Mind & body, Research

Dispatches from the happiness front

In which we learn that anger is easy, but happiness is hard.

Bergman selfie

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 1: The joy of MOOCing

Pop quiz: Student X once flunked a classroom speed-reading course. What are the odds he’ll survive an online happiness course?

In the interests of full disclosure, that student, c’est moi. And, in my own defense, I didn’t flunk so much as flee. Reading and speed-reading had no more in common, it turned out, than those two famous dynasties, the Ming and the Duck. The point was to bomb through anything — voice, rhythm, ambiguity — that got in the way of the bottom line. (Moby-Dick: Ishmael, Ahab, white whale, Starbuck and Queequeg, epic struggle, history of whaling, taxonomy of whales. Ends badly.) The class made me sad. And I’m all about happy.

Which, of course, is why I enrolled in “The Science of Happiness,” an online course from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. The good news, I guess, is there are no shortcuts in happiness class. The bad news? There are no shortcuts in happiness class. I’m winded already. Looking back at the last week, I probably should have paced myself. It might have been smarter to spread five hours of video lectures, essay reading and housekeeping rules over several days, rather than tackling it all at once, as if it were traffic school. (Some such schools, by the way, are led by stand-up comics, who sprinkle a few jokes into the mix.) So that’s on me.

Happiness is no laughing matter. Then again, reaching a state of bliss should be a tougher slog than having the DMV expunge a Hollywood stop from your record. If happiness were easy, we’d all be happy, am I right? And where would the world be then?

For those of you just tuning in: Nearly a month ago, in the inaugural post of this now-weekly blog, I acknowledged some skepticism about finding the keys to happiness — assuming such keys exist — by way of a MOOC, or massive open online course.

smiley faceOne thing I learned straight off: This isn’t a class for dilettantes. The Greater Good’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, who co-teach the course, are Berkeley academics, and take a rigorously scientific approach to happiness. Even when Simon-Thomas conceded the weekly “happiness practices” might seem “a little too touchy-feely, or hokey” for some — unless I’m mistaken, she was looking directly at me when she said this —  she cited research showing they work.

Gratitude is a Greater Good mantra, and I was grateful — instructors, please note — for so much special attention, surprising in a class with tens of thousands of students from all over the world. “Please don’t feel like you need to check your skepticism or your negative feelings at the door,” Simon-Thomas assured me. This was a comfort when we got to the business of weekly check-ins, where I was asked to indicate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how closely a happy face — a greenish one, with a Pepsodent smile — corresponded to “how you’ve been feeling lately.”

I have a lifelong aversion to smiley faces, and would love to have checked “as closely as reading and speed-reading, or science and Scientology.” This, unhappily, wasn’t an option. So while I managed to ace the material reviews (“problem sets”), I was stumped as to how to rate my feelings. I wound up checking 6, because I greatly enjoyed my Labor Day weekend, and I’m trying to be a good sport. But I have my limits.

This is trivial, yes but the question of measuring happiness looms large. Do I really want my happiness to be measured, as Keltner reminds us is key to science itself? Is this even possible? How much faith can I place in happiness metrics when I doubt the significance of Twitter impressions?

That said, Keltner and Simon-Thomas are less about faith than research. They embrace contradictions. For example, even as they welcome negativity, they showed us that positive emotions are good for our health at a cellular level, while pro-social behavior promotes  subjective well-being, or SWB.

In lesson 1, we sampled some deep thinking on happiness, from Confucius (“jen,” or “ren”) to the Dalai Lama (compassion and kindness) and on through utilitarianism. We heard from Aristotle, who said “anybody can become angry,” but “to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power, and is not easy.”

This did strike me, however, as an achievable goal, and I learned this week that a sense of achievement can contribute to SWB.

Bumper sticker: "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention"

Welcome to my cube…

I also learned that happiness is 50 percent genetic — we’re born with a happiness “set point” — and 10 percent dependent on circumstances. It’s that last, 40 percent slice of our happiness pie chart we can color in with daily activities — walking the cat, tiptoeing through the tulips, or whatever else floats your boat. That is, unless your boat is floated by anti-social behaviors like novel-writing, say, or binge-watching Real Housewives of New Jersey while drinking alone in your underwear. (I plead guilty to one of these.)

Is 40 percent an encouraging number, or a depressing one? Depends on your set point, I suppose.

It’s a complex business, happiness. Even defining it is complicated. Is happiness a state of well-being, or a function of personal traits (enthusiasm or extroversion, for example) with which you may or may not be blessed? Is it produced by deep-seated emotions? Passing sensations?

Will I be happy when I finish the course, or just glad to be finished?

I don’t know. But I’m only one-eighth of the way into this epic struggle. What I do know is this: “The Science of Happiness” is not about shortcuts.

As for my odds of survival? If you answered (a) “not desperate, but don’t bet the farm” or (b) “better than Ahab’s,” give yourself a gold star.

Better yet, make it a greenish smiley face.