On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.
Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 9, Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers.
Intro to the cutting edge: Awe
The science of awe, beauty, and spirituality (Dacher Keltner)
One cutting-edge area in the science of happiness looks at profound positive states like experiences of awe, beauty, and spirituality.
We feel awe when we’re faced with something greater than ourselves that we can’t comprehend with our current knowledge. For example, we might feel awe on top of a huge mountain, or in the face of a revolutionary idea or a heroic person. Once reserved for the realm of religion, thinkers like Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Max Weber wrote about secular awe.
One study found that people feeling awe (induced by looking up at huge trees) felt less self-important and less entitled, and acted kinder and more generous (asking for less money to participate in the experiment).
Other research has shown that even brief experiences of awe increase modesty, humility, intellectual curiosity, and happiness, while having a physical effect that no other positive emotion does – lowering cytokine levels (associated with disease).
Our love of nature (or “biophilia”) makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: being drawn toward lush surroundings helps us find a resource-rich place to live.
As for spirituality, studies show that spiritual people are happier and less depressed. Why? The common answer is that spiritual people have strong communities, but it might also be because they have more experiences of awe.
“Can awe buy you more time and happiness?” by Stacey Kennelly
Various studies out of Stanford have shown that awe makes us feel like we have more time on our hands, even more than feelings of happiness do.
For example, writing about awe makes people less impatient and more likely to volunteer their time (but not their money) than writing about happiness. People feeling awe report being more satisfied with life and are more likely to choose to buy an experience (vs. a material good), which requires time to enjoy.
“Green peace” by Chris Young
To look at the effects of nature, Frances Kuo and William Sullivan studied Chicago’s poor Wells neighborhood, where some buildings have trees and some don’t.
They were surprised to find that 7-8% of the difference in crime between these buildings was accounted for by the presence of trees. Why on earth would this be the case? The researchers suggested that trees create a welcoming environment for socializing, and groups of people outside – and the social connections they create – deter crime. Also, while we may misinterpret people’s words and actions and escalate to violence when we’re fatigued and stressed, trees can help reduce that strain.
Kuo and Sullivan also found that greener areas were associated with more feelings of community and safety, and (for girls) more self-discipline, delayed gratification, impulse control, and concentration – all factors that contribute to success.
For children with ADHD, spending time in a park lowered their symptoms more than walking in an urban area.
Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe
Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.
Cutting-edge topic: Laughter and play
The functions and benefits of laughter (Dacher Keltner)
Laughter may seem frivolous and silly, but it actually evolved to help us survive. We laugh in response to contradictory pieces of information, reinforcing our curiosity and desire to learn. Laughter improves social relations by signaling playfulness and cooperation – and, in fact, primates do a laugh-like “pant hoot” when they want to play. Cultures around the world all have people whose role is to make others laugh. And while laughs vary in sound and intensity, they all involve a similar biological mechanism, a few bursts of air emitted from our throats.
While kids start laughing at age 4 and laugh hundreds of times a day, somehow adults have forgotten how to laugh – we can go weeks without a single laugh. On average, adults laugh 17 times a day while kindergartners laugh 300 times. But research suggest we could get a lot of benefits out of cultivating the art of laughter:
- Health: Laughter calms the cardiovascular system, decreases blood pressure, and enhances immune function. For the elderly, it improves depression and sleep quality and (combined with exercise) reduces chronic pain and improves health.
- Coping: Middle-aged widows who laughed when describing their partner six months after their death were in better psychological health several years later – less anxiety and depression, more purpose, and better relationships.
- Relationships: Laughter can bring partners, strangers, and even adversaries closer together – although there are gender differences in how we laugh.
In the end, laughter makes us more light-hearted and reminds us that there are some things in life that just don’t matter.
“Why scientists want to make rats laugh” by Elizabeth Walter
Evidence from other species shows that laughter may play many important social functions – preventing conflict, promoting cooperation and bonding, and inviting play.
Rats laugh when playing, anticipating play, or anticipating reward. They also laugh when encountering new environments or new people, which scientists have likened to nervous laughter. When fights are brewing, they may laugh to diffuse the tension.
Likewise, chimpanzees “play-pant” while being tickled or chased, possibly an indication they want to play. In effect, laughing during a play fight ensures that things stay light and don’t escalate into real conflict. Chimps also laugh around their superiors as a way to appease them.
Play and the pursuit of happiness (Dacher Keltner)
Play is defined as unstructured, free, joyful time with other people, ranging from physical or mental games to bantering to play-acting. Play should feel purposeless and improvisational, be voluntary and fun, and allow us to forget about time and self.
Like laughter, play seems frivolous but plays (no pun intended) important functions. We can try out different skills (like pretending to be a chef), cultivate our identity, and learn about the physical world (like building sand castles). We also learn boundaries of safety, like when we play-wrestle and accidentally get hurt. And by thinking about different ways to use objects as play-props, we actually learn that there are different perspectives on the world and begin to cultivate empathy.
As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that play correlates with creativity, learning, and solving problems. It also boosts social connectedness and well-being while lowering stress. One investigation into people prone to pathological violence found that they never played when they were young.
“Can we play?” by David Elkind
For children these days, there’s a disturbing trend toward less play. Kids play eight hours less a week than they did 20 years ago, and over 30,000 schools have eliminated recess. In 2003, kids spent 50% less time outside than they did six years before.
A variety of factors are driving this trend. Technology is drawing kids indoors, and more single and working parents means more kids sent off to be supervised by coaches and tutors. Thanks to a precarious job market, parents are pushing their kids to focus on academics to get ahead.
But they may actually be holding kids back from the benefits of unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, and independent play.
