Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers: Week 9 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 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?

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!


Gratitude: Week 8 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 8, Gratitude.

Week 8-1: Intro to gratitude and happiness

Intro to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

Robert Emmons, the pioneering researcher on gratitude, defines it as the a feeling of reverence for something given. It occurs when, thanks to other people, something good happens to us that we don’t necessarily earn or deserve. Michael McCullough adds that gratitude involves benefitting from someone’s costly, intentional, voluntary action.

During the Enlightenment, gratitude was recognized as a major moral emotion that promoted cooperation. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary thinker, believed that reciprocal altruism was driven by gratitude.

More of gratitude’s benefits are discussed below, but we’ll see that it brings more optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness as well as less envy, possessiveness, anxiety, and depression. Gratitude is linked to more cooperation, generosity, compassion, and happier relationships. It makes leaders more pro-social and reduces post-traumatic stress in certain groups.

Robert Emmons: The power of gratitude

According to Emmons, gratitude includes two components. It’s a fundamentally positive mindset, where we recognize that there’s some good in the world. Because it’s always directed at something outside ourselves, it’s also a recognition that we’re dependent on others.

There are two types of gratitude: a momentary feeling we experience when someone benefits us, and a more long-term mindset, where we see everything in life as a gift.

In contrast, ungrateful people see life as a burden. They focus on the negative and see everything they don’t have, instead of what they do.

“Pay it forward” by Robert Emmons

In one study, people were asked to list five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. Compared to control groups, they felt more optimistic, better about life, and 25% happier. They also had fewer health complaints and symptoms of physical illness, and spent more time exercising.

In another study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. At the end of it, they came out more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong. They were more likely to support or help others, and other people did in fact rate them as more helpful. For people with neuromuscular disorders, this exercise led to more optimism and connection to others, positive emotions, and life satisfaction; along with fewer negative emotions. They were able to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning.

Research on grateful people has found that friends rate them as more supportive, kind, and helpful. As one study showed, gratitude is even more effective than a good mood in getting people to help others.

Why is gratitude so powerful? It’s hard to feel like the world is terrible when we notice all the things that other people are doing for us. And when we express that gratitude, it deepens our connection to others.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal

This week’s first happiness exercise is the gratitude journal. One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time.

To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it.

This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

The psychological benefits of gratitude

Psychological benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Grateful people and people who train to be more grateful experience more happiness and pro-sociality and less negative emotions, stress, and anti-social feelings.

How does this happen? On the positive side, gratitude helps us not only see more of the good in life but also get more benefit out of it as we savor the experience. And afterward, gratitude helps us remember and reminisce about positive experiences. In this way, it reduces habituation – we take things for granted less.

On the negative side, gratitude helps us get past crises in life. Grateful people are more likely to see a crisis in a positive light and less likely to disengage and blame themselves.

“Why gratitude is good” by Robert Emmons

Gratitude has a number of different benefits:

  • Psychological: Grateful people have more positive emotion and pleasure, and are more optimistic, energetic, joyful, and happy. Gratitude helps reduce the frequency and duration of depression.
  • Physical: Grateful people have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They’re less bothered by aches and pains and take better care of their health, like exercising more. They also sleep longer and feel more refreshed in the morning.
  • Social: Grateful people are more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing; and less lonely and isolated.

By spotlighting something good, gratitude discourages us from taking things for granted, increases our pleasure, and bolsters our self-worth (because we can’t be that bad if people are being kind to us, right?). The positive attitude of gratitude helps us move past stress and actually prevents us from experiencing negative emotions like envy, resentment, and regret.

But gratitude is a bit radical in our society. It’s an admission that we’re not fully in control or self-sufficient, and we don’t always get what we deserve in life – we get more. It also challenges our “self-serving bias,” the way we tend to take credit for good things in life but blame the bad things on external causes.

In addition to the gratitude journal, we can cultivate gratitude by simply counting our blessings (in our head) daily.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Gratitude brings happiness

Lyubomirsky’s study had people do a five-item gratitude journal for six weeks, either once or three times a week. She found that people became more grateful, but only if they did the exercise once a week.

“Stumbling toward gratitude” by Catherine Price

Price’s story of reluctantly becoming more grateful reminds us that the practices work, but we still have to allow ourselves to feel bad once in a while – we can’t be happy all the time.

“How gratitude can help you through hard times” by Robert Emmons

We might think that gratitude is only useful when things are going well, but it’s actually a powerful tool when life is hard. Although gratitude in these moments might not make us feel good, it can shift our perspective toward the positive.

For example, we can compare the current situation to the worst time in our life (or, alternatively, think about mortality). Probably, today will come out looking a little better.

We can also reframe the situation, or find positive ways of looking at it. After a negative experience, this gives people more closure and fewer negative emotions and intrusive memories. For example, people with debilitating illness express sincere and intense gratitude – often about everyday things. This shows us that gratitude can be a choice.

To reframe the experience, we can start by thinking about how we learned and became a better person. Although painful, it may have brought out some of our virtues or shown us what we have to be grateful for.

The physical and social benefits of gratitude

Physical and social benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Researchers call gratitude the “find, remind, and bind emotion”: it helps us find people to form relationships with, remind us of their good qualities, and bind us closer to them. For example, receiving gratitude from a partner makes us more satisfied with the relationship, and grateful sorority sisters made more friends three weeks later.

“Scientific insights from the Greater Good Gratitude Summit” by Jeremy Adam Smith

The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” was a three-year research project that funded 15 grants and 15 fellowships for grad students. Among some of the findings discussed:

  • Brother David Steindl-Rast (Benedictine monk) and Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield: The difference between miserable people who are well off and happy people who aren’t is gratitude.
  • Christina M. Karns: Gratitude is linked to cognitive control and reward systems of the brain.
  • Jeff Huffman: Gratitude helps people recover from heart attacks and deal with psychiatric problems.
  • Teri McKeever: Gratitude in sports can improve team spirit because people recognize how they help each other
  • Chris Murchison: People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else.

Wendy Berry Mendes: The physiological benefits of gratitude

The preliminary findings of Mendes’s research shows that grateful people have lower resting blood pressure, lower blood pressure responses to stressors, higher good cholesterol, and lower bad cholesterol. The mechanism by which gratitude affects health could be our oxytocin networks, potentiated behavior, vagus nerve, or stress pathway.

Philip Watkins: The social benefits of gratitude

Watkins compared the “three good things” gratitude journal to writing about things that made us proud or just random things, and found that the gratitude journalers became happier and kept becoming happier after the exercise. He believes that gratitude journaling trains our minds to notice good things, interpret situations positively, and think about positive events from the past.

Watkins characterizes gratitude as a moral or pro-social emotion. When we feel gratitude, it’s an indication that other people are acting properly toward us; it encourages us to return the kindness and express gratitude ourselves, reinforcing the moral behavior.

Gratitude strengthens our relationships several ways. We simply like grateful people, perhaps because they seem happier and more likely to help us. And they do help us, whether we have been kind to them before or not. Grateful people are more likely to want to work in groups (vs. alone), and they include others even at a cost to themselves.

“Love, honor, and thank” by Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey

One of the biggest struggles between married couples is the division of chores: if one partner feels it’s unfair, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied and consider a divorce.

But sometimes the problem isn’t actually the division but the lack of gratitude. What happens is that one partner has a lower “response threshold,” which means they get annoyed by the mess and notice it earlier than the other partner. So they end up always being the person to take out the trash or do the dishes. Over time, that becomes “their” chore and their partner expects them to do it, so it’s no longer a “gift” that requires thanks.

The first way to solve this problem is to be aware of it. When you’re starting a relationship, remember this dynamic and don’t get assigned a chore by default. If you’re already further along, recognize that the partner with the higher response threshold isn’t lazy; they simply don’t notice the mess as early as you do. When they realize that you’re constantly taking out the trash (or whatever the chore is), they can start to express gratitude and will probably start feeling the desire to give back, too. Or, you can remind them when it’s time for a chore to be done and express gratitude when they do it. You can even take turns so both of you appreciate what the other is doing.

In the end, couples who feel appreciated by their partners resent the division of labor less and feel more satisfied in their relationships.

Challenges to gratitude

Two types of challenges to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

On one hand, we may have trouble practicing gratitude because we run into tensions with our daily habits or personality. Gratitude goes against individualism, narcissism, materialism, and feelings of entitlement. Simply feeling too stressed and busy can also get in the way.

But we might also have reservations about gratitude because we worry it will make us complacent or over-accommodating. Or, perhaps we think we’re already grateful – we say thanks, of course – and gratitude during suffering isn’t possible.

Tom Gilovich: The psychological barriers to gratitude

Tom Gilovich is famous for researching differences in how experiences and material things make us happy, and he applied these notions to gratitude.

One barrier to gratitude is the “headwinds/tailwinds assymetry” – the way we tend to notice obstacles holding us back (headwinds) but not the things that push us forward. The solution is to take advantage of the headwinds – people prefer to hear about our experiences, and stories about obstacles are more interesting, so we can delight them with tales of our struggles. That way, we begin to see our struggles more positively (or at least get some social benefit out of them).

Another barrier is adaptation, but it turns out we adapt more to things than experiences. Over time we become happier with experiences we’ve had, while we become less happy about things we’ve acquired. As Gilovich explains it, experiences become part of who we are and connect us to others. We’re also more grateful for experiences than things, and thinking of an experiential purchase makes us more generous – while thinking of a material purchase makes us less generous.

