The Science of Happiness: A Conversation with Professor Bruce Hood.

The Science of Happiness: A Conversation with Professor Bruce Hood.

In this interview I speak to Professor Bruce Hood, a world-leading psychologist and happiness expert. Grounded in decades of neuroscience, Professor Hood’s recent book The Science of Happiness explores the simple, life-changing discoveries that can really impact our own happiness. In our conversation, we discuss the fundamental nature of happiness, how it relates to ego, the factors in our lives that make us net unhappier, and the practical, science based, things we can do to get more happiness and contentment.

Q: What does happiness really mean?

[Bruce Hood]:  Defining happiness is indeed a broad endeavor; people emphasize various aspects of it. I use the term “happiness” because it’s familiar. Discussing mental well-being in its full complexity might have discouraged many of my readers and students. So, strategically, I use “happiness” to encompass a general idea. For me, happiness equates to contentment—being satisfied with one’s present circumstances and outlook on the future. It certainly includes positive emotions and thoughts, though I prefer not to focus solely on these. Contrarily, I noticed my students grappling with anxiety and fear about their futures. Hence, for me, promoting happiness meant helping them find a balance and embrace contentment.

I believe happiness is a consequence, not a goal. If you engage in the right activities that bring contentment, happiness will naturally follow. Viewing happiness as a goal makes it elusive; it’s like chasing an illusory concept. Once you grasp it, it tends to dissipate—such is the nature of emotions. I discuss this in “The Brain,” explaining how our brains are wired to adapt, which is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to recover from adverse events, but it also means that positive experiences don’t last indefinitely. Thus, if you’re constantly in pursuit of happiness, you end up on what’s known as the hedonic treadmill—always chasing, yet never arriving, due to our inherent capacity to adapt.

Q: How does ego relate to happiness?

[Bruce Hood]:  I often use “ego” synonymously with “self.” The concept of the self has intrigued me for years, leading me to write “The Self Illusion.” In it, I argue that there is no fixed self, only the experience of one—an experience of being an integrated, coherent individual in control of a body, endowed with free will, and possessing conscious awareness. This experience is intertwined with an understanding that we have a background and an autobiographical history. For example, when asked about yourself, you might share your likes, dislikes, or favorite sports teams. But if asked what you are experiencing right now, you might say, “I’m in the middle of a podcast, listening to this professor ramble on.” Both responses reflect aspects of the self—one being conscious awareness and the other a developing identity.

Both aspects, I argue, are constructed from a multitude of parallel influences and accumulated data through development, optimizing how this information is integrated to allow interaction with other selves. However, we often overlook how the self is subject to change. We don’t typically feel different from day to day, yet we can experience transitory shifts in self—saying things like “I wasn’t myself” or “that was the wine talking.” Clearly, the wine doesn’t talk; rather, it’s a change in brain function due to the chemistry.

In “The Self Illusion,” I discuss how the self develops from a very egocentric position at birth, with no autobiography and only a conscious awareness of the surrounding world. This awareness becomes incorporated into our memories. Over time, we build our identity through the groups we join and our interactions. But the self is in constant flux. Initially, it’s very self-centered; a child views the world from this perspective. To interact effectively with others, we must recognize that they, too, are selves and shift to a more allocentric, or other-focused, view. Achieving a balance between these perspectives, I believe, is key to happiness. You don’t want to be overly self-centered, nor excessively other-focused; balance is essential.

Q: How has social media impacted happiness?

[Bruce Hood]:  Absolutely. Even before the advent of social media, the idea of an “authentic self” was widely discussed. People recognized that their behaviors varied in different settings: how they act at work differs from their behavior at home, which differs again in the company of friends. We’ve always been aware of these shifting personas. However, technology has revolutionized this dynamic. As you mentioned, people now use social media as a platform to present an optimized version of themselves, often conforming to prevailing trends and societal expectations. This has become a central issue in the ongoing debate about the role of social media in our lives and whether it should be curtailed.

I don’t believe that social media is directly responsible for mental health issues. I align with Jonathan Haidt’s view that it has a significant relationship with these issues, but I see social media more as an accelerant than a cause. It tends to amplify pre-existing conditions, speeding up and enlarging problems rather than creating them. In this way, while it contributes to the problem, it primarily exacerbates underlying issues that already exist.

[Vikas Shah]:  But it does, certainly, create more toxic comparison?

[Bruce Hood]:  Absolutely. The “compare and despair” generation is constantly bombarded with unrealistic portrayals of success, leading everyone to feel inadequate, regardless of their achievements. We all have flaws and recognize our weaknesses, and there will always be someone who seems better in some way. Thus, no one is ever fully satisfied, unless they are so narcissistic and egocentric that they disregard others’ opinions entirely.

You’re correct; most of us, driven by our social nature, strive for status because being excluded or ostracized is one of the worst experiences one can face. Social media exploits this evolutionary tendency, pushing us to seek constant acceptance and appreciation to avoid what Kit Williams refers to as “social death,” the dire consequences of ostracism and loneliness.

