Mind & body, Research

Dispatches from the happiness front, week 4

Today's lesson: Happiness bats last

Bergman in Mets cap

Bergman, happy at last

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.” This is a week-by-week chronicle of his personal journey.

Week 4: The joy of Mookie

SOMEWHERE EAST OF THE HAPPINESS FRONT — The massive open online course (MOOC) to advance “The Science of Happiness” is now midway into its fall campaign — four class sessions out of eight, with bye weeks for midterm and final exams. Your faithful correspondent has made every effort to avoid sugarcoating the truth, or cutting the facts to some ideological end — this is Berkeley, after all, not the Fox News Channel — but simply to chronicle, without fear or favor, the course’s steady, weekly bombardment of compassion, gratitude and positive thinking.

After just four short weeks, I’m pleased to report that the march on bliss has been, in the main, successful. Key objectives have been met, and collateral damage has been held to levels deemed acceptable by leading experts.

In other words, mission accomplished.

I won’t say it’s been easy. The cacophony of feelings evoked by this experience — and what’s it all about, in the end, if not feelings? — is best expressed, naturally, by an emoticon.  This emoji of last week’s blood moon, whose color reflected all the sunrises and sunsets all over the world, sums it up perfectly. Ignore the trolls who said it resembled a pepperoni pizza.

Trolls are negative, unhappy people. We’re better than that.

I won’t say everything’s peachy. Anticipating my first “Science of Happiness” class, I likened my voyage to that of Odysseus, who — lest he be tempted by the song of the sirens, and lost to the world forever — had himself lashed to the mast of his ship.

In my case, this turned out not to be necessary. The siren science of happiness, I’ve found, resembles less the ineffable music of the cosmos than, well, a series of online lectures on compassion, gratitude and positive thinking — plus, as regular readers will recall, oxytocin — along with essays and a sprinkling of “happiness practices” to try on your friends, loved ones and total strangers.

I won’t say it’s been fun. But nobody said happiness would be fun.

Week 4’s session — focused on topics like cooperation, peacemaking and reconciliation — brought testimonials from fellow students who have been helped by the course. They’re seeking out “small positive moments,” they say, actively listening to their partners and “interacting with other happiness enthusiasts” all over the world.

I wish them well, truly. One thing I’ve learned in this past month, though, is this: I am not a happiness enthusiast. I’m an enthusiast of any number of things — fewer than some, perhaps, given the trolls in my family tree — but happiness isn’t one of them. Don’t get me wrong: I’m foursquare for happiness. I strive to structure my life in ways that make me happy, to keep my ego in check, to treat others as I’d wish to be treated, to be as positive as possible — less so than some, perhaps — given my nature and upbringing. I enjoy frequent eye contact, casual touching and several varieties of hugs.

I do, in fact, seek out small positive moments. Large ones, too. I do my best to practice active listening, and have been known to surprise total strangers with random acts of kindness. I lean toward activities that make me happy, and seek to avoid, to the extent practicable, those that don’t.

MOOCs, I think, fall into the latter category. And with the “Science of Happiness” midterm coming up, this seems an appropriate time to make my exit.

(Let us pause here to savor a small positive moment.)

In week 3 we heard from Sonja Lyubomirsky, a charismatic UC Riverside psychology prof who wrote The How of Happiness. She quotes a Chinese proverb that goes, “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap… for a day, go fishing… for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.”

One can quibble with the durations — Lyubomirsky herself cites research suggesting that marriage will make you happy for two whole years — or with that silliness about fishing. Overall, though, the proverb rings true. Short-term happiness, by definition, implies long-term not-happiness. Perfect, permanent happiness is impossible, no doubt. But it seems reasonable to strive to prolong our happiness, and keep all that other stuff — anger, sadness, grief, loneliness — to a minimum.

Still, there are plenty of paths to happiness, it seems to me, that run somewhere between an hour and a lifetime.

Mookie Wilson

Mookie Wilson

I’ve had my share of joyful moments, but only a handful compare to that one on Oct. 25, 1986, when Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson’s dribbler to first dribbled through Bill Buckner’s legs. This was game 6 of the World Series, the Red Sox leading the series 3-2 and sniffing the finish line.

All appeared lost when Boston scored twice in the top of the 10th inning. For those who feel about baseball the way I do about fishing, I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the Mets clawed back, and Mookie’s cue shot kept them alive, miraculously, to win a seventh game and what America, at least, calls a world championship. My spontaneous, involuntary spasm of whooping and free-form dancing frightened the cat, who may have thought me possessed.

In fact, I was experiencing a moment of happiness that’s endured now for nearly three decades. It’s a joy Red Sox fans, who suffered under the “curse of the Bambino” all those frustrating years, would eventually get to share. (Note to Cubs fans: I feel your pain.)

This final dispatch, then, is a declaration of victory. “The Science of Happiness” has, in fact, made me more mindful — notwithstanding the skepticism and cantankerousness I claim as my cultural birthright, and which, it turns out, are part of my DNA. It’s pushed me to think about positivity, gratitude and compassion, things I’d assumed to be good, but which I now know have been shown by research to make one happier than being a — well, not being positive, grateful or compassionate.

Does knowing this add to my happiness? Not, from what I can tell, in measurable ways. Am I more likely, after taking this course, to boost my charitable giving, or volunteer time to some worthy cause? Yes, and yes.

Happiness, indeed, is a lifelong practice. For the short term, though, I’m pulling the plug on online lectures. I’m done with MOOCs. Instead, in memory of Mookie — Wilson, that is, unlikely hero and source of semi-eternal joy — I’ll be cheering the Metsies on in the playoffs again, finally, after years in the wilderness.

And, win or lose — for losing is never far from a Mets fan’s mind — stringing together as many moments of happiness, given the sorry state of the larger world, as I possibly can.