“What gets in the way of gratitude?” by Robert Emmons

Emmons discusses other psychological barriers to gratitude, including misconceptions about gratitude itself. When we believe gratitude is just a feeling, we might think that there’s nothing we can do to feel more grateful. But in fact, gratitude is a deliberate way of thinking.

Another barrier, particularly common among Americans, is the desire to not be indebted to other people.

The last difficulty is narcissism: people who are ungrateful also tend to be self-important, arrogant, vain, and seeking admiration and approval. These sort of people tend to be self-absorbed and focus on their own issues, which makes it difficult to empathize with their helper and express gratitude. Although narcissism isn’t common, all of us exhibit some amount of narcissism from time to time.

Amie Gordon: Potential pitfalls of gratitude

Gratitude isn’t good for everyone in all places at all times. Gordon outlines five ways we might be doing gratitude wrong:

  • When we do it too much: We get the biggest happiness boost when we do gratitude journaling less than daily and detail a handful of things we’re grateful for.
  • When we don’t take any credit: We shouldn’t feel so grateful to others that we forget how our own contributions and effort made something possible.
  • When we’re grateful to the wrong person, as in an abusive relationship.
  • When it hides serious problems: We shouldn’t look for things to be grateful for when someone has seriously wronged us.
  • When there’s a power imbalance: Gratitude can be tricky in a superior/inferior situation, where superiors perceive gratitude from inferiors as sucking up.

“Five myths about gratitude” by Robert Emmons

Here are the myths Emmons described:

  • Gratitude makes us complacent, accepting whatever we have as enough. In fact, in one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress. In general, grateful people aren’t more satisfied with their progress toward their goals than less grateful people.
  • Gratitude is just a fluffy form of positive thinking. In fact, gratitude may come with some negative emotions from the realization that we’re dependent on and indebted to others. Also, gratitude increases positive emotions more than it reduces negative emotions, and it doesn’t reduce anxiety, tension, or unhappiness at all.
  • Gratitude makes us self-effacing. Studies have shown that recognizing the contributions of others doesn’t reduce how much credit we take.
  • We can’t be grateful in hard times. As Emmons details above in “How gratitude can help you through hard times” and “Pay it forward,” gratitude is particularly useful after a crisis and can help us see the bigger picture.
  • Gratitude is for religious people. Although religious people are a bit more inclined to be grateful, anyone can do it – and being grateful to God doesn’t mean we’re less grateful to other people.

Cultivating gratitude

Cultivating gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Besides the gratitude letter and the gratitude journal, we can become more grateful in our daily lives by saying thank you more and trying to appreciate and savor positive experiences.

“Six habits of highly grateful people” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Very grateful people:

  • Think about death and loss. Thinking about losing something we have, or actually giving it up for awhile, makes us appreciate it more.
  • Stop and smell the roses and take delight in little rituals.
  • See life as a gift, and themselves as bound to all of humanity with give and take.
  • Are grateful to people, which activates biological systems of trust, affection, pleasure, and reward. In contrast, being grateful to something like nature doesn’t make nature happier or strengthen our bond to it.
  • Are specific about their gratitude. Saying exactly what we’re grateful for seems more authentic – instead of a “Thanks for everything you do!” – so very grateful people express their understanding of the giver’s intentions, costs, and value given.
  • Can even be grateful for adversity.

Giacomo Bono: How can we cultivate gratitude in schools?

Bono’s Youth Gratitude Project looked at gratitude in kids and adolescents. He found that as children get older, the objects of their gratitude change: from basic things (like sharing food or cleaning up) to people meeting their psychological needs (like sharing or teaching them something) to socio-emotional things (like inclusion, support, and encouragement). The things they’re grateful for also start to overlap more with the ways they’re generous toward others, indicating the cultivation of empathy.

Bono has started to see that gratitude can be taught to young people and can increase their well-being. For certain children, gratitude was associated with more well-being, hope, meaning, pro-social behavior, and social integration (and less depression) four years later. Girls tend to be more grateful and less anti-social than boys, and the more grateful children have more role models, more caring teachers, and more extra-curricular activities.

“How to foster gratitude in schools” by Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey Froh

Teaching gratitude to adolescents and high schoolers has many of the same effects we observe in adults:

  • High school freshmen have more positive emotions, hope, meaning, life satisfaction, and happiness – and less negative emotions and depression – four years later.
  • Middle school students who keep a gratitude journal experience more optimism, satisfaction with school, and life satisfaction, as well as fewer negative emotions and physical complaints.
  • Students who do gratitude visits have more positive emotions up to two months later.
  • Adolescents who feel grateful tend to help others and feel like they’re using their strengths to contribute to society.

To foster gratitude in young people, we can teach them to notice other people’s intentions when they give or offer help, as well as the costs those people may incur. We can also teach them to value the benefits they receive as gifts, not things they’re entitled to.

Sara Algoe: How does gratitude affect romantic relationships?

Being grateful in a relationship reminds us how valuable the other person is, encourages us to do something nice for them, and increases our overall satisfaction with the relationship. To infuse your relationships with gratitude, fight off the tendency to take things for granted and notice the other person’s actions, and show your gratitude in a genuine way.

“Gratitude is for lovers” by Amie Gordon

Studies have shown that grateful couples feel closer and more satisfied in their relationships, and they’re less likely to be broken up 9 months later.

Gratitude actually creates a cycle of generosity. When we feel grateful, we want to stay in the relationship and work to maintain it with caring and attentive listening. Our partner then feels appreciated and grateful, and the cycle begins again.

“Four ways to make the most of gratitude” by Amie Gordon

To use gratitude to improve our relationships, we should focus on giving first – thanks to that cycle of generosity, it will eventually come back to us. We should think about giving the person something they want, which will generate more gratitude than an expensive gift we took hours to find. We can also try surprising them with something, or simply saying thanks for who they are as a person.

“Five ways to cultivate gratitude at work” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Work is a paradox, as far as gratitude goes: we want to feel appreciated and enjoy saying thank you to colleagues, and grateful bosses have better-performing teams. Yet work is the last place we can expect to experience gratitude – in fact, 60% of people never express gratitude at work.

The environment is certainly tricky: everyone gets paid to do a job, so gratitude might seem misplaced. And, as mentioned above, gratitude could be seen as weakness – admitting we need others’ help – or a form of sucking up.

But gratitude can actually make us feel respected, enhancing our sense of accomplishment, purpose, and self-worth. It can build trust between colleagues and make them more likely to help each other out.

Here are Smith’s five tips for cultivating gratitude at work:

  • Have the boss start, so the rest of the team feels comfortable with expressing gratitude.
  • Thank people with thankless jobs.
  • Focus on quality gratitude (that goes into detail) rather than lots of cursory thanks.
  • Let people express and receive gratitude in their own style, from gratitude walls to gifts to little gestures of help.
  • Use gratitude to help the team get through a crisis and see the positives.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter

For the second happiness practice this week, the gratitude letter, think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you.

The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter.

The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

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!



Mental Habits of Happiness: Week 7 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 7, Mental Habits of Happiness.

Intro to week 7 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

This week, we’ll be learning about some of the mental habits that promote and detract from happiness. In particular, we’ll look at how to cultivate self-compassion, flow, and optimism while warding off perfectionism, materialism, and frazzle. We’ll also look at how setting the right goals can make us happier.

Toxic thoughts vs. training the mind for happiness

The fundamentals of training the mind for happiness (Dacher Keltner)

While a happy mind has positive patterns of thought, negative patterns are implicated in conditions like depression and anxiety. Toxic patterns of thought include:

  • Perfectionism, where we strive for perfection and almost always find ourselves lacking. Being praised in childhood for intrinsic traits (like intelligence) rather than changeable traits (like effort) can promote perfectionism.
  • Social comparison. Comparing ourself to those who are better off than us leads to lower self-perception, while comparing ourself to those who are worse off than us makes us look down on them.
  • Materialism. In fact, research has shown that buying experiences gives us much more of a happiness boost than buying things.
  • “Maximizing” rather than “satisficing.” Maximizers try to make the optimal choice (a form of perfectionism), while satisficers pick the first available choice that fits their criteria. Maximizers tend to feel more regret over decisions, and be less optimistic, more depressed, and less satisfied with life and with any success they do achieve.

In contrast, cultivating an optimistic pattern of thinking – where we believe the future will be socially desirable, good, and pleasurable – is good for our health and happiness. Optimistic people have higher subjective well-being, positive emotions, and vagal tone. In one study, optimistic young men were found to be healthier 35 years later. This is true as long as we don’t go to the extremes into wishful thinking or recklessness.

“Are you a maximizer?” by Christine Carter

Satisficing may seem to generate sub-optimal outcomes, but in fact it frees up our decision-making power for the more important choices. To become a satisficer, define your criteria for any given choice and stop looking when those criteria are met.

The next step is to focus on the positives of our choice, which our brains are wired to do. Studies by Daniel Gilbert have shown that we like our choices even more after we’ve made them – but only if we perceive them as set, unchangeable. In one case, participants ranked paintings and got to take home their third or fourth choice; 15 days later, the third had gone up in their estimation and the fourth had gone down. In another, participants who got to pick between two photographs were happier if they didn’t have a few days to change their mind.

“How to trick your brain for happiness” by Rick Hanson

We know that meditation shapes the brain, thickening areas like the insula and prefrontal cortex (areas used to observe our inner state and control attention, respectively). Routine meditators also retain more brain cells, while the rest of us lose 4% of ours as we age. These are all examples of how the mind can affect the brain, strengthening and connecting brain areas and releasing different chemicals. We also know that changes in the physical brain can affect our thoughts, emotions, and memory.

