How to be happy when starting something new

September 11, 2019

This is the first article in a new series on happiness. The growing field of positive psychology, which studies how people can harness optimism to lead a meaningful life full of contentment, offers people specific ways to increase their joy. Our Happiness series will review interesting positive psychology research—which will ideally help our readers increase their well-being.

There’s a reason people don’t like change. Whatever we may be accustomed to is familiar—even if it’s undesirable. At the start of a new school year, university students face the great unknown—new classes, new professors, new fields of study. This time of year also presents changes for professors and staff, who must leave the relative quiet of summer behind to welcome a new group of incoming students.

And for anyone attending university for the first time, the unfamiliar is everywhere.

Habits turn the brain on auto-pilot

But why do we like the familiar? The simple answer is because it’s easy. When something is familiar and repeated, it becomes a habit—and habits are automatic. Your brain doesn’t have to work hard. In The Power of Habit, writer Charles Duhigg explains why we like habits: “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.” Basically, your brain is functioning on auto-pilot.

What happens to our brains when we start something new? Quite the opposite. According to Amy Wachholtz, PhD, Program Director of the Clinical Health Psychology PhD Program, when you begin a new endeavor, “your brain has to start working overtime.” In other words, it’s hard to learn something new.

So why do we ever want to do it?

New information promotes new perspectives

Because learning has great benefits. Even though the type of active thinking associated with new endeavors is hard, it leads to new possibilities—everything from a new career to a new way of seeing the world. Learning something can actually open people up to seeing new pathways. Education doesn’t just teach you something in the moment: it enables you to discover new things in the future.

Happiness researcher, business consultant and former Harvard lecturer, Shawn Anchor correlates trying new things with creating new realities. In Before Happiness, Anchor writes, “The more you break out of your patterns, the easier it will be to find new vantage points.” New perspectives show people new possibilities. Ideally, education leads to enlightenment.

For example, former psychology student Daniel Hernandez Altamirano (BS, ’19), a self-described introvert, believed he did not have the social and interpersonal skills needed to pursue a career in psychology research. He applied for an undergraduate research scholarship anyway, which he received. This led to a position as a professional research assistant (PRA). He currently works in the Health Promotion and Care Research Lab at the University of Miami, “interacting with participants on a daily basis.” Daniel put aside the Imposter Syndrome and found a new career. His advice? “There are bumps in the road constantly, and the road can change directions (i.e. mistakes happen, plans can change, and that’s OK!) that definitely can drag one’s mood down, but sticking with it and pursuing opportunities that challenge us is important for growth!”

How can learning increase happiness?

Professor Wachholtz points out another benefit to starting something new. Creativity. “You may also find that there are a lot of other things you suddenly feel more creative about, because your brain is looking for new pathways and looking for new ways of solving problems since you can’t just rely on habits anymore,” she said. Once you break the brain out of automatic processing in one area, you may experience a boost of creativity in other areas.

Ultimately, starting something new can lead to happiness (after all the frustrating thinking, of course). Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes that happiness emerges from optimal experience and that optimal experience ensues from flow, a state of consciousness that’s genuinely satisfying. What’s particularly interesting is that flow doesn’t stem from pleasure, which can happen without any effort (eating a slice of cake, for example). The book Flow explains that all documented flow activity provided “a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new realty … it transformed the self by making it more complex.”

Simple positive psychology exercises

The end results may be great—but feeling inept or inexperienced is decidedly not enjoyable. If you’ve switched majors or changed jobs or moved cities, don’t despair. You simply need to get over the hard part of a new venture. Thankfully, some easy tips from the field of positive psychology (happiness studies) may help.

First of all, take note: you have the power to influence your mood.

Psychologist Rick Hanson, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, explains what scientists call experience-dependent neuroplasticity in his book Hardwiring Happiness. Basically, we can use our minds to change our brains physically: “Bit by bit, synapse by synapse, you really can build happiness into your brain.” The brain has an implicit negativity bias—we remember bad things a lot more (and in more detail) than we remember good things. The solution is to retrain the brain by spending time thinking about good stuff. The more we think about good things, the more our brains register good things.

We can also reframe the way we think about education in general. In Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar, the psychology professor who created the very popular happiness class at Harvard (one of every five undergraduate students takes it), reminds students that they must participate in their education in order to experience joy at school: “Ensuring that the process of learning is itself enjoyable is, in part, the responsibility of each student…” Reframing the student experience is key. Think of education as a privilege. When you’re sitting in a difficult class, don’t think about how hard it is. Think about how lucky you are to be in college or how you will eventually understand the material (and probably remember with fondness how you actually thought it was hard at some point).

college student laughing
People can increase their happiness by remembering their skills.

Invariably, during the process of learning something new, people will hit a point when they feel frustrated. Students might feel foolish; professors might feel boring; staff might feel uninspired—this happens to everyone. Shawn Anchor, author of The Happiness Advantage, has an easy solution to counteract these moments: “Everyone is good at something … Each time we use a skill, whatever it is, we experience a burst of positivity.” Anchor’s suggestion? “If you find yourself in need of a happiness booster, revisit a talent you haven’t used in a while.” Simply making a mental list of everything you’re good at can change the brain’s focus—and its neural activity.

Professor Wachholtz proposes another easy exercise from the field of positive psychology. “Stop and identify three things that are good,” she says. It can be something big like “I get to go to college” or something small like “It’s a bright, sunny day.” Research has shown that being thankful and expressing gratitude can have a powerful impact on mood. She suggests that people starting something new do this every day—as many times as needed.

Reaching a state of flow

For everyone starting something new, congratulate yourself. You have left the safety of automatic thinking behind. Undoubtedly, this means your brain will be working harder. That may be difficult but it’s also rewarding. You could even increase your happiness by entering a state of flow. Not there yet? Try using some simple exercises from the field of positive psychology. You have the power to enjoy the process of learning.

Go forth and reclaim your curiosity.