Can We Be Happier via Learning More About Psychology?

Melis Yılmaz

Positive psychology, which is a newer field, crosses the line of psychology’s focus on “abnormality” and questions how each individual can live a happier and more satisfying life.  

As an answer to the question of “how people can be happy?”, different theories give different answers. However, in common, they all focus on “experiencing” the happiness. Frederick Perls highlights that we need to “experience” the life, rather than book learning, to regain our true nature and happiness. In western perspective, it is stated that, path for the happiness is designed for every individual differently and each individual needs to experience his own path. Indigenous people do not even have a written culture and they believe that every individual should find his own truths. Therefore, perspectives upon happiness differs in many ways, but they are common in one thing that happiness can be achieved via experience, not via book learning. 

However, while the correlation between happiness and many things has been studied in the literature, the correlation between book-learning of psychology and happiness has not been studied. Some studies provide that thinking about one’s own emotions can contribute to positive feelings.1 At this point, it can be thought that an education related to the science of psychology may contribute to the person’s thinking about his own feelings and thus may contribute the happiness. Additionally, Martin Seligman conducted research on the positive effects of his positive psychology course on his students. However, in his research, the lecture given by Seligman includes many applications in addition to book learning. For this reason, effects of this unique course, which is specifically designed to include many positive psychology practices, cannot be categorized as effects of book learning.2

By seeing this gap in the literature, to examine the effect of the book learning on the happiness, I conducted research among 62 university students. Among those students, 29 of them did not have any psychology courses while 33 of them had psychology course(s). In the research, several questions were asked to each participant, such as participant’s major in university, how many psychology courses that they took, whether they have a personal interest in psychology field, and how often they think about their own emotions. Then, each participant answered questions of “authentic happiness inventory”, which is a world-wide accepted test for measuring the happiness level of the individual. Additionally, each participant answered a question about how much happy they feel when they evaluate their last 15 days. Therefore, the happiness of the participants is measured via both using “authentic happiness inventory”, and a subjective question which directly questions how happy they feel.  

Results show that the happiness felt by the participants in the last 15 days and the answers they gave to the authentic happiness inventory are highly correlated, which means that people who scored higher in authentic happiness inventory test, so can be categorized as “happier” ones, also stated that they feel “happy” in the last 15 days. 

According to the results regarding to happiness level of the individuals and the psychology education, the theories which put experience above book learning to achieve happiness seem to be right. No scientifically significant correlation is observed between the number of psychology courses that people took and their authentic happiness scores. Likewise, there is no correlation between how happy people felt in the last 15 days and the number of psychology courses they took. In other words, it is observed that there is no direct relationship between taking psychology courses and being happier. 

However, the story does not end here. According to the results, students who took psychology courses are also the ones who spend more time to think about their own emotions, and the students who stated that they thought more about their own emotions are also the ones who feel less happy. Moreover, when the effect of having psychology courses is separated from the relationship between thinking about own’s emotions and being less happy, thinking about one’s own emotions and being less happier are not considered as “related” any more, in scientific terms when the partial correlation between these two items are calculated with controlling the effect of having psychology courses, their relationship are not considered as “scientifically significant” anymore. On the other hand, those who have personal interest in psychology field, also stated that they feel less happy in the last 15 days.  

So, how these results should be interpreted? At this point, an important information about statistics should be remembered: correlation does not mean causation. There may be different reasons why people are interested in certain areas. One of these reasons may be the search for a solution to a negative situation they are facing. Therefore, maybe having interest in psychology does not make people unhappy, but unhappy people try to find a solution by learning more about psychology. Similarly, maybe people who think about their own emotions does not feel less happy because of this, but maybe the ones who feel unhappy thinks about their emotions more often in the form of negative thoughts. The effect of the psychology lessons is tricky in here. However, again it might be said that ones, who feel unhappier, maybe have tendency to think about their emotions more when they learn about human emotions via lessons. Therefore, these correlations do not show that having interest in psychology or thinking about one’s own emotions “cause” unhappiness. As explained, the relationship can be the other way around.  

With considering these possible explanations, the relationship between interest in psychology and unhappiness need to be questioned more. However beside all shortcuts, the study clearly shows that psychology education, by itself, cannot make us happier. Therefore, reading the mechanims of the mind, its functions and abnormalities does not help us to achieve our authentic happiness. Indeed, this study provides important psychological data for the common belief of all perspectives, which can be summarized as “when the quest is happiness the answer is experience”. 

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