The Science of Happiness: Week One Summary

We’re coming upon the final week of “The Science of Happiness” – a massive open online course produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley – and we’d like to close out in style. Over the next eight days – beginning with this post – we will be filing super high-level summaries of the major points that were made each week of the course. The first week – which rolled out an abundance of introductory content in the form of video and text – covered the why, what, and how of happiness (why is it important, what is it, how do we get it). Here are our big takeaways.


We all know we want happiness, though we may argue about what it actually is (see next section). The big question, to start, is why pursue it. Professors Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas marshal the evidence from scientific research:

--People who are happy live longer. The benefits here are both personal and societal.

--People who are happy stay healthy. Again – benefits that are both personal and societal. Think of health care costs, and the costs to loved ones.

--People who are happy do better in relationships. More effective parenting, better marriages, stronger friendships.

--People who are happy perform more creatively in the workplace. At a time when innovation is so highly prized, happiness is emerging as a core asset for employers.

--People who are happy help create more sustainable cultures. As Keltner observed, “happiness matters to the state of nations.”


If that got your attention, good; check out the references in the course content for more nuance. But it forces a second meta-question that Keltner and Simon-Thomas address: what is happiness? Keltner broaches the topic with a great video on great thinkers from great historical traditions (Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, ancient Greek philosophy). He then edges closer to modern times, reflecting on pre- and post-Enlightenment thinking on the nature of happiness and the public good. In a later week-one video, he looks at contemporary psychology (with nods to Daniel Kahneman and Ed Diener). Two patterns emerge:

--the difference between long-term well-being and in-the-moment subjective emotion. Both are important, but there’s a bias toward the former.

--the importance of prosocial behavior and higher purpose (or the “greater good,” as the Berkeley professors are wont to say).


And here’s where it gets really interesting. Nice to know why happiness is important. And critical that we know what we are talking about when we use the word “happy.” But how does one plan the pursuit of happiness. Keltner and Simon-Thomas set the stage for the coming weeks by proffering three paths for students of the course:

--understanding the obstacles to happiness. As humans, we are vulnerable to a number of cognitive biases. For example: “hedonic adaptation.” Simply put = as we get used to new levels of wealth and comfort, we seek to get to the next level. But more money doesn't mean more happiness. Kahneman and his colleagues concluded in a landmark study that yes, money matters … to a point. After basic needs are met, the correlation between earnings and happiness begins to fade.

--understanding what actually makes people happy. Simon-Thomas presents a simple outline of the research consensus: physical exercise matters, sleep matters, and a sense of personal achievement matters. More important, she says, are the guiding principles and mission of the Greater Good Science Center: social connections and a commitment to something greater than yourself (higher purpose).

-- practicing exercises that have been proven to promote happiness, as we know it. The first exercise: The Three Things. Simon-Thomas asked students to take ten minutes each day to write down three things that went well during the day and reflect on why they went well.

Our take = after having done this many times, we can say that the exercise makes it easy to see the links between prosocial behavior and meaningful rewards. But there are other exercises coming – and so much more course material – so we will end this post now with our sincere wishes that come back tomorrow with our summary of week two.