Particularly when kids are very young, play shapes their brains. Babies babble to learn the sounds of language, and then play around with their legs to crawl, stand, and walk. “Socio-dramatic play,” or acting, lets kids find out if they’re more comfortable as leader or follower, outgoing or shy, and cultivates their faculties of imagination and prediction.
Studies have shown that play-oriented early childhood programs improve IQ, and play preschool decreases anxiety and boosts creativity and positive attitudes toward school (compared to academic preschools). Rather than being a waste of time, recess can make kids more attentive and better-performing in school.
As kids get older, play has different functions:
- Early childhood: Learning colors, shapes, tastes, sounds, and more.
- Elementary school: Learning respect, friendship, cooperation, and competition.
- Adolescence: Exploring identities, staying healthy, and blowing off steam.
- Adulthood: Promoting flow.
To cultivate more play, parents can schedule time for it, give kids more choice of what to do, and actually model it by playing themselves. Schools should put more value on recess and bring play into the classroom with more creative activities and less teaching to the test. And communities can set up more playgrounds.
Cutting-edge topic: Finding your “fit”
Person-activity fit (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)
Once we find activities that boost happiness, the next step is to figure out which activities work for which people. Research so far has shown that various factors make a difference:
- Motivation and effort: How driven and committed we are to doing it.
- Efficacy beliefs: Whether we believe we can do it and it will work.
- Baseline affective state: How happy we are to begin with.
- Social support: Whether other people will encourage us to do it.
- Demographics: Age, sex, culture, socio-economic status, and more.
- Characteristics of the activity: How often, how much, and what type of activity it is (e.g., social and interpersonal or reflective and individual).
“How to be happy: The fine print” by Stacey Kennelly
Here is some of the preliminary evidence on how these factors might make a difference:
- Motivation: The same activity has a stronger effect when you call it a happiness exercise vs. a cognitive exercise – possibly because the people who sign up for a happiness exercise expect benefits. We also get better results when we’ve expressed a preference for a certain exercise before.
- Effort: People who put in more effort get better results.
- Baseline affective state: In general, happiness activities work better for people who are mildly depressed, not people who are happy or severely depressed.
- Social support: Happiness practices work better after we read fake testimonials that say they’re effective.
- Demographics: Westerners tend to get more benefit out of happiness practices than other cultures, but Asians may benefit more from activities that serve others. Adults tend to get better results than adolescents.
- Characteristics of the activity: As we’ve seen in previous weeks, gratitude journaling is most effective once a week (vs. every day), and acts of kindness are more powerful when you perform five on the same day. In general, variety can help prevent an activity from becoming routine and stale.
When we’re choosing happiness practices, we should also think about our personality and life circumstances. Extroverts may enjoy more social activities, while incredibly busy people should find practices that don’t take much time.
Person-activity fit diagnostic
One preliminary way to measure whether an activity is a good fit is to see how much “self-determined motivation” we have to perform it. Self-determined motivation involves five factors:
- Natural: The best activities feel easy to do.
- Enjoyable: The best activities are fun, interesting, or pleasant.
- Valuable: The best activities are the ones we believe are worth doing.
- Guilt: The best activities aren’t done out of a sense of guilt or shame.
- Situational: The best activities are ones we choose, not ones we feel forced into based on our circumstances or social pressure.
Sonja Lyubormisky: Happiness takes work
In the end, Lyubormisky views getting happier like dieting: it’s not easy, and it’s not something we do for a month and then stop. But the good news is that happiness practices can become habitual over time and take less effort from us.
Your happiness narrative
The power of narrative (Dacher Keltner)
Narratives are symbolic structures we use to make sense of our lives, and there are two main types:
- Micro-narratives: Telling stories about our daily struggles and stresses.
- Meta-narratives: The broader story of the self and our journey through life. It can include many elements of regular narratives like conflicts, turning points, themes, and major characters. Often, the narrative centers on ideas like suffering, compassion, forgiveness, or empathy.
Studies show that people who tell more vivid and engaging narratives have higher well-being later in life. Having more “possible selves” – different stories or identities – is correlated with less depression. And as we saw earlier, the Best Possible Self exercise increases health and happiness as we construct a narrative about a bright future.
“How stories change the brain” by Paul Zak
As a species, we’ve used stories to transmit values and information across generations long before writing. But powerful stories also have the potential to boost our oxytocin levels and make us better people in the long run.
Effective stories hold our attention and actually transport us into the characters’ world. As oxytocin levels increase, we emotionally resonate with the characters and imagine ourselves having their experiences.
Stories that do this tend to follow similar patterns, starting with something surprising, increasing tension and difficulties, and ending with a thought-provoking climax. The “hero’s journey” is one such story, where a hero helps out an innocent by changing and becoming a better person.
Oxytocin is that link between consuming stories and becoming better people: elevated oxytocin makes us more likely to donate to charity and plan to avoid unhealthy behaviors like smoking. And in one study, the people who donated to cancer research after watching a moving story about it had more empathic concern and well-being. So watching stories and being affected by them is linked to being more moral and being happier.
Activity: Expressive writing
Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved.
This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.
Synthesis and farewell
After nine week of “The Science of Happiness,” here are the key lessons that Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas hope you’ll take away:
- Kindness and compassion are in our biology.
- Negative emotions are part of life, and what matters is how we deal with and recover from them.
- Our attention is limited, and we are happiest when we’re focused on (mindful of) whatever we’re doing.
- Change is hard, but possible.
They also encourage us to reflect on questions like these:
- What information in this course was most engaging? Easiest or hardest to take in?
- Which happiness practices were easier or harder to do, and why?
- How can you improve your happiness beyond this course, by continuing some happiness practices or setting life goals?
- How can you become more social, kind and compassionate, mindful, grateful, or positive?
- How has your life narrative changed after learning all this information?
- How can you spread happiness in your community?
Want to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!
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