So how do we exploit this two-way pathway? We can change our minds by changing our brains by changing our minds. By scanning the world for little positive moments and savoring them, like a jewel or a warm light entering us, we can kick off changes in the brain that will make us happier not just today but down the road as well.

Misconceptions about training the mind (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

We might be skeptical of these mind-training techniques because we believe they don’t work, or because the outcome seems undesirable. Isn’t the point of life to change and improve, rather than just accept things the way they are and naively believe the future will be better? In fact, mindfulness and the other techniques discussed help put us in better touch with reality so we can see things clearly and act from there. And thanks to neuroplasticity, science has shown that we are able to change.

Self-compassion: A path to resilience and happiness

Why we need self-compassion

Self-compassion, a concept pioneered by Kristin Neff, means changing our inner dialogue from critical to supportive, understanding, and caring.

Self-compassion goes against many countervailing trends in our history, culture, and religion. For example, ancient philosophies of virtue-based happiness and religious conceptions of martyrdom and sin preach the benefits of painful effort. Ideas like natural selection, behaviorism, and the primacy of competition lead us to think that only the best do (and should) survive, and the weak or the wrong should be punished. We have Freud on one side telling us we’re selfish and destructive, and the self-esteem movement on the other telling us to see ourselves as better than average. In short, a kind and accepting view of the self – flaws and all – doesn’t fit in here.

Kristin Neff: The three components of self-compassion

The three components of self-compassion, identified by Neff, are:

  • Self-kindness, the desire to comfort and soothe ourselves, and alleviate our suffering.
  • Common humanity, the ability to see our problems as something that every human experiences.
  • Mindfulness, the ability to notice and sit with our suffering.

“Why self-compassion trumps self-esteem” by Kristin Neff

Self-esteem and self-compassion might seem like opposites, but they actually go hand in hand. Self-compassionate people tend to have higher self-esteem, and both correlate with less anxiety and depression and more happiness, optimism, and positive emotion.

But the differences between the two are telling. As Neff explains it, the pursuit of self-esteem is the desire to be special or above average – and since half of us aren’t, we tend to get inflated egos and look down on other people. We may refuse to see our weaknesses and be at risk for narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, or discrimination.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, starts with accepting ourselves despite our flaws. We feel less fearful, negative, and isolated because making mistakes is okay – everyone does it. For example, self-compassionate people are less likely to feel humiliated and incompetent when imagining a big mistake, and less anxious when admitting a weakness in a job interview.

Somewhat surprisingly, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility for their actions. In one study, self-compassionate people who got neutral feedback about their speaking skills were more likely to attribute it to their personality (instead of, say, a mean observer) than people with high self-esteem. Mistakes and criticism don’t threaten them as much as they do for people who have to perform well all the time.

Finally, the self-worth of self-compassionate people varies less over time. Self-compassionate people engage in less social comparison, and they also have less of a compulsion to be right or get petty revenge.

Kristin Neff: Overcoming objections to self-compassion

Self-compassion might seem misguided: should we really just do whatever we want and then pardon ourselves, never holding ourselves to higher standards?

As we’ve seen above, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility and admit their faults. Self-compassion includes the desire for long-term well-being, so self-compassionate people won’t spend all their lives relaxing because it takes too much effort to do anything. And self-compassionate people won’t wallow in self-pity because mindfulness gives them some distance from their feelings and common humanity gives them some perspective.

Perhaps the most challenging objection to self-compassion is the idea that we need an admonishing voice in our heads to spur us toward success. And we do – just not the self-critical voice that we’re all so used to hearing. Self-criticism scares us into believing that failure is unacceptable, and self-critical people tend to be more depressed, less confident, and afraid of failure. In contrast, a self-compassionate voice would motivate us with the desire for health and well-being – and we’d be more likely to listen.

The benefits linked to self-compassion (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Many studies have shown associations between self-compassion and different positive traits and circumstances, although they haven’t proven that self-compassion causes them. Combatting the negatives, self-compassion is associated with less anxiety, depression, rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure. Self-compassionate people cope better with stressors and are more willing to acknowledge negative emotions.

On the positive side, self-compassionate people tend to be more wise, emotionally intelligent, curious and exploratory, optimistic, and happy. They tend to take more personal initiative and have better relationships, perhaps because they are more empathic, altruistic, and forgiving.

As for health, self-compassion is linked to better diet and exercise, less smoking, and seeking medical treatment when necessary. Tests of self-compassionate people showed less cortisol and greater heart-rate variability.

One study of self-compassion did show causation by training participants in it and observing how they changed from start to finish. Those who did the training indeed became more self-compassionate, as well as more mindful, socially connected, and satisfied with life. They were less depressed, anxious, stressed, and avoidant, suggesting that self-compassion is the cause of many positive outcomes.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter

One of this week’s happiness practices is the self-compassionate letter, where you write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down.

This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Finding “flow”

Introduction to flow

Flow is an intrinsically rewarding state of mind that comes when we’re intensely engaged in an activity. With our hyper-focus, we can lose track of time and forget completely about ourselves and the environment around us. In flow, we tend to be more creative and productive and (afterward) feel exhilarated and satisfied.

For flow to occur, we need to have a clear goal and our skills need to match the challenge in front of us. We also need an environment where we can fully concentrate, and immediate feedback on whether we’re moving in the right direction.

Daniel Goleman: Focus, flow, and frazzle

Depending on the skills we have and the challenge we’re confronted with, we may be in a state of boredom, flow, or “frazzle.” In flow, we actually have moderate stress. Boredom is a state of low stress, where we try to focus but cannot. In frazzle, we’re stressed but performing poorly because we’re distracted by negative emotions.

“Can schools help students find flow?” by Jill Suttie

Unfortunately, today’s schools aren’t particularly conducive to engagement or flow. Students are obsessed with grades rather than learning, and everyone is forced to go at the same pace and change classes every hour. The low pay for teachers isn’t enough to attract the best talent, who would be better at engaging student attention. And in fact, almost 50% of students are bored every day at school (2009).

While being motivated by grades puts students at risk for cheating, depression, and drug abuse, the internal motivation of flow would have extraordinary benefits. Several studies have found that flow in a course makes students more likely to sign up for another course in that field or even major in it, and flow is also correlated with good grades.

To encourage more flow at school, we need to spark students’ internal motivation. For example, students tend to be more engaged when taking tests or working individually or in groups – active activities – rather than passively listening to lectures or watching videos. Students are more motivated to learn when they feel in control and challenged to do something that’s relevant to real life, with a supportive teacher standing by.

The Montessori method is one example of bringing more flow into the classroom. Students pick their own tasks and go at their own pace, and grade levels are intermixed. A study of Montessori found that students have less distraction and more positive emotion, energy, internal motivation, and flow.

“What Mel Brooks can teach us about group flow” by R. Keith Sawyer

While flow often happens when we’re alone, it can also make groups more creative and productive. Many of the conditions for group flow require a balance of structure and freedom to allow for the group to perform at its best.

For example, goals have to be focused but open for some interpretation. Group members should feel in control and autonomous, but flexible and responsive to the other members’ contributions.

In addition, it’s best if group members are familiar with each other so they have tacit knowledge about each other. When group members communicate, they should listen closely and participate equally. Rather than contradicting each other, groups should set their egos aside and follow the best ideas.

The ideal environment for group flow is somewhat separate, where the group has its own space and identity. And the potential for failure – like a band performing live, for example – adds the right amount of challenge and motivation to ignite flow.

How goal-setting can foster happiness

How goals can foster happiness

Goals give us a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose in life. But not all goals make us happy – we’re happier if we pursue “intrinsic” goals that are inherently valuable. These goals involve basic psychological needs around autonomy, competence, and connection to others. In contrast, extrinsic goals (like fame) are instrumental, pursued in order to get something else (like approval from others).

Beyond that, goals that also benefit the well-being of other people will give us a happiness boost. They’re called “non-zero” goals (as opposed to “zero-sum”).

Christine Carter: Mental habits that contribute to “the overwhelm”

Carter describes something called “the overwhelm,” the feeling that we don’t have enough time to get everything done in life. According to statistics, 2/3 of people feel like they don’t have enough time to finish their work, and 94% of working parents have felt overwhelmed “to the point of incapacitation.”

Carter identifies three modern habits that are to blame for “the overwhelm”:

  • The expectation that we can be productive all the time. Instead, we should recognize that our bodies go through ultradian cycles of energy and our willpower muscles eventually get depleted. To avoid burnout, we should work in small bursts (60-90 minutes) with breaks in between and try to reduce the number of little decisions we make every day.
  • Our commitment to multitasking. What we think is multitasking is actually task-switching, and it can increase the effort or time required for a task by 25%. In other words: stop multitasking!
  • Our digital addiction. Our constant access to email means we could work all the time, so we never have blocks of true relaxation. The solution is to set up times and areas where we don’t use our technology, and to strategically respond to messages instead of reactively replying immediately at all hours of the day.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self

This week’s second happiness practice is the Best Possible Self exercise developed by Laura King. Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings.

Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

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!


Mindfulness: Week 6 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 6, Mindfulness.

How paying attention can make you happier

Roadmap for week 6

This week looks at mindfulness, a nonjudgmental awareness of the present reality – our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. In a mindful state, we aren’t thinking about the past or future but fully attuned to the now.

