A Summary of Week Two in “The Science of Happiness”

In our last blog post, we reviewed the course material in week one of “The Science of Happiness,” a massive open online course brought to you by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. The focus of the course that week, as we related, was the why, what and how of happiness (why does it matter, what is it, how do we get it). Professors Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas concluded with a summary of what makes people happy, noting a clear bias for activities that promote social connections and a higher purpose. Week two went deep into one of these areas: social connections. In broad strokes, here are the five areas of research that were covered in week two:

Attachment. Drawing on the work of John Bowlby and others, Keltner and Simon-Thomas looked how three *styles *of attachment acquired in early life can impact happiness and well-being: “secure,” “anxious,” and “avoidant.” While the first can be a predictor of happiness and well-being, there are strategies for coping with other styles.

Evolution. The professors presented research on how the evolution of our species contributed to prosocial behavior. We have developed into a caretaking species. Organizationally, we naturally tend to form intoflattened hierarchies. We are a peacemaking, reconciling species, and are hyper-coordinated (supported by our biological gift for mimicry). For survival, we have preferred to “pair bond” (to form monogamous relationships).

Biology. The evolutionary narrative above set the stage for a closer look at other biological mechanisms supporting and/or explaining prosocial behavior. Big focus on oxytocin, a neuropeptide that serves as “an enabler of trust.” [At Sennseis, we’ve come to think of oxytocin as kind of a wonder drug for prosocial behavior.] Week two observed its presence at many different touchpoints in the life of people who report happiness and wellness.

Relationships. The course then looked at the impact that various types of relationships in happy lives: marital relationships, parental relationships, friendships. Generally, *all *can promote well-being. But with parenting, people tend to report happiness when they “purposely want to be parents.” With friendships, humans have transcended the relationship-building capacity of other species by finding a wide range of cohorts and allies for practical and emotional help.

Empathy. The week concluded with at the importance of empathy in human relations and its biological basis (e.g., mirror neurons). The course distinguished between two kinds of empathy: affective empathy (when you “feel” like others do) and cognitive empathy (when you understand how others feel). The course also looked at two different personality profiles: people who tend to experience empathic concern and people who tend to experience empathic distress. While the first may be more adaptive, there are strategies for dealing with the latter as well.

Practice of the week: Active listening. As we noted in our last post, each week of the course featured an exercise that is known to promote happiness and wellness. The practice this week was “active listening.” Simon-Thomas asked students to take 15-30 minutes with someone they know and ask “what’s on your mind.” The rules of engagement: listen carefully and constructively. Paraphrase and repeat back what you hear. Ask questions. Show empathy, regardless of how you might feel (“I can understand why you feel that way”).

Our take: the road to wellness is paved with many such exercises, though at some point they must become habits. But of all the exercises in the course, this one may be my favorite; if it indeed becomes habit for you, you will find that you will become a very valuable person in the lives of people around you. Value for you, value for them, value for us all (the "greater good").