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The Science of Pretty Much Anything

In the late sixties, I spent several summers working in a gas station. I learned how to rebuild brakes, mount and balance tires, and perform basic maintenance and repair tasks. I also pumped gas.

For those too young to remember, these were the days when you would pull into a gas station and someone would pump your gas, check your cars fluids, fill up your tires, and wash your windows. I was also taught to look for opportunities to sell tires, batteries, wiper blades and replacement fluids. Although it was essentially a sales job, it gave me an opportunity to learn some basic auto mechanics which probably saved me a lot of money with my own NCPO (non-certified pre-owned) cars.

At the time, my friends and co-workers referred to me as a Gas Pump Jockey. I was fine with that. It wasn’t until I got to college and my dorm-mates and I were joking around about resumes that I adopted the title Petroleum Placement Engineer to describe my summer job.

Judiciously naming things can confer credibility, warranted or not. That’s not rocket science. Consider Political Science, which is a science largely because it makes use of Social Science. The latter attempts to understand and predict human behavior. The accuracy of pre-election polling is one measure of how well that works.

PTSD, opioid addiction and depression have long been the focus of Psychological Science, but that seems to be changing. Rather than trying to fix what’s wrong with us, some researchers are beginning to wonder what it is that allows some people to thrive. This has given rise to a new field – Happiness Science.

The timing is good because...well... 2020. We clearly need some Immunology Science, and perhaps a little Economic Science, but Happiness Science is one of the most underrated of all. Most of us have struggled through this pandemic year seeking a comfort zone somewhere between Ventilator Science and Psychiatric Science – perhaps HS can provide the guidance we need.

It is a well-known axiom of any science that you can’t improve something without first figuring out how to measure it. The science behind the World Happiness Report can be deduced from a spreadsheet (Fig. 1 data). According to the numbers, the happiest country on the planet - out of 153 studied - is Finland (for the third consecutive year). One can’t help but wonder why anyone would remain in Afghanistan, which finished dead last. The United States came in at nineteenth. It is noteworthy that most of the data in the report were gathered pre-COVID.

It is perhaps not surprising that we Americans aren’t very happy. Dr. Martin Seligman, a Psychology Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that happiness is a potent mix of our genetics and behaviors and is heavily affected by what’s happening to us at any given moment of time. Happiness, to no one’s surprise, is fleeting.

There have been remarkable strides in gene-editing recently, but don’t count on Genomic Science to snip out your misery gene any time soon. Dr. Seligman believes we have a genetic set point for happiness, much like the one we have for weight, that we can’t modify directly. We can, he claims, take control of our thoughts, behaviors and actions to build lasting habits that will enhance our resilience to life’s events and raise our happiness.

While engineering the placement of petroleum might not be the resume builder one would hope, I did learn valuable skills and derived a great deal of self-confidence from being able to diagnose and fix my own car as well as those of my friends. I was eventually tasked with going out on service calls to our regular customers. This entailed meeting interesting people and either solving their problem on site (dead battery, flat tire, lost key) or towing the car into our shop for repair. I realize now that my enthusiasm for the job, and the variety of people and situations that it presented, are key ingredients of contentment.

The touchstone of Happiness Science is hedonic adaptation – the human tendency to drive both positive and negative feelings to a neutral comfort zone. Just as the misery of a romantic breakup is eventually forgotten, so is the ecstasy of a new car – each puts us into a type of stress mode that we are hardwired to avoid. Happiness may be annoyingly fleeting, but at least now we know why.

Not content to concede the inevitable “meh”, scientists have taken things a step further – how can we nudge that neutral set point toward the happy side? Their advice is to guide feelings of intense enthusiasm toward a calm contentment, which is easier to sustain. They also suggest avoiding the pitfalls of adaptation by mixing up the things you are grateful for while focusing on people and experiences rather than possessions.

Based on the principles laid out by Happiness Science, I should have been modestly happy working as a Gas Pump Jockey.

I was, and now I know why.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life.In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara



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