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Matt Killingsworth’s project, Track Your Happiness, looks at the correlation between happiness and mind wandering. It sends participants emails or text messages throughout the day and asks them how they feel, what they’re doing, and whether they’re mind wandering about pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral things. So far, he’s collected over 650,000 responses from 15,000 people and discovered that we mind-wander 47% of the time. You might think that mind wandering is a positive thing, since we can daydream of happy things or plan for a better future. But in fact, Killingsworth’s data shows that people are less happy when their minds are wandering. This is true even if we’re doing unsatisfying activities like commuting, and even if we’re thinking of neutral or pleasant things. Killingsworth was also able to show that mind wandering leads to unhappiness, rather than the other way around.

Defining mindfulness vs. mind-wandering

Although we might think mindfulness and mind-wandering are opposites, that’s not quite true. Mindfulness, according to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Shauna Shapiro, another expert in the field, believes that mindfulness requires open, kind, and discerning attention. But we can actually be mindful while observing the wanderings of our mind.

“How to focus a wandering mind” by Wendy Hasenkamp

When our mind wanders during meditation, a group of brain areas called the “default mode network” activates. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what this network does – it may be directly involved in mind wandering or simply be carrying out brain maintenance when we aren’t thinking about anything in particular. As soon as we realize our mind is wandering during meditation, other brain regions for detecting relevant events light up. As we refocus our attention on the breath, the executive brain network takes over. Experienced meditators who repeat this process thousands of times start to show differences in the brain. They develop more connection between the self-focused part of the default mode network and brain regions for disengaging attention, which makes it easier to shut off that area of the brain when they realize their minds are wandering. Over time, meditation improves working memory, fluid intelligence, and standardized test scores.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness techniques and the emergence of MBSR

There are many different types of mindfulness techniques, including breathing, sitting, and walking meditations; loving-kindness meditation; the body scan; and yoga. Meditations train the mind to cultivate a certain state, often relaxation. One of the most famous techniques is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week program helped translate Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context. He’s famous for the raisin meditation, where you imagine a raisin and examine it with all five senses. A 2011 meta-analysis of MBSR showed that it reduces symptoms of distress, anxiety, and depression. For people with physical conditions like chronic pain, it can enhance wellbeing.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: What is mindfulness?

The goal of meditation is simply to become awake. In fact, the Chinese character for mindfulness means “presence of heart.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn: The stars of our own movie

One of the great illusions that comes from a lack of mindfulness is seeing ourselves as “the stars of our own movie.” Everything is filtered through the lens of I, me, and mine. We get caught up in our thoughts rather than truly experiencing the world through our senses. But when we deliberately start cultivating awareness, we see that it has no center or boundary. Kabat-Zinn says that meditation is not the goal; the point of cultivating mindfulness is to learn to live our lives like they really matter now, rather than constantly living in regret or anticipation.

Shauna Shapiro: Intention, attention, attitude

These three characteristics are crucial to mindfulness. Intention involves knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – having a goal or a north star. Attention means focusing on the present and not succumbing to the 12,000-50,000 thoughts we have every day. Attitude is how you do all of this – ideally, with acceptance, openness, curiosity, kindness, gentleness, warmth, and trust. “What you practice becomes stronger,” says Shapiro.

“What is mindfulness?” by Barry Boyce

Boyce prefers to think of mindfulness as something we already have, a basic human ability. We have the power within us to stop feeling reactive and overwhelmed, if only we cultivate it. That can be done through meditation, doing activities (like sports) meditatively, or just pausing from time to time in everyday life. Mindfulness does reduce stress and has other benefits, but it’s best if we do it as an end in itself rather than for the perks.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing

Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Benefits of mindfulness for mind, brain, and body

Mindfulness and psychological well-being

Studies on mindfulness are mixed but mostly promising. Various types of meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to promote coping; increase positive emotions (like compassion) and life satisfaction; and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, depression relapse, and negative emotions. For teachers, mindfulness also reduced critical self-rumination as well as contempt and hostility for other teachers, while making them more able to judge others’ emotions. But some meta-analyses have suggested that mindfulness has no effect on positive emotions or no effect on life satisfaction.

Mindfulness and physical well-being

Beyond affecting the mind, mindfulness and the MBSR program lead to real changes in our bodies, too. They have helped people reduce chronic pain, improve psoriasis, and increase their immune response to the flu shot. One study of mindfulness/compassion meditation out of Emory University showed reductions in stress markers, and even a simple long exhale (ahhhh) increases vagal tone. And – last but not least – a three-month meditation training program boosted telomerase activity, indicating longer telemores and perhaps a longer life expectancy.

Mindfulness and neuroplasticity

Mindfulness literally changes our brains, making some areas more responsive, interconnected, and dense. In particular, these are areas related to empathy (the insula); memory, emotion, and emotion regulation; and reward circuitry. In response to distressing stimuli, meditators see more activation in their prefrontal structures (for awareness) and less in their fear-driven amygdala. Taken together, these changes make us more attentive and less distracted, more in touch with our emotions, more resilient and quicker to recover from stress, and more pro-social, optimistic, and kind – in a word, happier.

“Stalking the meditating brain” by Tracy Picha

Richie Davidson founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin. His studies show changes in gene expression after 8 hours of meditating in the lab. In other words, practices like meditation can have an effect on which of our genes are activated, changing us mentally and physically.

Shauna Shapiro: Mindfulness meditation and the brain

According to set point theory, our attitude and behaviors have a bigger effect on our happiness than our external circumstances – and that’s good news for mindfulness. Mindfulness shapes our brain by increasing gray matter in areas related to attention, learning, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and compassion. One study of biotech employees who had never meditated before showed an increase in their left-right ratio of prefrontal cortex activity – which is associated with more positive mental states – as much as four months later. In other words, meditation can have a lasting impact on our brains and thus our happiness.

“A little meditation goes a long way” by Jason Marsh

Another study of the eight-week MBSR program showed increases in gray matter in three brain regions: the hippocampus (for learning, memory, and emotion regulation); the temporoparietal junction and posterior cingulate cortex (empathy); and the cerebellum (emotion regulation).

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation

Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, we focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. We learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

“Which kind of mindfulness meditation is right for you?” by Hooria Jazaieri

There are many different types of mindfulness meditation, and (as with happiness practices) everyone has to find the right fit. One study looked at three types: sitting (breath), the body scan, and mindful yoga. It found that all three types reduced rumination and improved self-compassion and well-being. But sitting and mindful yoga were most useful: yoga improved well-being the most, while sitting made people less judgmental about their feelings and experiences. Both sitting and yoga improved emotion regulation.

Real-world applications of mindfulness

Applications of mindfulness research

Mindfulness techniques are used across a variety of disciplines, from relationships and childbirth to education and health care to prisons. Besides the effects mentioned above, here are some of the results:

  • More mindful partners report more sexual satisfaction.
  • More mindful students participate more.
  • More mindful teachers burnout less.
  • More mindful health professionals burnout less and have more self-compassion.
  • More mindful prisoners are less angry, hostile, and moody.
  • More mindful people with post-traumatic stress disorder have less symptoms of trauma, intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal.

In general, mindfulness improves our social interactions and makes us feel better about the world and our ability to deal with it.

“Mindful kids, peaceful schools” by Jill Suttie

The goal of teaching mindfulness to students is to create a better learning environment. In particular, it should help reduce anxiety, social conflict, and attention disorder while making students more aware, curious, non-judgmental, and calm. Susan Kaiser’s nonprofit, Inner Kids, is one of the organizations bringing mindfulness into schools. A study of 4th-7th graders found that mindful awareness techniques had many of the desired effects. Students became less aggressive and less oppositional to teachers, and were sent to the principal less often. Plus, they had more positive emotions and became more attentive, optimistic, and introspective. Another study showed that teaching mindfulness to teens with ADHD reduces their anxiety and increases their focus.

“Mindfulness at work” by Tara Healey

Mindfulness at work means noticing and examining the habits of behavior, thinking, and feeling that we’ve created. Sometimes, what appears to be a problem is only a problem because of the expectations or feelings we attach to it, not the reality itself. Healey encourages us to create some distance between ourselves and our emotions and simply observe. We can also keep an eye out for little assumptions or habits that are making us unhappy, like jumping for the phone when it rings. Finally, we can cultivate mindfulness by meditating as well as injecting it into everyday experience.

“To pause and protect” by Maureen O’Hagan

Even police and soldiers are being trained in mindfulness. One study of Marine reservists found that those who had trained in mindfulness had better cognitive performance and less stress. For police, the goal of these programs is to help them be less reactive and more thoughtfully responsive, less aggressive and more assertive.

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!

Cooperation and Reconciliation: Week 4 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 4, Cooperation and Reconciliation.

Intro to cooperation

Roadmap for week 4 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Cooperation, one of this week’s themes, means working together toward a common goal for mutual benefit. We’ll look at how we evolved to cooperate and how cooperation is more intrinsic to human beings than competition.

The evolution of cooperation (Dacher Keltner)

It make sense that we evolved to be cooperative because of its benefits for groups and for individuals. Even today, neighborhoods with more social cohesion and cooperation (called “collective efficacy”) have better child health and life expectancies, greater high school graduation rates, and less social disorder. In contrast, non-cooperative or “Machiavellian” people feel more isolated, more stressed, and less happy. And when we look at our primate relatives, we see that they in fact are quite cooperative.

The prisoner’s dilemma game, where two players choose to either defect or cooperate and get punished accordingly, is a microcosm of society. While an individual can get the best outcome by defecting when their partner cooperates, this strategy obviously wouldn’t work if everyone used it. Ideally, everyone would cooperate and achieve the greatest collective good. On the individual level, the best strategy is called “tit for tat”: we start cooperative then mirror our partner’s actions. This strategy is forgiving and transparent, but it prevents us from becoming a sucker.

