Mind & body, Research

Dispatches from the happiness front

Why is this man smiling, sort of? He's enrolled in GG101x, "The Science of Happiness."

Barry Bergman
Barry Bergman, happiness student

Barry Bergman, happiness student

Encouraged by colleagues and against his better judgment, Barry Bergman, a writer and editor at UC Berkeley, is enrolled in the Greater Good Science Center’s fall online course, “The Science of Happiness.” Watch this space for a week-by-week chronicle of his personal journey.

Week zero: I am lashed to the mast

Call me a curmudgeon. Fine. Just don’t ever call me a misanthrope. Anyone here calls me a misanthrope, there’s going to be trouble.

OK, that’s not strictly true. Call me whatever you like. I’m not a violent person. I’m not even vaguely threatening, except, on occasion — and without intending to be — to infants and toddlers. My weapon of choice is a kind of mordant irony, laced, as needed, with a soupçon of sarcasm. I’m a believer in peace and justice, love and mercy, music and mirth and wonder. But it’s clear my regard for these things is not universally shared, and I find it hard to forgive their antagonists. Nor am I sure I want to.

Barry Bergman

Read all about the Science of Happiness MOOC

Here’s the truth: When life-affirming virtues are thwarted by greed or ignorance or fear — and this, let’s face it, is happening somewhere as we speak — it makes me a tad dyspeptic. (I read the news today, oh boy.) Also: death, disease and entropy. As the nerdy Brooklyn kid told his feckless psychiatrist, the universe is expanding. Someday it will break apart. Thankfully, unlike that semi-fictional kid, I’m not prone to depression. But happiness? There’s a time and a place for everything.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, the glass is half full. Half full of what, exactly? And what’s that floating around in there? I grew up in New York, pre-Disney and -Giuliani, marinating in mistrust, acrimony and endless kvetching. Today, as a longtime Left Coaster, I’m empowered to express (and experience) a healthy range of positive feelings, however much I remain, after all these years, an emotional tourist. Edge, I have come to understand, does not travel well.

Even in my happiest moments — yes, I have known joy — the question looms: Given the sorry state of the world, is this really appropriate? My office cube features an oldie-but-goodie bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I don’t doubt that listening to the sound of one’s breath is a likelier path to serenity than mucking about on Twitter. Still, #BlackLivesMatter. Sea levels continue to rise. Ditto Middle East chaos. We spend more on prison inmates than on schoolkids. And did you know Donald Trump is GOP voters’ No. 1 choice for president?

Of the United States of America?

And another thing: Don’t persistently happy people seem just a bit, well, smug? Isn’t a modicum of unhappiness — whether it takes the form of righteous anger, romantic yearning or spiritual thirst — the minimum daily requirement for creativity, discovery and forward progress?

Bergman smilintWhich brings us to the Greater Good Science Center’s online happiness course. The center, based at UC Berkeley, bills the course as an exploration of “the roots of a happy and meaningful life,” a less daunting intellectual prospect than, say, explorations of special relativity or quantitative methods in economics. On the other hand, the syllabus also promises weekly “happiness practices,” described as “real-world exercises that students can try on their own.”

The optional flavor of that particular menu item, I fear, might be an instance of California Nice. They totally want you to do the exercises.

“If you try it, it works,” Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Greater Good’s science director and the course’s co-instructor, told Berkeley News. “But you have to try it.”

And that, dear reader, is my promise to you. I’ll give it the old college try.

Anticipating the first class session, scheduled for Sept. 8, I’m reminded of the misgivings I had when I gave up smoking: If this actually takes, will I still be me? For better or worse, it turned out that a nicotine-free me was in fact still me, albeit a few pounds heavier. It remains to be seen if this happiness business takes, and, if so, in what condition it leaves me. (My wife, I believe, will be watching for symptoms of bliss.)

Meanwhile, I’ll be typing up my reactions in this soon-to-be weekly blog, which we’re calling “Dispatches from the Happiness Front.” Caveat lector: Uplift is not guaranteed. Skepticism is advised. Like Odysseus, I wish to bask in the sirens’ song. But I’m leery of getting too close. Precautions must be taken.

So I’m not expecting nirvana, or even the Stone Temple Pilots. I’m not quite sure what to expect, frankly, beyond a brief immersion in what the folks at Greater Good call “the science of happiness.” Perhaps it will be a baptism, from which a better man will emerge. Or maybe I’ll start smoking again.

Time will tell. The sirens are singing, the ship is sailing, and I am lashed to the mast.