The Science of Happiness
The pursuit of happiness may be an age-old aspiration, but research on the subject has become one of today’s hottest fields—with a host of fascinating findings coming out of the East Bay.
Ask a happiness expert if the East Bay is a great place to pursue happiness, and you’re likely to hear that our circumstances—including where we live—have surprisingly little effect on our sense of contentment. A better question might be: What makes the East Bay such a rich environment in which to explore the science of happiness?
“I think the interest in well-being, kindness, and collaboration is part of the identity of Berkeley,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), a research hub dedicated to furthering our understanding of the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. “Some of the practices—for example, [in] the mindfulness or contemplative space—were already embraced and happening in the Bay Area before scientists came in and were like, ‘Wait a minute, let’s see if this stuff works.’ ”
Today, researchers are interested in learning what makes us happy, as well as what’s behind our deeply held—but often misguided—beliefs about the emotional state. “We thought, Oh, it’s going to be about privilege, access to resources, material pleasures, comfort, safety—all these basic issues,” Simon-Thomas says. “But what we’ve left out in a dramatic way are our interpersonal relationships and communities, and I think that was the big mistake.”
In the last several years, scientific research centered on happiness and well-being has exploded, and a startling number of experts with East Bay ties are driving some of that research—and using the findings to put their students, clients, and fellow humans on pathways to happier, more meaningful lives.
Spreading the Good News
The GGSC reaches millions of people each year through platforms such as its Greater Good online magazine, The Science of Happiness podcast, and a variety of online courses. “So much [of the] research that comes out of universities and labs never really gets translated into terms and materials that are accessible to people who are not scientists,” says Jason Marsh, director of programs and editor in chief at GGSC. “It’s been our mission from day one to identify the latest and greatest research that sheds light on the keys to social and emotional well-being and put those findings into more actionable terms so that the research can have a greater impact on the real world.”
Nearly 550,000 people from across the globe have signed up for the center’s free online open course, The Science of Happiness, since its launch in 2014. “It’s wildly moving and remarkably inspiring to interact with people from faraway places who are interested in figuring out how to realize a happier version of themselves through strengthening their interpersonal bonds, and tapping into their innate generosity and sense of purpose that is drawn from contributing to a greater good,” says Simon-Thomas, who co-instructs the course with founding director Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., a UC Berkeley psychology professor and leading expert on the social function of emotions.
So why is contributing to the greater good so good for us?
“Kindness, generosity, benevolence, looking to others as viable collaborators or relationship partners or sources or recipients of social support—all of that is tied to a physiological profile that supports health and well-being,” Simon-Thomas explains. “There’s also research showing that being generous to others is intrinsically rewarding. It engages our dopamine reward circuits when we have an opportunity to serve another person’s welfare.”
Those looking for simple ways to put the science into practice can find several dozen research-based activities on the Greater Good in Action website (ggia.berkeley.edu), including reflecting on three positive things, celebrating other people’s joyful news, performing random acts of kindness, and even striking up small talk with strangers (see the “Practice Makes Happiness” sidebar below).
Another priority for the GGSC is stimulating research. For example, through its Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project, the center awarded grants to researchers across the country for gratitude-related studies. “I would love to see the Greater Good run a similar initiative on how to bring people together when it feels impossible,” Simon-Thomas says. “I think a lot of people are challenged by how impossible certain problems feel—from the environment, to politics, to changing the culture and dynamics of their workplace. How can we embolden people’s confidence in being able to resolve differences when they feel insurmountable?”
Kristin Layous, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Cal State East Bay, is working on expanding our understanding of how positive activities affect well-being. “I’ve already done a lot of work on happiness interventions and how they can increase positive emotions,” Layous says, “but now I’m also interested in how happiness interventions might reduce or undermine negative processes like rumination.” (In psychology, rumination refers to engaging in a repetitive pattern of negative thoughts, which tends to keep us focused on a problem without resolving it.)
Layous began studying the effects of positive activities at UC Riverside, where her doctoral advisor was Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a leading happiness expert known for her research that shows approximately 50 percent of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10 percent by our circumstances (like income and where we live and work), and 40 percent by our daily activities.