“Birds do it. Bats do it” by Jeremy Adam Smith and Alex Dixon

Cooperation is not just part of human nature, but also animal nature and nature itself. Multicellular organism are simply cells cooperating. Ants coordinate their route in and out of the nest to avoid traffic jams. Big fish let little fish clean out their mouths in exchange for a snack. Birds gang up to protect each other from predators – but only if the bird in danger has come to their aid before. Four out of five bats would die if they didn’t share food, which they do – as long as the other bats share with them. All these behaviors should inspire us to nurture our own cooperative natures.

Neuroscience of cooperation (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Cooperation – and the lack of it – has a distinctive effect on the brain. Cooperation activates our reward-processing and pleasure centers. When cooperation breaks down, we feel displeasure and our amygdala gets activated.

Some brain areas, like the insula, activate when we cooperate or compete with others – suggesting they deal with our connection and attunement to other people. Other prefrontal areas activate only during competition, when we may need more brainpower for decision-making.

The “dark side” of the neuroscience of cooperation is that people who perform “altruistic punishment” – against non-cooperators – have activation in the same reward-processing areas, the striatum and medial prefrontal cortex. In both of those cases (cooperation or punishing non-cooperators), the social order is being upheld.

“The cooperative instinct” by Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Another game that gives us insights into our cooperative nature is the Public Goods Game, where we start with a certain amount of money, we put part of it into a common pool, the common pool gets doubled, and the money is redistributed. When players make their decisions in under 10 seconds – whether they do it naturally or they’re forced to – they give more money and thus act more cooperatively. Players also contribute more if they’re primed to think about how intuition helped them in the past or reasoning failed them. This suggests that we have cooperative instincts but may reason ourselves into being more self-interested.

Peacemaking and reconciliation

Conflict and peacemaking (Dacher Keltner)

Conflict among people is inevitable, as anyone with children, spouses, or parents can attest to. But we’ve actually evolved sophisticated ways to kickstart the process of reconciliation. Our facial expression of embarrassment (discussed below) actually makes people like, forgive, trust, and give more resources to us. We see similar behavior among primates, who – instead of avoiding each other after a fight – make peacemaking gestures that lead to physical contact and grooming.

“Peace among primates” by Robert M. Sapolsky

Some primate species are violent and others are more peaceful, and the difference seems to lie in their nature and their environment. Peaceful species tend to have more abundant food supplies, less sex differentiation, monogamy, and shared parental responsibilities.

But these tendencies aren’t rigid. A violent baboon will learn to be more peaceful in just an hour if we drop it among peaceful baboons. If we raise two groups together, naturally violent macaques become reconciliatory and stay reconciliatory even if we put them back with their own group. A group of baboons that lost its most aggressive males developed a more peaceful culture, which persisted even when the males left and other males arrived.

What does that mean for humans? We’ve evolved to be cooperative but very wary of outsiders, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change. Our amygdala may naturally activate when we see people of other races, but we can stop that by regularly spending time with other races or striving to see people as individuals.

“Born to blush” by Dacher Keltner

Our embarrassed facial expression has many components that help us move past whatever gaffe we’ve committed. When we’re embarrassed, we turn our heads down and to the side, exposing our vulnerable necks and showing weakness and humility in a way similar to animal gestures of appeasement. That movement breaks our eye contact with the other(s) and serves to cut off the previous interaction and start a new one. We also smile, but in a way that’s similar to primates’ “fear grimace” or bare-teeth grin, showing inhibition. We may look up furtively a few times and touch our faces, something primates do as well.

All this communicates respect for others and acknowledgement of our transgression, and it helps the two parties make peace and become cooperative again – which is good for everyone in the long run.

Introduction to apology (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

How else do we resolve conflicts other than looking embarrassed? We apologize, of course. Research has shown that apologies increase psychological health and positive emotion in victims, while decreasing negative emotions. They also benefit the apologizer, who similarly sees an increase in psychological health, positive emotion, and (if they’re a leader) authentic pride. An apology will always generate some negative emotion for the apologizer, but that’s part of the journey to greater well-being.

An effective apology has four components:

  • We express remorse, shame, or humility in recognizing how the victim suffered.
  • We acknowledge the specific offense and accept responsibility – that includes elaborating on who was the offender, who was offended, and what the offense was.
  • We show empathy and offer an explanation for why we did what we did. Often we might explain why our actions weren’t intentional or personal in order to convince the victim that it won’t happen again.
  • We offer compensation or reparation.

This kind of apology satisfies the victim’s psychological needs for dignity, shared values, and an opportunity to express their feelings. It convinces the victim they weren’t responsible and that it won’t happen again. It also creates reparative justice by planning some punishment for the offender and some compensation for the victim.

“Making peace through apology” by Aaron Lazare

The step where apologies often break down is in acknowledging the offense, because the offender doesn’t get specific enough. But if done right, apologies make it easier for the victim to forgive. Victims may even accept some blame and end up closer to the offender. When an apology isn’t forthcoming, it might still make sense to forgive – which is different from reconciling – because of the benefits for the forgiver.

The science of forgiveness

Intro to the science of forgiveness (Dacher Keltner)

Forgiveness occurs when we are able to accept what happened, reduce our desire for revenge, avoid the offender less, and feel more compassion for them. It’s not reconciliation for the sake of reconciliation or taking away responsibility from the offender; in fact, it can be something we do for our own well-being. Forgiveness is linked to more life satisfaction, more positive emotions, less negative emotions, less physical symptoms of illness, and less fight-or-flight response. Couples who forgive are happier as many as 9 weeks later.

“The new science of forgiveness” by Everett L. Worthington Jr.

Forgiveness is actually good for our health: people who forgive have less stress and less hostility (a marker of Type A behavior, which is a risk factor for heart disease). This is particularly true of older people, who are more likely to forgive and experience benefits like less nervousness, restlessness, and sadness. Not forgiving may disrupt the way our bodies produce hormones or respond to bacteria, infections, and other health challenges.

Forgiveness is also good for our relationships. It correlates with happier and more committed relationships, particularly in marriages. That doesn’t mean forgiveness is easier in close relationships, but it helps if our partner seems trustworthy and willing to sacrifice for us. In contrast, people who don’t forgive experience more conflict, negative emotions, and unwillingness to compromise. When they don’t forgive, partners can become competitive and start to “keep score,” which is extremely detrimental to the relationship.

So how do we get to a place of forgiveness, with its benefits to self-esteem, mood, and happiness? Besides forgiveness training, we can summon our hearts (or, more accurately, our brain’s limbic system) to be empathetic, rather than looking at the issue from the perspective of fairness and rationality. And we can accept that forgiveness takes time.

“The forgiveness instinct” by Michael E. McCullough

People say revenge is human nature, and they are only half right – because so is forgiveness. Revenge is found in nearly all cultures, and it serves a purpose to discourage aggression and prevent free riding.

But forgiveness is also near-universal across cultures because of the purpose it serves: bringing people together. It allows groups to stay cohesive and cooperative, which makes them more likely to survive.

So what determines which side of our nature shows its face? Mostly our environment. If we’re in a place with crime, disorder, and no rule of law, we’re more likely to be vengeful. But if our environment has stable judicial institutions and norms of reconciliation and cooperation, we’re more likely to be forgiving. We can also transmit forgiveness through cultural vehicles like religion, the arts, media, and politics.

Frederic Luskin on the choice to forgive

Luskin, who developed the “Nine Steps to Forgiveness” program, says that forgiveness boils down to a simple choice: to focus on the positive or the negative. We can obsess and ruminate over the wrongs we have suffered, or we can decide to ponder all the good things that have happened to us.

Frederic Luskin on wanting “yes” and getting “no”

“Forgiveness is the ability to make peace with the word no,” says Luskin. We feel resentment when reality doesn’t meet our expectations, but again we have a choice: to accept the past or not. The healthy decision is to continue our lives without feeling like a victim. That might mean forgiving whoever caused us wrong, as well as forgiving ourselves for the way we responded.

“The choice to forgive” by Frederic Luskin

Luskin is the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, which do research and offer classes on forgiveness. They’ve discovered that forgiveness can reduce stress, anger, depression, and hurt while increasing optimism, hope, compassion, and vitality.

Part of the process of forgiveness involves rejecting our own “unenforceable rules” and creating “enforceable rules.” Unenforceable rules are desires that we have no control over – such as wanting other people to be a certain way – while enforceable rules are desires and goals that are within our control.

The way to become forgiving is to practice it on small harms so that we’ll be more prepared to forgive when we’re seriously hurt.

“The limits of forgiveness” by Donna Howe

Studies have shown that forgiveness and happiness are a virtuous circle: forgiving today makes us happier tomorrow – particularly if we forgave someone close to us – and happier people are more likely to forgive. Other research shows that spouses who forgive are happier and more satisfied in their relationships, except when they’re frequently mistreated. In that case, the more forgiving partners are less happy.

Jack Kornfield on what forgiveness means

Many common views of forgiveness miss the mark. Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or forgetting; rather, it involves accepting negative emotions like betrayal, anger, grief, or fear. It doesn’t minimize the offense, and we may still resolve to never suffer the same way again. It’s something we do for ourselves, so it may not even involve contact with the offender. And it’s a very profound and challenging process that doesn’t happen overnight.

“Facing fear, facing forgiveness” by Jill Suttie

The movie Facing Fear is also a movie about forgiveness, starring gay man Matthew Boger and former neo-Nazi skinhead Tim Zaal, who attacked him when they were teenagers. It’s called Facing Fear because the process is scary for both of them. Boger says that part of forgiveness is letting go of a part of ourselves that we’ve identified with, the part that holds a grudge and feels resentment.

Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving

Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened.

Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.

Building trust

The science of trust (Dacher Keltner)

Trust is the sense that other people will act on behalf of our interests. Research has shown that more trusting cultures tend to be happier, but trust of institutions and individuals is declining in the US. So how do we make people more trusting, besides giving them a whiff of oxytocin?

Touch is a gateway to trust, with its ability to soothe and activate reward circuitry in the brain. The simple handshake when we meet someone is a gesture of trust. Research has shown that appropriate touch by teachers of students makes them volunteer to write on the board more, and (everything else equal) NBA teams who touch each other more win more games.

Language also helps cultivate trust. Our habits of using indirect or polite language build bonds between people, and negotiators who have a few minutes to communicate come up with better and more cooperative outcomes. Even little differences can engender more trust: calling the prisoner’s dilemma the “Wall Street game” or priming players with words related to competition increases defection, while calling it the “Community game” increases cooperation.

“Brain trust” by Michael Kosfield

Another game that gives us a window into trust is the investor-trustee game, where the investor gives money to the trustee, it gets tripled, and the trustee decides how much to give back. Players tend to give away about half of their money and get a similar amount back. But we can increase trust by having the players play with each other longer, introducing punishments for untrustworthiness, reminding them of their obligations to each other, or giving the investors oxytocin. Interestingly, oxytocin makes the investors give more money but not expect more in return.

John Gottman on the importance of trust

Trustworthiness is the most desirable quality in a romantic partner, and it encompasses qualities like dependability and honesty. In a romantic relationship, it has many dimensions – we need to trust that our partner will be faithful, respect us, be there for us when we need them, choose us over their friends or family, etc.

“Trust and betrayal” by John Gottman

Gottman identified a “betrayal metric” to measure the lack of trust in a relationship. He had couples interact and then independently rate their interactions afterward. For couples with less trust, interactions were more like a zero-sum game – when she rated it well, he rated it poorly, for example. Astonishingly, higher trust was correlated not just with relationship stability but also with longevity in husbands.

When trust isn’t there, we see partners using the relationship as a “comparison level for alternatives” (CL-ALT); they start to think they would be happier with someone else, which changes behaviors significantly.

Trust is built like a tower of cards, one “sliding door” moment at a time. At many points in a relationship, we have the choice to connect with our partner or turn away from them – ignoring their emotions, concealing our own, or not engaging with them. The most trusting couples are ATTUNEd to their partners: Aware of their emotions, Turning toward them, Tolerating different views, trying to Understand their partner, Not being defensive, and feeling Empathy.

While it’s critical in relationships, trust is also important on a global scale. Regions of the world with low trust have lower voting rates, less active parents/schools, less philanthropy, more crime, lower longevity, worse health, worse academic performance, and more inequality.

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!


Kindness and Compassion: Week 3 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 3, Kindness and Compassion

Intro to week 3 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Pro-social behaviors and emotions are directed at improving the well-being of others. This week looks at two of them: kindness and (one of its major motivators) compassion. Why are we studying kindness in a happiness course? Because various evidence suggests that kindness makes us happier: it literally activates the brain’s reward circuitry and strengthens our social connections. We’re happier when we spend money on others vs. on ourself, for example, and people who volunteer are more satisfied with life and in better health.

What is compassion and why does it matter?

What is compassion? (Dacher Keltner)

Kindness might be motivated by empathy, gratitude, or a desire for social status, but it might also be motivated by compassion. Compassion is the feeling of witnessing someone suffering and wanting to help them. That desire to help distinguishes compassion from empathy and from mimicry. Compassion is also different from pity, which includes the belief that the person suffering is inferior to us. Acting on compassion leads to altruism – helping others, even if it involves sacrifice – but compassion isn’t always acted upon, and altruism can be motivated by other things. Here’s a little graphic we created that might help:

Compassion empathy altruism

Various religious traditions emphasize compassion, but where does it come from? Although many theorists didn’t believe we evolved to be compassionate, Charles Darwin himself thought that sympathy or compassion was our strongest instinct. He reasoned that compassionate groups of people would cooperate better and raise more children. Altruism evolved for the same reasons, and it’s called “reciprocal altruism” when we expect the people we help to help us in the future.

Over time, training in compassion can increase happiness as well as altruism.

What’s good about compassion (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Compassion has three stages, beginning with empathy. After experiencing the emotions of others or understanding their perspective, we start to have other feelings. We might feel caring, distressed, or even annoyed. In the third stage, we form judgments about ourselves, the sufferers, and the environment that help us decide how to act (see the graphic above).

Compassion makes us happier by many pathways. It creates empathy, improving our social connections and making us feel more similar to others (particularly vulnerable people). It teaches us to manage distress: we learn to sit with others’ pain and channel it in a positive direction toward caregiving. Compassionate people also see themselves as more capable and self-efficacious, characteristics that are associated with happiness and resilience.

In the body, compassion has a number of physiological effects. It activates empathic and caregiving circuitry in the brain. It makes us happier by increasing vagal nerve activity and boosting the reward/pleasure response we get from helping others. It also has lasting stress-reduction effects, lowering stress response and amygdala activity when we’re confronted with challenging situations.

“The compassionate instinct” by Dacher Keltner

The same region of the brain activates when we imagine harm being done to others as when mothers look at their babies – suggesting that compassion may have its roots in our care for offspring (who are born more premature and dependent than other mammals’). The same brain region is also associated with positive emotions. Compassion calms our autonomic nervous system, slowing our heart rate, and can kick off a virtuous circle where compassion stimulates oxytocin that encourages more compassionate behavior. When we actually reach out and help others, we have activity in the brain’s reward/pleasure centers (like the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate).

We’re hardwired to express compassion through facial expressions and touch. When we feel compassion, we display a concerned gaze and oblique eyebrows. Keltner’s research has also shown that a short touch on the arm from a stranger – whom we can’t even see – can convey compassion quite accurately.

Compared to negative emotions, positive emotions are less genetic and more influenced by our environment. So parents can try to raise compassionate children by helping them develop a secure attachment style, parenting with reasoning rather than power, and modeling compassion themselves.

The war on compassion (Dacher Keltner)

Despite recent scientific evidence for it, our compassionate nature has its critics. Freud believed that humans only desire sex and destruction, while Machiavelli saw us as fickle, hypocritical, and greedy beings. Immanuel Kant thought sympathy was a sign of weakness, and Ayn Rand famously spoke out against altruism.

In addition, our national and global culture is not as compassionate as it could be. Among industrialized nations, the United States is the only one to punish prisoners with solitary confinement and has one of the harshest criminal justice systems. Studies show that empathy is declining among students.

Paul Ekman on the building blocks of compassion

According to Ekman, compassion begins by recognizing what the other person is feeling. The next step is “emotional resonance”: where we actually feel someone else’s pain. But this response isn’t universal – some people, particularly anti-social people, do not resonate and instead may pretend they do in order to be socially accepted. Others experience “reactive resonance,” where we feel a different emotion in response to someone’s pain.

These stages can lead to various types of compassion: familial, global, sentient, or heroic.

How kindness fosters happiness

The kindness-happiness loop (Dacher Keltner)

Many studies have linked kindness to happiness, health, and a decrease in negative emotions. Kindness makes us less lonely and less depressed. It strengthens our immune system, reduces aches and pains, improves our cardiovascular profile, and boosts energy and strength in elderly people. In fact, people who volunteer live longer, and elderly people who care for others are less likely to die over a certain period of time.

In one famous study, people who spent $5 or $20 on others were happier at the end of the day, while people who spent it on themselves got less happy – a finding that is being confirmed across cultures. If we enroll in a two-month program in loving-kindness meditation, we’ll see an increase in our daily positive emotions.

“Kindness makes you happy…and happiness makes you kind” by Alex Dixon

One study showed that doing a daily act of kindness gives us as much of a happiness boost as doing something new every day. Even remembering a time when we spent money on someone else can boost happiness, and the happier we are when reminiscing, the more likely we’ll choose to spend money on others again (when given the option).

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Happiness for a lifetime

What’s the best way to boost our happiness with kindness? Pack one day with five acts of kindness, says Lyubomirsky’s research. (People who spread out five kind acts across a week didn’t get happier, probably because their kindnesses were less salient.)

Kindness changes the way we see ourselves: we become pillars of generosity, interconnected to those around us. We start giving people the benefit of the doubt and feel less distressed when we see suffering, because we’re doing our little part to help. Kindness also helps us make more friends and become the recipient of others’ kindnesses.

Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness

Follow Lyubomirsky’s suggestion and do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).

Evidence from evolution, child development, and biology

Evolutionary roots of kindness (Dacher Keltner)

Besides the fact that kindness propels us to care for offspring and is often reciprocated, evolution also selected for kindness because it makes us attractive to potential mates. One survey of 10,000 people from 37 countries found that good character/kindness was the most important trait that attracted people to long-term partners.

Further evidence that kindness is innate can be found in our instinctual reactions. When you force people to decide in 10 seconds or less how much to give, they give more than when they have extra time to think about it – suggesting that we have generous intuitions. Even 18-month-old children, who are relatively unburdened by social norms, show strong tendencies to help others.

“Being kind makes kids happy” by Delia Fuhrmann

One study introduced toddlers to a monkey pet and then distributed treats in various ways. Observers rated the toddler as happier when giving away one of their treats to the monkey than giving away a treat the experimenter found or even getting a treat. This suggests that kindness is innately pleasurable, although it’s possible that these young children have already been taught to be kind.