Moreover, you’re right about the increase in partisanship—this ties back to what I mentioned about amplification. When views are echoed within a group, they often become more radicalized. This validation can lead to increased extremism, whether it’s in opinions, attitudes, or even fashion sense, as these platforms amplify approval and intensify our positions.

Q: What is the link between isolation and happiness?

[Bruce Hood]:  While people may have more connections than ever, these connections often lack depth; they are rarely reciprocal and seldom provide emotional sustenance. Generally, people do not engage in the kind of deep discussions that resolve issues and concerns. Additionally, there’s a distinction between loneliness and solitude. Some people enjoy their solitude, which is a voluntary state. However, the pain of loneliness is something else entirely—stemming from being deliberately excluded, ostracized, or bullied. This type of isolation is literally painful, as it activates the pain centers in the brain.


This pain serves as a warning signal. All pain is the body’s way of urging us to make a change. The acute sense of loss prompts us to reconnect as quickly as possible, serving as a powerful motivator. Emotion and motivation are fundamentally linked—they both drive us to act. This is precisely why social media is so successful: it taps into our insecurities, exploiting our innate desire to connect and be accepted.

Q: What does it mean to be optimistic [practically]?

[Bruce Hood]:  One of the key reasons I wrote this book was to provide not just strategies and activities for people to engage in, but also to explain the underlying mechanisms at play. Understanding these mechanisms gives us not only deeper insights but also makes us more likely to apply the strategies effectively. When it comes to optimism, it’s crucial to recognize our natural bias toward negativity. This is simply the brain’s way of prioritizing potential threats over the mundane or positive events. We are naturally inclined to focus on problems—this is a bias we all share. For instance, we perceive screams louder than laughter and a single critical review often feels more impactful than numerous praises due to this negativity bias.

If this perspective is allowed to develop unchecked, it leads to what is known as a dysfunctional attributional style. This is where you view negative events as permanent and pervasive, and you might internalize them, believing, “It’s my fault.” Once you understand these negative distortions, becoming more optimistic involves flipping these notions. You might tell yourself that a situation is temporary and will improve, or recognize that a mistake is not necessarily your fault but could be influenced by external factors. This approach helps you to limit the impact of negative events and adjust the responsibility you take.

Becoming more optimistic involves meticulously noting down your problems and then systematically reinterpreting them to find the most positive alternative explanation. I describe this process as becoming your own advocate—stepping outside yourself, scrutinizing your initial interpretations, and challenging them with counterarguments. This can help you see situations as less permanent and more manageable. However, if done excessively, there’s a risk of becoming reckless. If you consistently refuse to acknowledge real problems or take responsibility, you might go too far. Striking a balance is key; reframing things positively without dismissing genuine issues is the goal.

Q: How can we find happiness when catastrophe strikes?

[Bruce Hood]:  I’m sure many of your guests over the years have faced situations that most of us would consider utter catastrophes. And yet, they find ways to work through these challenges. Even in the darkest moments of humanity, as you pointed out, gallows humor often emerges as a coping mechanism. Yes, these challenging moments can indeed spur us on to try again, to fight for survival. It’s crucial to maintain a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope without succumbing to hopelessness.

So, how do we strike the right balance? For me, it’s about recognizing when a problem becomes too invasive—when it disrupts your daily life, keeps you awake at night, and prevents you from enjoying other aspects of life. Clearly, that’s a sign of a problem that needs addressing. If you can manage that problem so it doesn’t dominate your life, then you’re on the right track. However, it’s important not to swing too far in the other direction, repeating the same mistakes repeatedly. We need to learn from our experiences, which is why finding the right balance between addressing issues and moving forward is essential.

Q: What are your views on the tsunami of self-care advice coming at us?

[Bruce Hood]: I don’t label it as a self-care or self-help book; I describe it as a self-destruct book. The reason for this unconventional title stems from the inherent problem with self-care: we are often our own worst caregivers. Left to our own devices, we tend to blow things out of proportion and expect the world to change to make us happy. The issue with our identity often revolves around egocentrism—assuming it’s not ourselves but the world around us that needs to change.

This is my fundamental issue with traditional self-care—it tends to emphasize prioritizing oneself rather than recognizing that true happiness can be found in enriching the lives of others. The problem with focusing solely on self-care and self-help is that it lacks authenticity. You can’t genuinely surprise yourself with a shopping spree, telling yourself that spending will make you happy. If you’re both the initiator and the recipient, it’s not spontaneous, and you know exactly when the happiness it delivers fades away.

Conversely, if you take that same positive energy and use it to do something spontaneous for someone else, it not only amplifies authentic happiness and joy, but also leaves you with a lasting impression of having made a positive impact. They’ll likely see you as a great person for your generosity. This external focus can provide a more sustained sense of happiness, unlike self-directed efforts which quickly lose their novelty. This leads to constant adaptation, where the thrill of a new purchase fades, prompting a pursuit for the next thing.

