Everyday Mysticism: The Science of Happiness – Week Four


Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here | Week Eight: here | Week Nine: here

Last week, we looked at how our compassion affected our happiness. This week, the course covers trust, cooperation, conflict, and how apologies and forgiveness affect our happiness.

The Case for Cooperation

When many of us think about evolution and survival of the species, we tend to think about rivals and battles and every man for himself. But studies are showing that a high amount of social cohesion and cooperation increases the health and welfare of children, increases life expectancy, and reduces social disorders such as fighting. This works at both the group and individual level.

And what of those who tend to reject cooperation, the Machiavellian types who do not hesitate to whatever it takes for their own benefit? Hundreds of studies have shown that these people do not gain power, feel socially isolated, experience stress and exclusion at work, and report feeling less happiness overall. They don’t have strong social ties, feel greater stress, and feel disconnected to the people around them.

 Are We Innately Selfish?

 It’s hard to imagine watching reality television, but research has found that humans are intuitively generous and have to think about being selfish. According to a series of studies published in Nature magazine, the amount you contribute depends on how quickly you make the decision to contribute.

Researchers at Harvard tested more than 1000 people, both online and in person, using something called the Public Goods Game. Participants are given money and told they would be playing with strangers. All are invited to contribute to a common pool. Afterwards, the pool amount is doubled and distributed equally among the players. Regardless of how much you contribute, you still get an equal amount of the pot.

The researchers found that the faster a person decided which amount to contribute, the more they contributed. People who took less than 10 seconds to decide gave approximately 15% more than the “thinkers.” The studies suggest that people on the average have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively, but become more selfish with continued reasoning.

 Blessed are the Peacemakers?

Humans may have an innate drive towards cooperation, but that doesn’t mean we enjoy conflict-free lives. To the contrary, contrary seems to be a large part of our experience–especially when interacting with those closest to us. Married couples who are struggling can spend as much as 1.5 hours a day in conflict, and toddlers age 2-4 average about six conflicts an hour–pretty much a tussle every 10-12 minutes. Coincidentally, that about the same average parents have with their children.

But in the midst of all this conflict, something interesting happens. Once it’s blown over, instead of pushing us to our separate corners, conflict can actually draw us together. Peacemaking signals such as embarrassment, displays of vulnerability, and other physical displays (conscious and subconscious) act as a sort of non-verbal apology. Humans see these behaviors and forgive, which can soften retaliation and lead towards eventual reconciliation. In fact, from primates to nations, even the worst conflicts can be resolved and friendly relations restored.

And Speaking of Apologies…

Anyone who’s ever interacted with another human being has probably figured out that all apologies are not created equal. After a conflict, an apology is usually the first step to getting the relationship back on course. But what makes a good apology?

At its core, an effective apology

  • Expresses remorse, shame and/or humility
  • Acknowledges the offense and accepts responsibility
  • Offers empathy and/or an explanation
  • Shows an intent to undo the harm, either through reparation or compensation
  • Reassures that there’s a low likelihood the offense will happen again.

Researchers found that apologies help not only the person receiving the apology, but the person apologizing as well. Apologies restore a sense of dignity to the victim, affirm that both parties agree that the harm done was wrong, and fosters dialogue between both parties that allows victims to express their feelings and even grieve if necessary. Apologies are one of the best routes towards forgiveness.

To Forgive is Divine

We’ve all heard the old saying, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” But what is forgiveness, really? Spiritual leader and psychologist Dr. Jack Kornfield puts it succinctly in the following speech:

Forgiveness does not mean that we condone what happened in the past. It’s not forgive and forget. In fact, forgiveness might also include, quite understandably,
the resolve to never let this happen again. I will do everything in my power to protect myself or protect others to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to speak to or relate to a person who betrayed you necessarily.

It’s not about them.

It doesn’t condone it.

It can stand up for justice and say no more, and it’s not sentimental or quick. You can’t paper things over and smile and say, “I forgive.” It is a deep process of the heart. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others, the grief, the anger, the hurt, the fear. And it can take a long time.

One way Dr. Korfield put it is that forgiveness is “giving up all hope of a better past.” It’s not pretending the offense never happened. It’s accepting, processing, and growing through the pain of the offense. It’s coming out on the other side of it and allowing it to become a part of the fabric of the relationship, a part that happened but didn’t destroy the relationship.

Trust and Happiness

The final destination of all this conflict and resolution is the establishment of trust in a relationship. And if you don’t think that trust is important, look around. In the U.S., trust is on the decline–we distrust our leaders, we distrust the media, we distrust business. If you pay attention, you can find a direct correlation between those people who lack trust and their level of happiness.

The sense that other people will act on your behalf (i.e., trust) activates the prosocial centers of our brain. Like compassion, empathy, and cooperation, trust activates the vagal nerve or our “caregiving system.” As with the other prosocial activies, trust increases happiness and an overall feeling of well-being.

You can cultivate trust in your relationships through some simple actions. Touch is a good start. There are studies that show, in social situations, the right amount of physical contact can encourage cooperation and increase trust. Watch any professional sports team–they high-five, fist bump, chest bump, and all manner of physical touch. These behaviors actually increase teamwork.

Other ways to increase trust include being mindful of how you express yourself, selecting language that is more cooperative than adversarial. Dan Yashimoto, of University of Washington, came up with an acronym on how to build trust in relationship.

Awareness of your partner’s emotion;

Turning toward the emotion;

Tolerance of two different viewpoints;

trying to Understand your partner;

Non-defensive responses to your partner;

and responding with Empathy.


Happiness Practice #4: Eight Essentials When Forgiving

If you’re ready to forgive, why not try this week’s Happiness Practice, Eight Essentials When Forgiving. If you do, please let us know how it worked for you in the comments section.

Thanks for joining us this week. Week Five is the midterm, so I’ll be back with a recap, and then it’s on to Week Six!

If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.



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