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The key to happiness? It's in the science

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center and co-instructor of The Science of Happiness


U.C. Berkeley is known for its world-class scientists, in disciplines like physics, chemistry or biology. 

But just a few blocks away from campus, you’ll find the school’s Greater Good Science Center, where one scientist focuses on something different - the science of Happiness.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas has a PhD in Cognition, Brain and Behavior. She’s also the science director of the Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley. Ask her for a definition of the term, and Simon-Thomas says defining “happiness” isn’t so clear-cut.

“Happiness has to do with having an easy time of feeling positive emotions,” she says, “being quick at recovering from negative emotions -- although you do experience them -- and having a sense of meaning and purpose that is tied to the collective. ‘I’m contributing in a meaningful way to the people around me.’”

I visited Simon-Thomas at her office in Berkeley. On her desk she’s placed a mug where she keeps her pens, with a graphic displaying the “six habits of happiness worth cultivating.” They include dropping grudges, giving thanks and practicing kindness.

The diagram makes the argument that the pursuit of happiness is multi-layered. And that’s what the “Science of Happiness” course teaches, too.

The course draws from scientific studies focusing on the different components of happiness, from social connection to compassion to gratitude and cooperation. But Simon-Thomas says the point of the class isn’t just to teach students how these relate theoretically to happiness. It’s also meant to give students the tools to live the best lives they can.

“To really find their groove,” she says. “To discover how to be who they want to be in the world.”

The world where Simon-Thomas engages with her students is purely virtual.  This is an online self-paced classroom, with discussion boards and video lectures ... and more than 150,000 students, from all around the world.

One of those first lessons teaches that finding happinesscan be an uncomfortable process. For example: The fourth week’s assignment directs students to find someone they think has wronged them, and then learn to forgive that person in just eight steps.

Simon-Thomas says there’s scientific evidence that proves forgiveness is an important element of happiness. Scientists used to believe that primates engaged in conflict would run away from each other and remain apart.

Simon-Thomas says the thinking was that the primates would make the connection: “‘That’s a hostile person and I’m not going to come near them again.’”

But the reality is different. “[The primates] don’t do that. A lot of the time they come back to one another and reconcile.”

Simon-Thomas says as humans, we are inclined to make peace, too. “I often return to these primate studies,” she says, “because we want to convince people that this isn’t something we have to learn from our culture … it’s our biological endowment for cooperation, reconciliation.”

An exercise in forgiveness

In taking the course, I found myself calling up an ex-boyfriend, Albert, as part of an exercise instructing students on how to forgive.

At the time, it had been several weeks since Albert moved to New York and we broke up. During the end of our relationship, his attention was elsewhere -- both professionally, and personally. And for that last part of our relationship, I felt unimportant to him, like I was always waiting for him to notice I was there.

Since then, I truly believed I’d forgiven him -- and yet I still found myself getting angry with him in conversations. So I placed the call: We chatted for an hour. It was the same conversation we’d had before, and the entire time, I kept thinking back to a certain part of the exercise, directing students to see if the conversation inspired more compassion towards the person. But I didn't feel anything.

And then Albert said something that moved me: “I think it’s been rare that you’ve believed that I was trying,” he said, “even though I felt like I was trying pretty hard. It would’ve been nice, you know, to feel like my efforts meant something."

It made me realize that Albert’s been great about acknowledging my efforts -- I had to make more of an effort to acknowledge his, too.

Positive psychology

The exercise marked the first time I truly understood where Albert was coming from -- that any perceived neglect wasn’t about a lack of caring for me. The assignment really did help me forgive in a way I couldn’t before.

Simon-Thomas had  pointed out that even primates have evolved to do this. But to find out why this process of forgiveness is linked to happiness, I turned to Dr. Fred Luskin, who works at Stanford and is an authority on positive psychology. Luskin says, after forgiving someone, “you don’t feel this need to complain about your life.”

“When you have a grudge or you’re wounded, this urge to tell people and to blame stuff on it, and to just feel like life has done you a bad turn -- it disappears,” Luskin says. “And you find that you want to talk more about what’s good.”

According to the course, appreciating the good is a fundamental element of happiness. Yet Luskin says in the past, psychology used to focus on something counter to that knowledge: the things that are wrong with people.

Luskin says it was only relatively recently that psychologists began to research and teach positive traits like hope, compassion and forgiveness. He says these are qualities that people used to associate mainly with religion and spirituality -- but now, we’re studying them as part of science, too.

“What may have been owned by religious traditions such as forgiveness, being kind, being generous, being grateful -- those are also secular qualities,” he says. “But they were kept away from mainstream science because religion owned them. And now they’re being blended.”

This blending is what the Greater Good Science Center is doing with its Science of Happiness course: giving people tools that they can use regardless of whether or not they hold religious beliefs.

One of my fellow students, Anne Hardy, says one of her tools is a newfound sense of empowerment. For her, having a list of steps and assignments made it easier to make changes in her life.  When it comes to exercises like my forgiveness exercise, she said, “finding some steps for what to follow, it gives you courage.”

“You don’t think about the fear that you have. Because it’s like, I’ll do that and do that and do that and it’s going to work.”

This story originally aired on February 17th, 2015.

This piece is part of KALW's reporting project, The Spiritual Edge -- stories about innovations in belief, belonging and practice. For more stories, click here.