Last autumn, I enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley’s massive open online Science of Happiness course to see if I might goose my felicity quotient through an understanding of the edicts dispensed almost daily by the USA’s happiness industrial complex. The course is free. It’s Berkeley. And its instructors, Emiliana Simon-Thomas and Dacher Keltner, have been teaching the material for years. (Keltner created UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center in 2001; the online program debuted in 2014. Other online happiness courses, as far I can tell, are derivative.)
The ten-week course kicks off with a robust introduction to the science of positive psychology, followed by seven weekly modules, parsed into themes: social connection, compassion and kindness, cooperation and reconciliation, mindfulness, mental habits of happiness, gratitude, and new frontiers of happiness research (like Keltner’s pioneering work in the phenomenon called awe—more on that in a bit). A midterm and final exam make up the remaining weeks.
My plan was to see the course through, no matter what. To guard against bailing, I shelled out an advance payment of $49 for a proof-of-completion certificate. If nothing else, I’d send the thing to my sister-in-law, the mindfulness crusader, who’s been at me for years to do something about my preternatural angst. Later, I would learn that of the roughly 500,000 enrollees, only 8,000 have received certificates—a completion rate of less than 2 percent.
The reason for so many lookie-loos? The workload, probably. All told, I plowed through more than 50 hours of material—reading, videos, experiential exercises, quizzes, and exams—while squelching my uneasiness about the squishiness of social science and the field of positive psychology with its reliance on self-reporting. I would later learn that while happiness researchers are employing new studies grounded in the physical sciences, many are simply getting it wrong, and worse: Some have even been censured recently for misinforming their readers.
As the course progressed, I’d come to view the science as commonsensical—simplistic even. To wit: Being a member of a supportive community confers positive vibes; quieting the mind alleviates stress; exercise tickles happiness hormones. Add to that the happiness insights passed down by the world’s great thinkers over two millennia—Confucius, the Buddha, Aristotle, and, uh, Sir Richard Branson, among others—and I would find myself wondering with each completed week: Why the science? Aren’t these practices time-honored enough by now for us to understand that they more or less work as advertised? (Apparently not. The United States’ ranking continues to drop in the annual World Happiness Report, where we currently sit in 18th place.)
Am I any happier after having taken the course? Not really. But if consuming the science failed to dampen my neuroticism, at least I walked away with a better understanding of the literature—both the research and the profusion of popular titles spilling off the self-help bookshelves. My conclusion? If I didn’t know any better—and I doubt the positive psychology community would admit this—I would guess that happiness science cops many lessons from Buddhism. After all, it was arguably the Dalai Lama himself who launched the positivity craze with his 1998 book, The Art of Happiness. “[T]he very motion of our life is toward happiness,” he wrote in the book’s opening paragraph.
“It's almost embarrassing how, at the end of the day, we end up noticing this idea that the middle path is most productive,” Simon-Thomas told me when I called her a few weeks after completing the course. “For some people, the biggest struggle from the course is self-compassion, really looking at themselves and taking the time to understand where their barriers and challenges to happiness lie, and making choices that align with happiness instead of suffering.”
If hewing to the middle way was the big aha I took from Simon-Thomas, Keltner, and all the rest, here are 13 smaller truths that helped point me and other happiness seekers in that direction.
#1. If You’re Happy, Then You Probably Know It (So Clap Your Hands)
You cannot measure happiness without defining it, yet on the murkiness index, happiness is right up there with “sustainability” and “wellness.” To some, happiness is the opposite of worry: enjoying good health, being free of troubles. To others, it’s living a meaningful life and giving to others, which is much closer in practice to the Aristotelian definition of happiness as serving the greater good. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of positive psychology at UC Riverside and the author of The How of Happiness, characterizes it as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” (Positive psychologists use the terms “subjective well-being” and “happiness” interchangeably.) The Nobel Prize–winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identifies four levels of happiness: subjective, genetic, emotional, and sensate (like the feeling of a cool breeze on warm skin).
The bottom line: Researchers determine if someone’s happy by asking them if they’re happy. Don’t take my word for it: Ask yourself.
