From this website to pop psychology books, there’s no shortage of advice about how people can become happier. But is the written word really the best way to get people to make hard changes in their lives?
The "Science of Happiness," a web video series from the feel-good media production company Soul Pancake, takes a very different storytelling approach. Rather than report the dry results of psychology research, the producers tape episodes in their studio that loosely reproduce the academic research experiments for a YouTube audience.
The resulting 12 episodes, which finished airing in October on Soul Pancake’s YouTube channel, are inspiring and motivating to watch.
"We all want to be happy. There’s so much research that has been done about the little ways that you can be happier," says Mike Bernstein, 26, the filmmaker who spearheaded the series "We thought—why not give people something that won’t take them long to watch but will have a thematic, practical value to it?" (He will soon be extending that same approach to what will be the second season of the series, on the science of love and romance.)
Take "An Experiment in Gratitude," the biggest hit of the Science of Happiness series, with more than 2 million views. The episode was based on a 2005 research paper, published in the journal American Psychologist, that reads like your average, dry clinical account written by scholars.
The episode instead includes a geeky, white lab coat-donned host (an actor named Julian) introducing the concept: "Consider this: Psychologists have scientifically proven that one of the greatest contributing factors to overall happiness in your life is how much gratitude you show."
Behind the scenes, the producers had put out a vague casting call on Craigslist for actors to come to a taping in a Los Angeles studio. "We didn't want people with any clue about what we’re doing," says Bernstein. The actors filled out happiness surveys, and then were asked to write about someone in their life they’re grateful for. Then the question drops: "Will you call that person right now?" Many do, live on the camera—resulting in some heartwarming phone calls (no acting involved) and, according to exit surveys, an increase in their overall happiness.
The episode is filmed to draw out the narrative. Says Bernstein: "There’s all these natural sort of moments of tensions that you would have in any story. Will they or won’t they make the phone call? What are they writing?"
Of course, the episodes are more fun-with-science then actual controlled experiments. And the filmmakers have to select studies that they can actually reproduce on camera, which isn’t always easy. Not every result comes out exactly as expected.
But their success is evident: Reading about how it’s healthy to express gratitude and seeing someone’s face light up on screen as they actually do it are two very different experiences. Even teachers have begun to use the videos in the classroom and reproduce their own experiments to teach students science. A call for people to submit their own gratitude videos yielded this below.
As Bernstein moves onto romance, he thinks there’s even more potential, because real-life romance usually happens in private, and many people wonder if what they are thinking and feeling is normal. "Our best moments on the show, are typically when...there is a moment of connection between two people who really care about each other," he says. "We’re going to try to do for love what we do for happiness."