Introduction to the Science of Happiness: Week 1 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

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 1, Introduction to the Science of Happiness.

What is happiness?

Philosophical and spiritual views on happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Although positive psychology is a relatively new field of study, other thinkers have been pondering happiness for quite some time. Confucius advocated a kind of dignity or reverence (jen/ren) as happiness, where you focus on enhancing the welfare of others. Aristotle believed that happiness is about living a life of virtue, and it can only be judged when looking at your life as a whole. During the Enlightenment, utilitarianism advocated actions that bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama preaches equanimity, compassion, kindness, and detachment to alleviate suffering. In general, the happiness of Western traditions tends to be more individualistic and high-spirited, while that of the Eastern traditions is more communal and calm.

How scientists define and measure happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Being “happy” could refer to many things: a sense that our life is going well, a momentary emotion, a trait we have, or even a sensation. Many scientists focus on the first two aspects: life satisfaction and positive affect, which combine to form something called “subjective well-being.” To study happiness, researchers can observe our behavioral indicators like facial expressions or beep us throughout the day and ask how happy we are (experience sampling). Happiness studies might be cross-sectional – looking at a group of people across a slice of time – or longitudinal – looking at the same people over time. Scientists also do experiments in the lab to observe how different factors affect happiness.

“Happiness, the Hard Way” by Darrin M. McMahon

Before the late 17th century, people thought of happiness as the result of luck or divine favor. In fact, the word for happiness in every Indo-Europe language comes from the word for luck. Greco-Roman languages are an exception, but their virtuous happiness (eudaimonia) – complete with effort, struggle, and possibly pain – looks a lot different from happiness as we understand it today.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a kind of happiness revolution took place. Happiness was declared to be natural – a right – and the goal of life to increase pleasure and decrease pain. But that perspective has some drawbacks – namely, it minimizes the effort that happiness requires and frustrates us when we feel the normal negative emotions of life. In some ways, positive psychology is finding a balance between these perspectives and reintroducing the notions of virtue and effort to our understanding of happiness.

Misconceptions about happiness (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Happiness is not a happy-go-lucky state without negative emotions, where all our needs are met and we experience constant satisfaction. In fact, extreme positive emotions expressed in the wrong context, or too much of some positive emotions like pride, can be detrimental. In addition, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for happiness.

“Four Ways Happiness Can Hurt You” by June Gruber

Positive psychology doesn’t advocate unadulterated happiness all the time, for several reasons. Intense happiness can be a symptom of mania, a disorder that also inhibits creativity. Barbara Fredrickson has found that too much positive emotion is associated with inflexibility in the face of challenges. Extreme happiness can also make us take undue risks, since we focus on the positive and can miss warning signs. Too much pride, a positive emotion in moderation, is associated with aggression, antisocial behavior, and less empathy.

Beyond these considerations, happiness isn’t appropriate to every context; negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness are normal and appropriate sometimes. And when we set too high of a standard for happiness, excluding these negative emotions, we often become disappointed when we don’t meet it. Instead, we should pursue happiness in moderation, in the right context, and with the acceptance of negative emotions and situations.

“Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?” by Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh

Psychologists don’t fully understand the relationship between happiness and meaning. On one hand, the concepts are clearly different. Health, money, and comfort affect happiness but not meaning. Happiness is often about the present, while meaning encompasses the past, present, and future. We derive happiness from receiving and meaning from giving. We can generally feel meaning but not happiness in the face of worry, stress, and anxiety, or through self-expression. So combining meaning and happiness into one concept is tricky.

On the other hand, separating out the two concepts – say, into “hedonic happiness” and “eudaimonic happiness” – is also tricky. Meaning can make us happier, and happier people may be more capable of finding meaning. To say that becoming a parent makes us unhappier yet gives us more meaning is confusing. There is more work to do in understanding the relationship between these two concepts.

Why does happiness matter?

Sonja Lyubomirsky on the benefits of happiness

Happy people make more money; cope better; are better leaders and negotiators; are more likely to get married, have fulfilling marriages, and have more social support; and are more creative, productive, philanthropic, other-centered, resilient, and healthier.

More on the benefits of happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Happiness is associated with greater longevity – 5-7 years for happiness when you’re young, or 20 months for happiness when you’re older. It’s also associated with better health, from decreased chronic pain, increased immune activity, and better cardiovascular health to a decreased likelihood of diabetes, stroke, cancer mortality, and fatal accidents. Happy people have better social relationships: they have more friends, are judged more warm and intelligent and less selfish, and are more likely to get assistance and trust. Happy people who get married are less likely to get divorced and feel more love and fulfillment. Finally, happiness can boost creativity and innovation for us and our subordinates at work, if we happen to be managers.

