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
Welcome to Week Five of The Science of Happiness, also known as the Midterm Review. If you’re taking the course online, this is where you review the first four weeks and take the mid-term exam. So let’s take a look back at Weeks One-Four, shall we?
Week One: The Basics
In this first week, the course sets out to define exactly what we mean with we use the term “happiness.” For instance, if you talked to Pythagoras and, say, Thomas Aquinas, you’d get two very different definitions of the terms. Historically and philosophically, our perceptions of happiness have evolved. In fact, until the seismic philosophical upheaval of the 17th and 18th century, most people didn’t view happiness as a right or even a natural state of humanity. The best all but a lucky few could hope for was a meaningful life and moments of happiness here and there. With the Age of Enlightenment, however, happiness became a commodity–something to be pursued, earned, even accumulated. In fact, the pursuit of happiness was one of the “inalienable rights” the U.S. Founding Fathers built right into the Declaration of Independence.
How did this shift affect our experience of happiness? Well, anything that can be earned can be deserved. In subtle ways, happiness became a status symbol, a determining factor in social worthiness. And, as with all commodities, people began to seek it. This is where we discovered that the mere act of pursuing happiness can actually decrease the experience of happiness.
Week Two: Social Connections
The connection between strong, healthy social bonds and a positive life experience (aka, happiness) cannot be over=stressed. Starting in early childhood, social connections give us support during challenges in life, help us see our strengths, and provide meaning. Because humans evolved to be social creatures, the drive for strong social connections is embedded into our DNA.
Early in our lifetimes, humans develop attachment styles which can affect how we interact with others throughout our lives. Healthy attachment styles can foster healthy, rewarding relationships, while other styles can hinder them. The good news is that these styles can be learned…and unlearned in order to improve our enjoyment of life.
We have a variety of social connections, from family of birth and romantic partnerships to online friends and professional contacts. Each can provide a certain degree of social connection and fill specific emotional needs. The strongest bonds, of course, are between romantic partnerships and parents and their children. Given the evolutionary benefits of a strong family unit, it’s not wonder these relationships are at the core of our society–and can act as a canary in the mine in times of social upheaval.
Week Three: Compassion and Kindness
The evidence is clear that both kindness and compassion can increase our experience of happiness. Kindness activates the pleasure centers in the brain and strengthens our social connections. Kindness can be motivated by many things, including compassion. Compassion happens when a person observes the suffering of others and is motivated to do something to help.
Compassion is such a natural instinct in humans that Charles Darwin considered it our strongest instinct. He reasoned that compassionate groups of people would cooperate better and raise more children. And the more children to survive into adulthood, the stronger the community and the more opportunity to pass down DNA to another generation.
Compassion has three stages, starting with empathy. When we experience the emotions of others or understanding their perspective, we move to the second step, which is experiencing our own feelings. We might feel caring, distressed, or even annoyed. In the third stage, we form judgments that help us decide how to act.
Acting from compassion increases our happiness in many ways. It improves our social connections and engenders a sense of belonging. It teaches us to manage stress and also improves our self-image as we begin to see ourselves as more capable and generous.
Week Four: Cooperation and Reconciliation
Week Four focused not only on how we work together as a species, but also on how we react when all the touchy-feely social goodness, kindness, and compassion breaks down. Cooperation seems to be the norm for most primates, with strong communities showing higher rates of healthy offspring, longer life expectancy, and fewer incidents of social disorder. The more Machiavellian types? They tend to feel more isolated, more stressed, and less happy.
Cooperation seems to be built into nature itself. Our brains reward cooperation by activating the pleasure centers, and when that cooperation breaks down, we feel displeasure. Our amydala – or lizard brain – is activated and we experience distress.
Perhaps it is because of this that most primates have evolved sophisticated ways to kick-start the process of reconciliation. We show physical signs of remorse or embarrassment which actually encourage the other party to like, forgive and trust us–even to give us more resources. Forgiveness, while never easy, is an important part of the evolution of social relationships. It occurs when we are able to accept what happened, reduce our desire for revenge, avoid the offender less, and feel more compassion for them.
Science shows that forgiveness is linked to more life satisfaction, more positive emotions, less negative emotions, less physical symptoms of illness, and less fight-or-flight response. Revenge may be sweet, but forgiveness will make you much happier in the long run.
Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up in Week Six: Mindfulness and its connection to happiness.
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.