#2. The Great Bulk of Happiness Science Doesn’t Measure Happiness
Happiness science is really no more than a fetching label for an amalgam of psychological, biological, and social studies, all of which measure a kind of emotional health. Research methods include observation, surveys, biomarkers, and measurement devices like fMRI to study such phenomena as relationships, self-compassion, concentration, affective state, and personality. Some of these findings appear to be at least once removed from a direct, evidential tie to happiness. I could be off here, but if researchers presuppose physical health is an important component of well-being, why do so many healthy folks feel perfectly wretched and go on to live long lives? In general, the happiness taxonomy seems as much art as science.
#3. Intimacy Harks Back to Infancy
Attachment theory, first developed in 1969, suggests that the quality of the attention we received from our primary caregivers can affect the intimacy and sustainability of our adult social connections—which are a major determinant of well-being, physical health, and even life expectancy. Infants who received consistent nurturing from their caregivers tend to enjoy stronger, more trusting relationships. Those with avoidant tendencies, which may result from neglectful caregiving, frequently find themselves on the outs with their romantic partners, which can set up a vicious cycle of relationship failure. But studies suggest that, with effort, the cycle can be broken.
Want to test for intimacy red flags in your relationships? Grab a partner and do this exercise together.
#4. Your Money’s No Good Here
At least one landmark study reports that those who come into loads of money are no happier than folks who don’t. That said, if you’re destitute, money helps, but only up to a point: Kahneman postulates that point to be about $75,000 per year. According to the literature, we become habituated to sudden changes in our lives—like winning the lottery—a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation.
The good news: If an unexpected windfall won’t make you happy forever, then tragedy won’t permanently sink you either.
#5. Happiness Is as Slippery as a Greased Boar
By now we should know that buying bright shiny things won’t get us to the promised land. Thing is, most of us are really good at making flawed decisions about the future, which means we suck at predicting what will actually make us happy. Thus, we miss out on opportunities that could provide a meaningful boost (spending time with friends or family, say) and invest in stuff that looks sexy on the surface but won’t ultimately budge our happiness needles for good.
Recommended exercise: Three Good Things from Berkeley.
#6. Happiness Isn’t a Feeling, It’s a Practice
Lots of scientists subscribe to set point theory—the idea that our internal genetic happiness levels are more or less predetermined. And you’ve probably heard that genetics is responsible for 50 percent of our happiness, with circumstance taking up 10 percent and individual initiative the remaining 40 percent. Although Sonja Lyubomirsky, who derived these pie slices, cautions that they’re not exactly Newtonian, that’s still a whole lot of genetics to overcome if you don’t have a predilection for joy or optimism. This means you’d be well-served by thinking of happiness as a lifelong practice, much like mastering the forward paddle stroke.
At the same time, there’s no such thing as single path to happiness, so scientists like Keltner and Simon-Thomas advise using a design-thinking approach to arrive at your best fit. “Think of it instead as a personal science experiment, or the ultimate word map; you don’t have to figure everything out,” Simon-Thomas says. “It’s like you’ve got all the ingredients in the kitchen and a couple of recipes, and you can try them and see which one tastes bad and which one makes you feel good.”
#7. Gratitude Is the Killer Happy App, but Don’t Overdo It
Acknowledging what you have—even if it seems like you have very little—was the technique that most impressed me: simple, fast, effective, and, no, I didn’t morph into a complacent bliss monkey by counting my blessings. At least one study, co-authored by Lyubomirsky, suggests that habitually counting your blessings boosts positive affect, something that’s easily done by keeping a gratitude journal. While the task is simple—at the end of the day, record all the good things that happened to you—researchers recommend only three “doses” a week. Why? Simon Thomas told me there’s no perfect answer to the conundrum of why less is more when it comes to gratitude but recommended adopting a varied regimen of what works best for any individual. “For most of the so-called happiness practices,” Simon-Thomas said, “there’s always the possibility of diminishing return with forced or obligatory over-repetition, like, ‘Uh, let’s see, I am grateful for Post-it notes…for being lots of colors.’ Either it gets shallow or it makes us feel overextended. Think of it like exercise—if a person exerts themselves continuously in the same kind of motion, they risk getting hurt.”