“Why Be Happy?” from The How of Happiness

In addition to the above, happy people are more sociable and energetic, and more charitable and cooperative. They think more flexibly and with more ingenuity. Happy college freshmen have higher salaries 16 years later; happy female students are more likely to be married at age 27 and satisfied in marriage at age 52.

Why we need the science of happiness today (Dacher Keltner)

Americans need to learn about happiness more than ever, for several reasons. We are becoming more lonely: we have fewer close friends, and 1/4 of us have no close friends. Loneliness increases stress, affects our health and sleep, and makes us unhappier. We’re becoming more narcissistic, which goes hand in hand with less empathy for others. Inequality is also increasing, as the top 1% of society experiences large growth.

Happiness practice #1: Three good things

To be happier, spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.

What’s joy got to do with it?

Positive emotions open our mind (Barbara Fredrickson)

Positive emotions open our hearts, minds, and perspectives. They cause us to think more broadly, seeing global differences and similarities. In fact, people experiencing positive emotions actually expand their field of vision, looking at the background as well as the foreground. This allows us to see more possibilities and be more creative. Physicians experiencing positive emotion, for example, make better medical decisions. We also become more trusting and come up with better solutions to negotiations.

Positive emotions transform us (Barbara Fredrickson)

According to Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotions may even affect us on a biological level, the level of cell renewal. To increase positive emotion, she recommends doing loving-kindness meditation regularly over three months. People who do this experience increased mindfulness and resilience and better health and relationships.

“Are You Getting Enough Positivity in Your Diet?” by Barbara Fredrickson

Fredrickson’s research has suggested that a ratio of 3:1 positive to negative interactions is required for flourishing. Most of us operate around 2:1, while 1:1 or worse would be indicative of depression. (This ratio has since been contested by other researchers.) To become more positive, she suggests trying to be open, appreciative, kind, curious, real, and sincere. She also recommends keeping track of your positive and negative emotions to monitor your ratio.

Can we increase our own happiness?

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Pessimism about happiness

There are several reasons to believe that we might not be able to change our level of happiness. First, we all have a genetic set point, which accounts for about 50% of our happiness at any given time. Happiness seems like a personality trait, and personality traits aren’t generally very malleable – including extroversion and neuroticism, which are highly linked to happiness and unhappiness. Finally, hedonic adaptation would suggest that we’ll eventually adapt to any positive thing that happens in our life and our happiness will return to its former levels.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: What determines happiness?

According to research, about 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by intentional activity. The 40% is what we should focus on changing, by cultivating relationships and philanthropy, optimism, savoring and mindfulness, physical activity, spirituality, and goal pursuit.

What does – and doesn’t – make us happy?

What makes it hard for us to be happy? (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Although hedonic adaptation is clearly real, we fail to predict how much and how quickly we’ll adapt to positive and negative circumstances – this is called the “impact bias.” As a result, we’re very poor judges of what will make us happy or unhappy in the future; our “affective forecasting” is off. We fear breakups, even though people who have experienced them bounce back; we pursue wealth, when (after a certain amount) it doesn’t give us a boost. We buy things, when material purchases actually decrease our satisfaction.

Debunking the myths of happiness: Interview with Sonja Lyubomirsky

Hedonic adaptation makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: our ancestors were forced to be alert to changes (which might indicate danger), but pay less attention when circumstances were constant. And, in the case of negative experiences, it’s a blessing. Save a few horrible events – like severe disability or losing a loved one when you’re elderly – we tend to bounce back from everything. Divorce, perpetual singledom, breast cancer – we find the positive in all these experiences.

One big question that people often ponder is whether becoming a parent will make them happier, and the results are mixed. There’s a widespread belief that having kids makes you less happy, but it turns out that parenting makes certain types of parents happier – those who are middle aged (or older) and married, for example. Fathers tend to be happier than mothers, and parents are happier when they have custody of their kids and their kids are trouble-free (surprise, surprise).

Lyubomirsky’s research suggests that there aren’t many cultural differences in happiness, although there may be cultural differences in the myths about happiness. (For example, money is more valued in the West than in other places.) But that doesn’t mean there’s one formula for happiness – instead, we have to consider our own situation and personality and choose activities that “fit” in order to see results.

Money and happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Money makes us happier – but only up to a certain point. People in poor countries become happier when they have more money, but we don’t see much change in happiness as people start earning more than $75,000 a year. These days, wealth but not happiness is increasing in the United States, and 37% of the wealthiest Americans are less happy than the average American.

So what does make us happy? (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Exercise, sleep, achievement, and social relationships – but that’s a story for next week.

Year of Happy two linesWant 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!


Read more Science of Happiness summaries!