The Science of Happiness

While recovering from a recent knee replacement (arthroplasty) I completed the online edX course ’Science of Happiness’ from the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. I had to suppress my inclinations that this would be one of those pollyanna self-improvement courses from the West Coast USA. It did contain several ‘happiness’ exercises and an emphasis on ‘mindfulness’ and social connections but it did also deal with recent laboratory studies on brain function and emotional states. I managed to complete the course by ’speed’ reading and crashing thru the videos to receive a grade of 83%. Below are some excerpts from the introductory comments.

What is happiness? - Philosophical and spiritual views on happiness

Confucius advocated a kind of dignity or reverence (jen/ren) as happiness, where you focus on enhancing the welfare of others. Aristotle believed that happiness is about living a life of virtue, and it can only be judged when looking at your life as a whole. During the Enlightenment, utilitarianism advocated actions that bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. As a Buddhist, the Dalai Lama preaches equanimity, compassion, kindness, and detachment to alleviate suffering. In general, the happiness of Western traditions tends to be more individualistic and high-spirited, while that of the Eastern traditions is more communal and calm.

Why does happiness matter? — the benefits of happiness

Happy people make more money; cope better; are better leaders and negotiators; are more likely to get married, have fulfilling marriages, and have more social support; and are more creative, productive, philanthropic, other-centered, resilient, and healthier.

Happiness is associated with greater longevity, better health —- from decreased chronic pain, to increased immune activity, and better cardiovascular health to a decreased likelihood of diabetes, stroke, cancer mortality, and fatal accidents. Happy people have better social relationships: they have more friends, are judged more warm and intelligent and less selfish, and are more likely to get assistance and trust. Happy people who get married are less likely to get divorced and feel more love and fulfilment. Finally, happiness can boost creativity and innovation.

In addition to the above, happy people are more sociable and energetic, and more charitable and cooperative. They think more flexibly and with more ingenuity.

What determines happiness?

According to research, about 50% of our happiness is accounted for by genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% by intentional activity. The 40% is what we should focused.

How scientists define and measure happiness

Being “happy” could refer to many things: a sense that our life is going well, a momentary emotion, a trait we have, or even a sensation. Many scientists focus on the first two aspects: life satisfaction and positive affect, which combine to form something called “subjective well-being.” To study happiness, researchers can observe our behavioural indicators like facial expressions or beep us throughout the day and ask how happy we are (experience sampling). Happiness studies might be cross-sectional – looking at a group of people across a slice of time – or longitudinal – looking at the same people over time.

The emphasis of the course was on social connectedness and mindfulness — more to follow—>

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