Research suggests that the way to raise kind children is not necessarily to reward them for kindness, which makes them see themselves as doing kind acts for the reward. Instead, parents should help kids cultivate an internal motivation to be kind.

Biological evidence that kindness fosters happiness

More studies of the brain show a connection between kindness and happiness. The reward systems in our brain show similar activity when we win money and when the same money goes to a charity of our choice. When our romantic partners are receiving electric shocks and we comfort them by holding their arm, the brain’s reward circuitry also activates. In short, when we give, our brains looks like they are gaining something – and the pleasure we feel will make us more likely to give in the future.

“5 ways giving is good for you” by Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie

We’ve talked about about how giving makes us happier, healthier, and more socially connected. In addition, it also increases gratitude in both the giver and the receiver – and gratitude is linked to more optimism, satisfaction, connection, positivity, and even exercise. Finally, giving is contagious, inspiring others to give as well.

Challenges to compassion and kindness – and how to overcome them

Challenges to compassion and kindness (Dacher Keltner)

Our environment can have a big effect on whether we decide to help others or not. If we’re busy, we’ve been playing too many violent video games, or the sufferer is outside our group, we’re less likely to help. We’re also discouraged from lending a hand when it doesn’t seem possible or our contribution doesn’t seem to matter, such as when lots and lots of people are in need.

“How to make giving feel good” by Elizabeth W. Dunn and Michael I. Norton

Dunn and Norton cite more evidence on the benefits of kindness: happiness correlates with how much money we spend on others (but not ourselves), and people who have donated to charity in the past month are more satisfied with life.

But not all types of giving make us happier. To get the biggest boost in well-being, the giving must be a choice, not something we feel we’re being forced into. It helps if we feel connected to the recipient and if the helping actually involves spending time with them. And we are happiest when we can see the actual impact of our helping, vs. giving to a big, abstract charity.

“How to increase your compassion bandwidth” by C. Daryl Cameron

Cameron cites a concerning phenomenon: the “collapse of compassion,” how we feel less compassion for larger groups of people than we do for smaller groups or individuals. The reason this happens is that we shut off compassion, because we’re afraid of feeling terrible and having to make big financial sacrifices.

Cameron has looked at different ways to prevent this from happening. In studies, for example, we can prevent the collapse of compassion by assuring participants they’re not expected to donate money or by instructing them to fully experience their emotions.

To increase compassion outside the lab, our job is to help people accept their compassionate emotions and not feel overwhelmed by them. We can do that by making helping easy – like sending a text message to donate – and making clear the impact of that help. Compassion training can also reduce our empathic distress and fear of compassion, and promote helping.

“Can fighting poverty make you happy?” by Jill Suttie

Daniel Karslake, creator of the documentary Every Three Seconds about five people fighting hunger and poverty, shared his insights about helping with Suttie. Helping can start small, and it’s not necessarily done out of a sense of duty – instead, people simply realize they have the opportunity to make a difference. Helpers should be aware of what the recipients need, rather than imposing their views on what would help. And helping can be incredibly rewarding when we see people transformed from a state of suffering to happiness and gratitude.

Scaling up kindness

Kindness is contagious

As mentioned above, kindness is contagious – it can spread three degrees in a social network to a third person we don’t know at all. Seeing people be kind or generous makes us more kind or generous. Being in a group of people who give to charity – like a department at work – makes us more likely to donate.

“Wired to be inspired” by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt studies “elevation,” the warm and uplifting feeling of seeing someone do something good, kind, courageous, or compassionate. The most common cause of elevation is seeing someone help a person in need. What does elevation feel like? We might feel a pleasant tingling in our chest, cry, or (for me) get goosebumps. We feel emotionally moved, surprised and stunned. Elevation induces social feelings, like the desire to be with, love, and help others and the desire to be closer to the person doing the good deed. Elevation can also reduce cynicism and cause people to “turn over a new leaf” or vow to become a better person.

Philip Zimbardo: What makes a hero?

Zimbardo defines heroism as altruism at a great personal risk. Heroes are ordinary people, yet most of us are “reluctant heroes”: we stand by and do nothing. His goal is to understand what makes a hero by studying the “heroic imagination,” the other-focused way of thinking – “from ‘me’ to ‘we'” – that could make us more likely to be heroic when the opportunity arises.

Philip Zimbardo: The Heroic Imagination Project

Heroism ranges from helping in an emergency or sacrificing for non-family to whistle blowing and defying injustice. Although heroes are often seen as solitary, heroism actually works best when we organize networks of people.

Through his research, Zimbardo has identified some of the demographic characteristics of heroes, which make up 20% of the population. They tend to be city dwellers, educated, male, and black. Surviving a disaster or trauma makes us three times more likely to be a hero, and one-third of all heroes are also volunteers.

Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project is trying to figure out how to turn compassion into heroism. In his eyes, heroism is the antidote to indifference and evil.

“The banality of heroism” by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo

Through decades studying the bad side of human nature, researchers have confirmed the idea of “the banality of evil.” Ordinary people can become evil in the right (or wrong) circumstances; there is no clear division between good people and bad people. Experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies have shown that, in a particular environment, people adopt the dehumanizing and cruel behavior that is expected of them.

But the real threat to heroism is not evil but indifference. We tell ourselves that heroes are special – but we are not special, so we can’t be heroes – or that someone else will step in and help. Franco and Zimbardo are trying to teach people that anyone can be a hero.

A hero is someone on a quest – they’re out to save lives or preserve some noble ideal (such as justice). They expect to risk their lives or their social standing. Contrary to popular belief, heroism isn’t always a grand gesture in the heat of the moment; sometimes, heroism can be ongoing and can consist simply in passive acceptance – like Socrates dying for a cause.

What makes a hero? The same situations that bring out evil also tend to bring out heroism, like the Holocaust. Heroes have certain traits of character, like internal strength and self-assurance – they’re willing to stand against the crowd. Often, they have a strong sense of morality that prevents them from doing nothing in the face of injustice (what the authors call a “moral tickle”).

To promote heroism in our society, we should stop using the word “hero” to describe everyone we look up to and reserve it for true cases of heroism. We should cultivate stories of heroism and spread them through media like movies and video games. As individuals, we should be on the alert for opportunities for heroism and avoid talking ourselves out of it by rationalizing why we can’t help or fearing the negative consequences. We have to believe that heroism is the right choice, and it will ultimately be recognized and celebrated.

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!

The Power of Social Connection: Week 2 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 2, The Power of Social Connection.

Intro to week 2

Social connection and happiness (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Research from across the field of positive psychology has shown how important social connections are to our happiness. Very happy people have rich relationships and spend little time alone, talking with friends is one of the happiest activities, and sex and socializing give us a lot of positive emotion. On the flipside, loneliness is correlated with health problems like hyperinflammation, decreased immune response, and trouble sleeping, and being excluded by others creates the same effect in our brains as pain.

“Scratch a happy adult, find a socially connected childhood” by Lauren Klein

One study in New Zealand followed hundreds of people from childhood to age 38 to understand the link between achievement, social connection, and happiness. Both achievement and social connection were associated with happiness for kids, but as they reached their later teen years, social connections became more important. Social connections give us support during challenges in life, help us see our strengths, and provide meaning.

Why do social connections foster happiness?

Why are humans ultrasocial? (Dacher Keltner)

Ultrasociality in humans refers to our caretaking behavior, egalitarian relations, tendency for forgiveness and reconciliation, coordinated and imitative actions, and monogamy. Yet modern society is becoming less social in certain respects, evidenced by our higher divorce rates and less marital satisfaction, increases in loneliness, and fewer close friends.

Causes and consequences of attachment styles (Dacher Keltner)

According to John Bowlby, families become attached to each other thanks to three systems: reproductive (sex), caregiving (between parents and babies), and attachment (love and commitment). Taken together, these three systems create “working models” in our brains: deeply held views about whether other people are trustworthy and how to relate to them.

Bowlby also identified three attachment styles: secure, anxious, and avoidant. People who are securely attached are loving, warm, and trusting; as a result, they tend to be happier, have more positive emotions, have more stable relationships, and be optimistic, forgiving, and supportive. People who are anxiously attached never feel close enough or loved enough. They’ve often experienced divorce, abuse, or a parent’s death, and they are more prone to depression, drug abuse, anxiety, and eating disorders. People who are avoidantly attached avoid closeness, remaining aloof and distant. Anxious and avoidant attachment styles are considered “insecure,” and we can combat them in the short term by simply thinking about positive relationships we’ve had, or in the long term by cultivating a relationship with someone who has a secure style.

“How to stop attachment insecurity from ruining your happiness” by Meghan Laslocky

Sometimes psychologists talk about a fourth style of attachment: fearful-avoidant, where we want to be close but are afraid of being hurt.

To overcome our insecure attachment, we should understand our personal style and consider seeing a therapist with expertise in attachment. If we’re in a relationship, we should make sure our partner is securely attached or consider couples therapy if they aren’t, and practice communicating better. Any movement toward secure attachment has beneficial side effects, including more generosity, altruism, and compassion.

Evidence that we’re built to connect

The vagus nerve (Dacher Keltner)

The vagus nerve is a mammalian nerve that starts at the top of our spinal cord and runs downward through the neck muscles we use to nod, make eye contact, and speak. It has connections to many key physical functions, including our oxytocin networks, immune response, and inflammation response. It also coordinates the interaction between our breathing and heart rate and controls many digestive processes. Activity in the vagus nerve is related to feelings of connection and care, so it activates in response to emotions – responding strongly to empathy and weakly to emotions like pride. People with lots of vagal activity show more positive emotion, stronger relationships and more social support, and more altruism.

