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Watch psychologist Richard Wiseman describe how science can help us understand how we can be happier
I guess my research in psychology falls into two different areas: over here we have psychology of the paranormal, why people have allegedly paranormal experiences and believe rather weird things, and then over here quite different work on psychology of happiness and success and achievement.
So I guess in terms of the paranormal, I’m pretty skeptical and always have been, actually. So my background is as a magician, as a stage magician and so when you do magic, you get to realise that it’s fairly easy to fool people some of the time. And I think that’s happening with the paranormal. My research shows that lots of these experiences that we think are paranormal, such as seeing a ghost or having a dream that comes true, actually have normal explanations. But we are good at kidding ourselves, of tripping ourselves up, of coming to believe that there are ghostly figures or whatever it is, or we can communicate with the dead.
And so my research has tended to look at the psychology and the science behind those experiences, and especially behind parapsychological beliefs. My work on happiness and wellbeing has really tried to look at why is it that again we often trip ourselves up, we often think ‘oh, this will make me happy, this will be more successful, this will be a better relationship than the one I had before or whatever it is. And often we get it very badly wrong, which is why there’s lots of not very happy people in the world. So it’s to look at what changes can we make, that, first of all, stick with us, and second, actually work.
So if you go to a bookstore, it’s full of books that will tell you wonderful things about how to be happy and successful, and often a lot of the information in there simply isn’t very accurate at all. So it’s about what does work, and how can you make the small changes that make a big difference.
In terms of the most fascinating things that I’ve found and uncovered, I would say a lot of is about happiness, because often we think that in order to make a big change in our lives, we have to really kind of move everything around and do something radically different. But what my work shows is actually the smallest of changes, if they’re the right changes, could have a really big impact. So, for example, just jotting down the good things that happened during the day, doing that each night, has a profound impact on happiness over the long haul. Why? Because otherwise those things fade from our memories pretty quickly. It’s a very, very simple exercise, but it’s a very powerful one.
If you want to be happier, instantly, sort of cheer yourself up, actually forcing your face into a smile is a rather good way of doing that. So we feel happy, we smile, but there’s also a second mechanism going in the opposite direction, which is when you smile, you feel happier. Very simple idea. If you’re trying to get over a difficult relationship and then writing about it, putting into an envelope, and then setting fire to that envelope - pretty good way of doing things. It kind of burns it out of your memory. So often it’s small changes that lead to very big impact - and that’s what sort of fascinates me most as a psychologist.
People sometimes say, well, if you look at the science of happiness, for example, you’re taking away some of the magic of life, some of the mystery of it. And I really don’t think you are. I mean the fact is that if you want to lead a happier, more contented, more meaningful life, you kind of got to know what to do. And for me, that means looking at the evidence, collecting it and taking a sort of sceptical look at it. And I’d rather be depending on that kind of evidence, than a practitioner or a self-help guru telling me ‘No, no, no, just trust me, this is what you should be doing’.
I want to ask for the evidence, that just all feels like it’s in my DNA.

Richard Wiseman is currently Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, where he has gained an international reputation for research into the psychology of luck, happiness, persuasion, and illusion. He is well known for his sceptical stance on the paranormal, and much of his work examines how developing normal explanations for allegedly paranormal phenomena can help us to understand our brains, beliefs, and behaviour. His work also includes the investigation of what small changes we can make to our lives in order to make us happier.

Question: How important is a scientific understanding of our psychology to helping us to find happiness?

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