiness factors backed by more robust studies -- such as autonomy, meaningful and skilled work, relationships/love, money (but not too much) and security (but not too much because you'll be bored) and non-attachment to things we could lose.
And yet, at the same time the more I practiced the three-step method, the more it seemed to be working. I started meditating at work
. I programmed my mobile phone to send me hourly reminders to wish happiness on others. And I remembered to tell myself "I'm having a moment of joy!" when I was having fun with my daughters, running in the park, drinking a delicious beer and even writing this column.