“Some people are naturally happier than others, but most researchers allow for the fact that there’s a large proportion of our happiness that is under our own control,” Layous says. “And the fact that we can make some changes that might actually improve relative levels of happiness, well, I feel like that’s an optimistic message.”
In her current research focused on rumination, Layous is finding that distraction appears to effectively reduce negative emotions, but gratitude appears to both reduce negative emotions and increase positive ones. “Basically, you can [use gratitude to] interrupt the rumination process and not only decrease feeling badly but also improve feeling good,” she explains.
San Ramon resident John Schinnerer, Ph.D., has been using research-based positive activities in his Danville-based executive-coaching practice for 14 years. “Psychology traditionally has been focused on: How do we take clients from negative five to zero—from miserable to surviving?” says Schinnerer, who received his doctorate in psychology from UC Berkeley. “That’s not enough. My goal is: How do you get people from negative five to five? How do you get them to happy, to thriving, to engaged, to meaning?”
Schinnerer’s go-to practice is mindfulness, which he’ll sometimes suggest as a way of increasing awareness of positive emotions, including (but not limited to) happiness, joy, awe, gratitude, serenity, courage, pride, and love. “One of the definitions of happiness in my mind is stringing together moments of positive emotions and learning to stretch them out over time,” he explains. “There are other pieces to it—positive relationships, engagement and meaning, positive action—but we have to be aware of the positive emotions so we can spot them in the moment and learn to savor them.”
Schinnerer also encourages acknowledging our less positive emotions. “Part of happiness is realizing that you’re not going to be happy all the time,” he says. “The emotions are going to ebb and flow, so part of it does become about accepting how you are feeling without judgment.”
Pitfalls of the Pursuit
How our emotions—and the way we think about them—affect our happiness and health is of particular interest to Iris Mauss, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and the director of the Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab at UC Berkeley. “We’re really interested in what one could call an overzealous pursuit of happiness,” she says.
Mauss and her collaborators have found that, on average, people across cultures place a strong value on happiness. “[People] tend to say that they would like to be happier than they generally are,” Mauss says. “It’s interesting because these aren’t necessarily people who are unhappy [or] depressed, suggesting that many of them might be striving for a pretty extreme level of happiness.”
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Mauss and her co-investigators examined how the pursuit of happiness affected the well-being of participants in the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Russia, and Germany. Among participants in the United States, they found a correlation between overvaluing happiness and having more depressive symptoms and lower satisfaction with life. However, participants from Japan and Taiwan did not experience these negative outcomes—and Mauss believes this is because they were more likely to pursue happiness in socially engaged ways, by helping others or visiting with family and friends.
“[The study suggested] that there is a culturally bound phenomenon where the negative effects or correlates of overvaluing happiness we see here in the U.S. might have something to do with how we as a culture view happiness,” Mauss says. “We seem to view it more as an individual pursuit and an individual state rather than a social pursuit or a shared state among people.”
Another pitfall may be setting standards that are too high. “We call that ‘negative meta emotion,’ when you feel guilty for not being as happy as you think you should be,” Mauss explains.
To test that theory, Mauss and her collaborators investigated the psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2017. One part of the study revealed that people who accepted negative feelings experienced less depression and greater life satisfaction than those who judged negative feelings as bad or unacceptable. Another part of the study subjected participants to a significant stressor, which involved giving a speech that would be videotaped and scrutinized.
“It turns out that the people who most embraced their negative feelings also responded to that speech stressor with distress, but with less distress than people who tried to avoid their negative emotions,” Mauss says. “It suggests these attitudes about your own emotions determine how you respond to emotional situations.”
Could the key to avoiding the paradoxical effects of happiness be to simply pay more attention to other people? “It gets around the whole idea that we’re going to try and convince people that they should think about their emotions or their happiness in a different way, which might be too tall an order,” Mauss says. “We’re telling them to not even focus on their happiness at all and to just think about what they’re grateful for or how they can be kinder to other people; happiness indirectly emerges out of that.”
The Quest for Meaning
Lafayette resident Jennifer Aaker, Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist and the General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is teaching leaders about the value of pursuing meaning. “Our research—and that of others—shows that the happy life and the meaningful life differ, and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life,” says Aaker, who studies the psychology of time, money, and happiness.
