Mind & body, Research

Dispatches from the happiness front

'No exit,' redux: Health is other people

Barry Bergman
Bergman mug

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 2: Of Sartre, Streisand and Soylent Green

Welcome back, friends — I hope I can call you that, more on this later — to “Dispatches,” your weekly local source for the haps in happiness. This was the week I discovered, contra my earlier post, that “Science of Happiness” check-ins are more involved than you’ve been led to believe. (We regret the error.) Far from a lone green smiley face, it turns out the task is to peg my feelings to a virtual rogues’ gallery of variously colored emojis — some smiling, others clearly wanting to be elsewhere.

Live and learn, as they say.

Eager to see what I’d missed the week before, I clicked through the lineup, mentally taking the measure of each cartoon mug in its turn. Then, out of nowhere, the following message appeared: “Thank you for checking in. Your score is 0.” What? When I hadn’t engaged with a single face? I’d enjoyed a happyish week — not smiley-face gonzo happy (see previous post), but nothing to sneeze at — and figured I’d hit the back button once I was ready to rate my mood. But no. I found myself locked into utter, operatic, zero-level despair. There was no provision, from what I could tell, for do-overs.

Operator error in week 1, bear in mind, caused me to log a pitiful 6 on a scale of 100. Zero would be a step into abject misery, an ominous start to my second class. Still, there’s no reasoning with a MOOC. My keyboard was useless. Finally, mustering all my technical expertise, I signed out and back in again, and voilà! That rarest of wonders, the gift of a second chance. We had worked through the turbulence. A teensy misunderstanding.

Except, of course, that smiley faces still give me the willies, and even my new, improved happiness index makes me look like a world-class mope, in urgent need of professional help. (See below.)

graph of check-in scoresThere’s a lesson there, somewhere, about relationships.

By total coincidence, relationships were the focus of week 2 in “The Science of Happiness,” in which 50,000 or so kindred spirits are hoping to find the keys to happiness online, whether or not they’re in committed relationships already.

And no, as a matter of fact, that’s not a reference to a certain notorious, now-defunct social-media website. I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I hate how you always do that.

Anyway, the news from the front is good, if not particularly new. Research suggests a strong marriage will make you happier than a rotten one, having friends is better than being alone, and being nice is better than being a — better than not being nice. Long-term happiness, we’re told, is built with “social capital,” a web of relationships knitted with weak ties as well as strong ones.

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump

To extend the analogy — apologies here to the course instructors, and possibly Forrest Gump — happiness is like an investment portfolio: The base of the pyramid consists of families and partners, plus a few friends whose beer you can cry in. Once you’ve got your foundation, you’ll want to acquire some poker buddies, maybe a reading group or sewing circle. Also some Facebook friends you’ll never actually meet, a local barista or two and a sprinkling of random strangers.

The science is more nuanced than this, no doubt. I admit that my mind wandered, at times, as I stared at my screen. Once I pictured a bird in flight, watching a lecture on principles of aviation. It’s not that I think I’ve soared to the pinnacle of contentment (see previous posts), or that I couldn’t be living a more mindful, meaningful life. Far from it.

It’s just that I don’t yet see, two classes in, how information leads to elation.

Because here’s the thing. Let’s say you’re a friendless loner. Your greatest joy is counting your money. Would it motivate you to bond with others to learn that positive social interactions stimulate the body’s production of oxytocin, aka the “cuddle hormone,” aka the “moral molecule,” not just giving you the warm fuzzies but possibly adding years to your life? Or, conversely, that stress boosts levels of cortisol in your body, with potentially negative health effects?

Or suppose science found a recipe for bliss: one spouse, two children, eight close friends, 27.3 casual acquaintances and 412 non-bot Twitter followers. Now, suppose you’re in a perpetual funk because your marriage failed, you never had kids, your last friend moved away and you haven’t been on a date since Dubya was in the White House. A MOOC can give you some tips on social skills, but is your hamster really the best practice partner? Might you not have better luck in a gathering of actual humans, one of whom, based on a different sort of chemistry, could end up as a friend or lover?

Do you need longitudinal studies to confirm that having a close, supportive and loving relationship with your significant other — one that incorporates empathy, active listening and nonjudgmental communication — is more conducive to happiness than carping at each other day and night, the way your parents did all those years, playing the martyr by “staying together for the sake of the kids” while wrecking your childhood and forging the emotional template for one dysfunctional relationship after another for the rest of your lonely, miserable life?

Wait, sorry. Where were we, again?

Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand

Right. I have to say that week 2’s big reveal about happiness, for me, wasn’t terribly big: To quote Chuck Heston in Soylent Green, “It’s people!” Sartre wrote that “hell is other people,” but de Beauvoir aside, he never struck me as much of a people person. As philosophers go, give me Barbra Streisand, whose ennui came mixed with a dollop of hope. “People who need people,” she sang, “are the luckiest people in the world.”

As I learned in week 1, the word “happiness” — in English as well as in languages as old as ancient Greek — derives from the word for “luck.” So Babs was definitely onto something. Though I’m guessing she didn’t know this, or care — music, like poetry or avian flight, working on principles all its own.

Some principles I learned in week 2: Listen to your partner, be generous with your friends, touch people as often as feasible — probably wise to exercise caution here, though this didn’t come up in class — and be kind to baristas and random strangers.

If you won’t think of them, think of your oxytocin.