Dispatches from the happiness front, week 3

Bergman and cat

Bergman (right) and Mishka

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 3: Dear Diary, c’est moi

Dear Diary:

Color me sad , or possibly just confused . I’m now three sessions into “The Science of Happiness,” and I still don’t feel any happier.

Honestly, I think it’s making me cranky .

I can tell you — but nobody else, Diary! — that I sometimes fantasize about non-MOOC-related activities during class time. I’ve imagined stepping out for a movie while watching my video lectures, or while reading essays about research findings on the value of a mindful, meaningful life. Occasionally I wish I were home reading a book or watching the Mets on the tube, an activity shown in longitudinal studies to be both maddening and stressful — there goes my cortisol level! — but which nonetheless gives me a feeling of oneness with Mets fans and underdogs all over the world. This, I expect, causes a spike in my oxytocin level, making me more trusting and more monogamous. (Oxytocin makes me a better person in other ways, too, but I forget what they are.) So a net win, unless of course we reprise the Great Collapse of 2007, an event certain to send me into a spiral of anger, depression and fixation on college football. [Since this writing, the Mets have clinched their division, meaning that any debacle now could not be as epic as 2007’s — Ed.]

This isn’t a knock on the course, Dear Diary, or the Greater Good Science Center. More than once I’ve wondered how it would be to sit in a classroom with these same instructors, in real time, rather than gazing blankly at their video images — which, usually, are looking right back at me — on my computer monitor. But why, Diary? Why is this not enough? Am I just, after all, some superficial meathead, a worshipper of shiny objects, too enamored of bells and whistles to take up with an earnest, unflashy delivery system for top-shelf happiness research?

Have you ever seen Marty, Diary? Where Ernest Borgnine, opting for happiness in the face of his widowed immigrant mother and clueless posse of Mickey Spillane fans, asks “plain Jane” Betsy Blair to marry him? These are postwar Hollywood stereotypes, Diary, stolid working-class folk of suitably modest dreams. They’ll have separate beds, irrespective of Production Code censors. Still, don’t you exult, quietly, at the birth of their decent, lackluster life partnership? Doesn’t it warm your heart to see them ride off into that gray, unspectacular sunset?

Now, though, consider this: What if Betsy Blair is the movie equivalent of a MOOC— the affectionate term for a massive open online course— and I have less of a clue what’s good for me than Borgnine’s cretinous slacker pals?

I’m sure “The Science of Happiness” is a lovely MOOC, Diary, as MOOCs go. I don’t get out that much, truthfully, so it’s hard to say. But it does seem nice. It is, as Barack Obama said of Hillary Clinton, likable enough. So what’s my problem? Is it with MOOCs in general — do I harbor some secret, subterranean bias against MOOCs as a pedagogical group — or am I simply not moved by this particular course? Is it the subject matter, the science of happiness, which, owing perhaps to an overgrown lizard brain, I’m unable to reconcile with my primitive, anti-intellectual and clearly unscientific belief that human connections should be more about sparks than studies?

Please don’t answer that, Diary.

smiley face, writingThis is deep stuff — not just neuroscience and psychology but happiness itself, the very pursuit of which is written into the Declaration of Independence — and the worry persists that I’m shallower than a California stream after four years of drought. I’m not asking for car crashes, jump cuts and wacky sound effects, or the low-grade terror of being called on to answer a question I failed to hear because I was checking my Twitter feed. [This never happens at UC Berkeley — Ed.] Just, perhaps, the odd ad lib or raised voice or even a few more segments taped in front of a live audience, thereby adding a bit of looseness to the proceedings. Is that so wrong?

I do want surprises, Diary. I’d like someone to go off-script once in a while, to acknowledge that achieving happiness, simply being alive, is a messy, unpredictable process few of us ever master. (Maybe this comes up after the midterm?) It all seems a bit academic, Diary, notwithstanding those creepy emoticons. For example, I’m supposed to list “three good things” that happened to me today. But what about that awful thing on the bus this morning, that thing I’d really rather not talk about? Do I bury the memory, pretend it was just a dream, and be grateful instead that the cat chose a clean, well-lighted place to cough up his latest hairball?

What about that “happiness practice” in which we’re asked to perform five “random acts of kindness” in a single day? Is homework random? Is it even an act of kindness?

I know it’s better to light one candle, Dear Diary, than curse the darkness. I’m writing this now by candlelight, as a matter of fact, and you see where that’s getting me.

So it’s not them, Diary, it’s me.

Much of the course’s language, I’ve noticed, resembles the language of therapy. This seems fitting. Still, if someone is lonely, unable to form positive bonds with friends, lovers, kids or co-workers, how much is he apt to be helped by a self-diagnosis of, say, an “anxious attachment style”? Can viewing an online lecture on social skills — even in concert with real-world “happiness practices”— make one better able to establish, and sustain, stronger human connections?

That, as somebody said, is the question.

Like that famous seeker of truth — no, Diary, not Marty — I, too, find myself waffling. There’s one class remaining before the midterm break, and miracles do happen. (See: New York Mets, 1969 and 1986.) But I’m not massively optimistic. For this, Diary, you can partially blame my genes, which, as you know — or would if you’d been paying attention, since this was in lesson 1 — are 50 percent of my happiness pie chart. Circumstances account for another 10 percent.

And that final slice, based on daily activities? Like I’ve already told you, Diary, it’s not them, it’s me.