In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in 2013, Aaker and her collaborators focused on people who reported high levels of happiness but low levels of meaning and vice versa, examining the choices each participant made and the ensuing effects on feelings of happiness and meaningfulness.
“Those in the happy group tended to avoid difficult or taxing entanglements, described themselves as relatively self-oriented, and spent more time thinking about how they felt in the moment,” Aaker says. “In contrast, those high in meaning spent more time helping others; being with friends or taking care of children; and thinking about the past, present, and future.”
Aaker points to other research that shows that people who aim for meaning over happiness tend to have fewer positive feelings in the short term, but greater well-being in the long run.
“Meaning isn’t something you have or don’t have; it is an approach to life—a mind-set,” Aaker says. “People can choose to pursue meaning as well as happiness.”
In the class Rethinking Purpose, Aaker and her co-instructors at Stanford encourage students to develop personal moonshots—bold, specific goals that play to individual strengths and passions—along with a plan for revamping those objectives throughout their lives.
Over the past few years, Aaker has also been exploring how we can leverage humor while aiming for purpose. “Humor is a superpower,” she says. “This body of emerging research shows that the use of humor can increase your influence and status at work, build bonds and accelerate trust, defuse tension—particularly when the stakes are high—and enhance creativity, making our teams more nimble.” But she has found that we largely lose our sense of humor around age 23—meaning we laugh less and lose confidence in our ability to make others laugh—at the same time many of us start our first jobs.
In their Humor: Serious Business class, Aaker and co-instructor Naomi Bagdonas are teaching leaders how to effectively use humor in professional settings and beyond. In addition, Aaker and her counterparts at the business schools of Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and University of Pennsylvania are running more studies.
“[Our] goal [is] to understand the shape of humor over the life course: what makes people laugh and why, and the consequences of using humor in the workplace and in life,” she says. “Although our efforts are driven by a scientifically supported belief in the power of humor in business … we fundamentally believe in its ability to change the world.”
Infusing greater humanity into the workplace is also a growing emphasis at the GGSC, which is launching three new online courses this month in its Science of Happiness at Work series. “Bringing some of the meaningful social connection back into the hours and minutes that people spend at work has the potential to feed back into the other parts of life,” Simon-Thomas says. “We are unified beings, and the time we spend shapes how we feel and behave, regardless of what context we’re in.”
It’s fitting these kinds of initiatives—along with groundbreaking research focused on well-being—would emerge from the East Bay, which, as Marsh of the GGSC points out, has long attracted intellectuals who are both socially aware and interested in personal fulfillment beyond financial or professional success.
“You have people [here] who are deep explorers of big scientific and intellectual questions,” Marsh says. “I think that’s driving a lot of the research. Then you have a high concentration of educators, practitioners, and therapists in the East Bay … who are providing these great opportunities for dialogue between the science and practice and helping to push the science in new ways.”
Practice Makes Happiness
Put the science into action with these simple, research-based positive activities.
Focus on Three Good Things
Write down three upbeat things that happened today, and reflect on why they went well.
“Our brains are wired to pay attention to negative things … [so we can] address [them] and be able to live,” explains Kristin Layous, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Cal State East Bay. “Gratitude is a way to redirect some of your focus to all the good things happening in your life to circumvent the inherent focus on the negative.”
Do Random Acts of Kindness
Today, commit to doing five different acts of kindness, such as changing a neighbor’s light bulbs, treating a friend to lunch, or saying hello to a stranger.
“Generosity is a critical strategy for strengthening social bonds [and] developing trusting connections that predict the possibility of future support,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “When [generosity is] directed toward strangers, you’re cultivating a greater sense of common humanity.”
Capitalize on Positive Events
Ask someone you know to share something favorable that happened to him or her today. Listen intently and offer encouragement.
“[Practice] active-constructive [responding] or ‘capitalizing,’ which is generating enthusiasm, asking questions, being curious: ‘Tell me more about that.’ ‘Who told you that?’ ‘That’s fantastic.’ ‘I’m so excited for you,’ ” says John Schinnerer, Ph.D., who has an executive-coaching business in Danville. “What it does is create a positive upward emotional spiral, where both of you win.”
For more activities and information, visit ggia.berkeley.edu.