The science of oxytocin, “the love hormone” (Dacher Keltner)

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, a sequence of amino acids that affects the brain and organs. It is increased by touch, and people with a particular gene on their third chromosome produce more oxytocin. When you give a whiff of oxytocin to people, we show more trust, generosity, empathy, and ability to read emotions. In fact, giving a father oxytocin will cause his baby to show increased oxytocin. Giving oxytocin to non-human species increases monogamy and caregiving.

In general, more oxytocin correlates with a reduced stress response in our hormones, cardiovascular system, and amygdala. On the positive side, it correlates with secure attachment and peaceful conflict resolution in romantic relationships.

“Five surprising ways oxytocin shapes your social life” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Oxytocin, produced by mothers during childbirth and breastfeeding, is widely known as the feel-good hormone. Yet there is a flipside to oxytocin: while it attaches us to some people, it also makes us exclude others.

Hyped up on oxytocin, we are loyal to our lovers and leery of other potential partners. We’re transformed into poor winners and sore losers; oxytocin courses through us when we feel envy during a game or taunt other players – anytime we want something from someone else. Deprived of oxytocin, we’re more apt to forget negative social encounters, so cruel people can “fool us twice.”

Oxytocin promotes cooperation, to the extreme – boosting our oxytocin levels makes us more likely to follow group decisions instead of thinking for ourselves. According to some studies, it also makes us favor our own group and see it as better than others.

Thankfully, however, we don’t need to be afraid of sci-fi dictators pumping us with oxytocin. Although it makes us more trusting, we’ll still have doubts and hesitation if the person we’re dealing with or the message they’re promoting doesn’t seem quite right.

Attachment, happiness, and the brain (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Our attachment style, shaped by our early childhood experiences, affects how oxytocin is released and used in the brain. The mechanism is something called the “care-nurturance circuitry,” which controls the production of oxytocin. In comparison to securely attached people, anxiously attached people have a greater amygdala response to negative feedback and avoidantly attached people have a lesser response to positive feedback. In other words, insecure attachments increase the sting of criticism and dampen the thrill of praise.

The science of touch (Dacher Keltner)

We are physically built for touch, with dexterous hands and skin that is full of information-processing neurons and manipulates our immune response.

Touch can be used to communicate emotion – in one study, even a one-second touch on the arm could communicate emotions like gratitude, fear, and disgust with 50-60% accuracy. We’re better at differentiating certain emotions when they’re expressed through touch rather than face or voice. Touching someone creates feelings of reward, reciprocity, safety, soothing, and cooperation. In certain situations, the touch from a romantic partner is powerful enough to eliminate our stress response.

Yet our culture is becoming touch-deprived, particularly in the United States. While friends at a cafe in France or Puerto Rico touch each other over 100 times per hour, we cool Americans touch each other twice. Many babies died in orphanages before caretakers started holding and touching them.

To combat this trend, touch therapy is being used in health care and education. It has (almost miraculously) been shown to increase weight gain in premature babies, reduce depression in Alzheimer’s patients, make students more likely to speak up, and decrease mortality in patients with complex diseases.

The voice: A primal way we connect

Finally, our voice is a key tool for connection. We’re able to make more vocal sounds than other primates – in fact, we can communicate many emotions like interest, disgust, and sadness without even saying a word (hmm!). Our ears are also specially built for hearing human speech.

Romantic relationships, family, and friendships

Relationships, marriage, and happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Pair-bonding is a human tendency across cultures, but relationships have come a long way in the past centuries. Economic considerations have given way to love and romance as the deciding factors in selecting a partner.

Scientists distinguish between desire and love, which can even be observed in primates. Much like humans, primates express desire through actions like pursing and licking their lips, and love through open arms and smiles. Love behaviors, but not desire behaviors, coincide with the release of oxytocin.

Marriage correlates with happiness, but researchers are still trying to untangle whether marriage makes us happier or happier people get married. Some evidence suggests that it’s actually happy marriages, not just marriage, that make us happy – and, in fact, unhappy marriages take a huge toll on kids’ happiness.

Certain demographics of people are more likely to have happy marriages, such as people who are older, from a higher social class, and not anxious or neurotic. Influential research by John Gottman and Robert Levenson shows that happy marriage is predicted by the way couples interact: couples who exhibit contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness have a 92% chance of divorce, while happy couples exhibit humor, appreciation, forgiveness, and emotional disclosure.

Parenting and happiness (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Research on the connection between parenting and happiness is still ongoing. On one side of the arena, we hear that spending time with our kids is only slightly more fun than housework. On the other side, we’re starting to hear that parents are slightly happier than non-parents, particularly right after having their first child.

But the truth is probably more nuanced. Whether we’ll be a happy parent or not may depend on whether we purposely chose to have kids, and what kind of attachment style we have. And the happiness of parenting may be more the “meaning” type of happiness and less the “positive emotion” kind.

“What makes a happy parent?” by Emily Nauman

In fact, many different factors have an effect on whether a particular parent is happy or not. Parents who are older, male, and securely attached tend to be happier. Parents with trouble-free, easy-tempered, and older children are as well. And so are parents who have strong social networks, are married, and have custody of their kids. And don’t forget that happy parents make for happy children.

How friendships matter for happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Friendships, or alliances with non-kin, have many benefits to our lives. While chimpanzees (and some humans) use them to gain power, the more civilized among us find practical help, emotional support, and a sympathetic ear in our friends. Friendship and connection have health benefits, activating oxytocin, combatting stress, and even increasing lifespan.

“Are some social ties better than others?” by Juliana Breines

Social capital refers to the tangible and intangible benefits we get from our social connections. But like everything in life, social connections have their drawbacks.

Online contacts – even Facebook friends – can provide advice and emotional support, especially for the introverts among us. Yet too much focus here can lead to narcissism and loneliness. For the most benefit, we should look for niche groups online and deliberately try to offer our help to others.

Professional contacts aren’t just useful for watercooler chit-chat; they also help us find new jobs and expose us to a larger community of people with diverse ideas and opportunities. As such, they’re called “bridging capital.” Professional contacts can’t give us intimacy or emotional support, but Breines reiterates her advice from the online sphere: look for niche groups to join and offer help to others, and we’ll be happier.

Friends provide us with deeper benefits, including a sense of belonging, visibility, and a chance to express empathy. The main dangers of friendship are jealousy and dependence: we may become discouraged or bitter about our friends’ successes, or rely on them too much for approval and self-esteem. The best way to handle these is to remember that we want our friends to be happy – don’t we? – and to realize that their success benefits us, too.

Finally, significant others – partners, best friends, or family – provide us with a cornucopia of mental and physical benefits. They fall under the category of “bonding capital,” providing support in times of need. The biggest danger here is that we rely on one person too much, creating unrealistic expectations or dependence. The remedy is to remember to keep cultivating friendships as well.

Social capital works best when we have a combination of strong and weak ties. That way, our support system doesn’t collapse if we lose a single node. But each connection takes time and effort to maintain, so it’s our job to prioritize and know when to say no.

Why cross-group relationships matter for happiness (Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton)

As if we need another reason to get rid ofour prejudices, it might just be good for your health. Prejudiced people get stressed in the presence of people outside their group, but three deep interactions with “outsiders” is enough to lower stress levels. To become more egalitarian, we should deliberately expose ourselves to and cultivate friendships with people outside our in-group.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening

One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.

This technique is especially useful for difficult conversations and showing your support. It can make your conversation partner feel more understood and improve satisfaction in your relationship.

The science of empathy

The science of empathy (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

There are two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy refers to a feeling or an action – the way we absorb or imitate the feelings and expressions of others. We begin mimicking others as infants, and continue mirroring expressions and body language into adulthood. Some studies even suggest that mimickry helps us understand what emotions other people are feeling. Affective empathy may be facilitated by mirror neurons, which are motor neurons that fire even when we’re just watching other people move (although there is some controversy about whether they affect emotions, as well).

Cognitive empathy refers to a thought – the ability to understand how people feel and to see things from their perspective. Cognitive empathy involves broader parts of the brain.

Empathic concern can make us happier, as long as it doesn’t turn into empathic distress (the kind of paralyzing feeling when we become overwhelmed by others’ suffering). In general, empathy increases the sharing of positive emotions and brings people closer together. And if other people are empathetic, we get the benefits of their understanding and support when we’re in need.

“The evolution of empathy” by Frans de Waal

Empathy is useful from an evolutionary perspective because it encourages us to care for our young and work cooperatively in groups. So it should be no surprise that humans aren’t the only empathetic creatures: researchers have observed empathy in domestic pets as well as apes, who console fellow apes who are suffering. Over the course of our lifetime, empathy grows from relatively simple mimicry and transmission of emotions to the more complex ability to take someone else’s perspective.

Empathy has a role to play in bringing people across the world closer together and reducing discrimination. But to do that, we’ll have to figure out how to overcome our innate tendencies to hate our enemies, ignore strangers, and distrust people who are different.

“Six habits of highly empathic people” by Roman Krznaric

We can cultivate empathy by learning and thinking more about the lives of other people. Try having conversations with strangers and being genuinely curious about how they live. In fact, in any conversation, make it your goal to understand how the other person is feeling and to express your own feelings. Challenge yourself to discard prejudices and get to know individuals. Literally walk in someone else’s shoes and live a day in their life.

To take your empathy to the next level, draw on your fellow human beings’ empathy and lead a movement to provide aid or reduce discrimination. Go so far as to empathize with your opponents in order to figure out how to speak to them and change their minds.

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!

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!