#8. Go Ahead, Embrace Your Angst
Simon-Thomas and Keltner made clear that the goal of the course isn’t to teach you to surf a wave of bliss that never breaks. It’s futile to happify your way through life’s vicissitudes, which are an inescapable part of the human experience. “Angst and melancholy are fundamental human emotions that have a particular functional purpose in our evolutionary trajectory,” Simon-Thomas says.
#9. Don’t Go It Alone
Humans, irrational primates that we are, are often a pain in the ass, but we need one another. As Simon-Thomas and Keltner put it, we’re ultrasocial and wired to connect. In fact, there’s an evolutionary basis for collectivism: As a species, we’ve always gathered around a campfire, either literal or virtual. And apparently, although it seems counterintuitive, at least one researcher has found us to be a reconciling species. Besides, it’s fun to trigger each other’s neuropeptide called oxytocin, our endogenous “love drug,” evoked when we cooperate, attach, affiliate, and, yeah, make whoopee.
#10. On Being Here Now
Perhaps no single wellness intervention has been the focus of as much scientific scrutiny as mindfulness, which has become a kind of panacea for all that ails the psyche, and for good reason: focusing on the present moment has been used to quiet humans’ capricious minds for thousands of years (recall my observation between Buddhism and happiness practices). Scientists claim mindfulness buoys well-being, strengthens attention, reduces stress, diminishes depression, and, hell, even slows aging. Different forms of mindfulness meditation—body awareness, compassion, and meta-cognitive—strengthen different aspects of well-being.
Yet these findings come with a caveat: despite the many studies validating the efficacy of a mindfulness, several meta-analyses have found little evidence that such practices influenced positive emotions. In some cases, it would seem that mindfulness hype has outstripped the science.
#11. Get Gobsmacked by Nature, Laugh, Play, and Go with the Flow
Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” for humanity’s instinct to merge with other forms of life. Keltner has used the natural world in his research on the phenomenon called awe, which he defines as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self that exceeds current knowledge structures.” Think hugging a giant sequoia, skiing under the northern lights, or wandering through wilderness.
Keltner’s emerging work in happiness identifies laughter and play as integral to well-being. Cobbled together, I thought of two good friends tackling a big backcountry climbing objective—or taking an awe walk.
#12. Happiness Has Nothing to Do with Meaningfulness, According to Some
While most well-being scientists laud the merits of a purposeful life, one 2012 study subverted that notion. “Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver,” the research team wrote, “whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness.”
The paper made some key happiness researchers, including Lyubomirsky, not very happy. (More about that debate here.) “When I think about the importance of separating happiness and meaningfulness,” Simon-Thomas told me, “that’s where I hit a wall. If you’re truly living a happy life in this overarching way, a piece of that is that it’s meaningful to you.”
#13. Compassion Is Baked into Our Nervous System
More than 20 years ago, University of Chicago’s Steve Porges introduced the polyvagal theory, which placed the vagus nerve at the center of human compassion. The love nerve, if you will. The vagus (Latin for “wandering”) is the longest nerve of the body’s autonomic nervous system, taking root at the top of the spinal cord and meandering down to the gut. The vagus nerve affects speech, how we direct our gaze, breathing, heart rate, digestion, and—of special interest to happiness researchers—our immune systems, inflammation responses, and the firing of oxytocin. In one experiment conducted in Keltner’s Berkeley lab, college students watched videos of people in distress. The students with particularly strong vagal tone demonstrated greater empathy, sympathy, and compassion than those who lacked it. So, how to strengthen your vagal profile? Exercise and mindfulness, for starters. Completing some random acts of kindness could help, too.
I found this “you’ve evolved to be kind” notion the most disarming factoid of the hundreds served up over the ten weeks. When I caught up with Simon-Thomas, I fessed up: I’ve always assumed that humans harbor ulterior motives for our kindly acts. “This is another common debate about altruism,” she told me. “Like, oh well, if you actually enjoy being nice to others, then you’re never truly altruistic. I find that to be a false dichotomy. Instead, it just means that, at a fundamental level, we’re wired to be altruistic over our basic design as a species.”
Her answer made me kind of happy.
Convinced? The next Berkeley Science of Happiness MOOC starts Sep 3, 2018. Enroll.