Many of the most effective activities for personal growth are those that encourage us to adopt a more allocentric perspective. For example, writing a gratitude letter can be incredibly powerful. The reason it works so well is that it forces you to recognize how fortunate you are compared to others, making it nearly impossible to wallow in self-pity. Similarly, experiencing a sense of awe can have a profound effect. Though I may never have this opportunity myself, astronauts often report that when they look back at Earth from space, their personal problems seem to shrink into insignificance against the vast backdrop of humanity and the universe. This sense of awe truly embodies the ultimate allocentric journey, putting everything into perspective.

Q: How do we help people find happiness?

[Bruce Hood]:  I believe it ties back to the current trend of indulging the ego, and as parents and concerned educators, we often default to enabling this self-centric behavior to thrive. However, it’s essential to try and rebalance this by encouraging people to shift their focus outward. It’s not about simply telling someone to pull themselves together or to stop whining and move on; that approach isn’t helpful. Instead, if we can channel that energy towards activities or perspectives that are more focused on others, we might see a positive, feed-forward effect over time.

You’re right; the default mode of thinking is self-centered. We experience our consciousness from a first-person perspective, and we see our problems from that angle, which is understandable. But if you become aware of the mechanisms that can enhance your happiness, you might start to recognize when you’re being overly egocentric. I’ve noticed this in myself. I haven’t completely eliminated my egocentrism, but I’m more aware of it now, and that awareness has helped me achieve a better balance.

Q: How powerful is mindfulness?

[Bruce Hood]:  In mindfulness, and indeed in many forms of meditation, what you’re essentially doing is controlling the “spotlight” of your attention. I often use the metaphor of a spotlight for attention. You can focus this spotlight narrowly, bringing details into sharp relief, or you can widen it to diffuse your attention and become aware of a broader array of stimuli. The issue with rumination is that it causes your attentional focus to turn inward intensely, exacerbating negative thoughts.

Meditation allows you to deliberately control this spotlight of attention, whether it’s focusing on sensations, your breathing, a mantra, or even external sounds. Because your attention can’t be in two places at once—just like a spotlight—you can’t simultaneously monitor your breathing, tune into your feelings, and listen to the internal critic in your head. This redirection is a method of controlling where your attention goes, or how it’s allocated.

Interestingly, research on meditation has highlighted a part of the brain known as the default mode network, which represents your sense of self. This network tends to increase in activity when you’re not focused on a task. It was discovered quite by chance during early imaging studies. Participants were asked to lie in a scanner and think of nothing to establish a baseline. However, when relaxing and not engaged in a specific task, this default network activated, often leading participants to think about themselves, sometimes in negative ways.

Meditation, along with activities like walking in nature, has been shown to attenuate or reduce the activity of the default mode network. This suggests that these activities help switch off the internal monitoring system that continuously scans for problems and anticipates future issues.

Q: Can we change, can we get more happy?

[Bruce Hood]:  … this goes back to the illusion of self. People often believe they won’t change, but this is known as the “end of history illusion.” Interestingly, people of all ages think they won’t change, yet they can recall how they have changed over time. We are constantly evolving; every learning experience rewires the brain. It’s a metaphor I’m not particularly fond of, but it does serve its purpose. You’re never too old to change, and I believe wisdom does indeed grow with age.

One activity I recommend for fostering this growth is writing a journal. The purpose isn’t just to process current problems but to maintain a tangible record of how you have changed over the years. When you look back at old journals, you might find entries obsessing over a person who, at the time, seemed crucial to your happiness but whom you can barely recall now. This is clear evidence that life moves on and improves.

I firmly believe there’s no age limit to personal development; we’re always a work in progress. Even if we’re not constantly improving ourselves, we can at least strive to enhance the lives of those around us and share our wisdom. And while nothing I’ve mentioned about happiness in my book is entirely new—it has all been discussed before in great scriptures and philosophies—what I aim to add is some of the science behind these ideas and the data that might explain the mechanisms involved.

Q: What can we do, to make our lives more happy from tomorrow?

[Bruce Hood]:  There’s a technique I use with my audiences that proves very effective almost immediately. I encourage them to adopt a third-person perspective, which is useful whether they’re reflecting on something positive or dealing with a troubling issue. The idea is to view your problem as if you were someone else looking back at yourself and observing how you’re handling it. Normally, when you think about a problem in the first person, your thinking is egocentric. But if Bruce starts talking about Bruce as if he were speaking to Vikas, he shifts into thinking of himself in the third person.

This shift automatically places him in an allocentric position. Now, Bruce is looking at himself giving a talk and suddenly, he doesn’t feel as anxious as he did moments ago when he was immersed in the first-person perspective. Bruce might even improve his performance because, from this new viewpoint, Bruce sees himself as a really great guy. Do you see what I’m doing here? By adopting this stance, I transform into an advocate for the self that Bruce normally is. This kind of linguistic exercise, switching pronoun perspectives, can effectively alter your identity.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.