The science of happiness

10 09 2014

Learning new things and acquiring new knowledge has never been this fun. Massively Open Online Courses, called MOOCs for short, have revolutionized learning. Offered by prestigious academic institutes on a variety of topics, it’s a pleasure all the way to be part of them. And a majority of them are absolutely free. Consequently, in a fit of greed, I sometimes find myself enrolling in a number of courses simultaneously, only to leave many of them after only a week or two. I constantly have to remind myself to check my priorities and choose wisely, and never pursue more than a couple of courses at a time.  Nonetheless, I successfully finished a few courses and I can vouch for the brilliant material as well as great teaching. With this preamble, I would like to start a series on my blog, chronicling my experiences of my journey along some very interesting and wonderful courses, related to topics which are close to my heart.

Disclaimer: The content and ideas in these series will be borrowed from the course. The intent is not to reproduce any material but to ponder aloud and reflect on things from the course that interest/intrigue/disturb me. 

I’m currently pursuing The Science of Happiness from edX, offered by Berkley. Even in its first week, I can see its potential. I’m sure I’ll have great time learning about research on happiness and discover how to be happy. To start with, I must mention this amazing portal – Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, which has a wealth of information in the form of award-winning articles on anything and everything about leading a happy and meaningful life. Do check it out. The course instructors Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas are eminent scholars in this area of research.

As I was reading ‘Happiness, the Hard Way‘ by  Darrion M. McMahon, I was struck by how it was perceived in the past, by our ancestors. I was surprised to learn that earlier, happiness was never taken for granted. People used to feel that “not being happy” is the norm and those who are happy are the lucky exceptions. They used to perceive happiness to be a divine gift. So, it was ok not to be happy. In the past, people used to think that one cannot try to achieve happiness. It just happens to oneself. For some classical philosophers, being happy is not easy. It involves lot of pain. It sounds paradoxical, but living good lives is never easy. 🙂

How much it contrasts with today’s notion that “happiness is our right” and that it’s in our hands! The problem with today’s obsession with achieving happiness is just that – an obsession. An unhealthy one perhaps. It results in lot of stress too. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should not strive for happiness.

But for that, one needs to have a clear and precise conception of what happiness really is. As Emiliana Simon-Thomas clarifies, happiness is not about always feeling good, not the absence of negative emotions, or not feeling pleasure all the time. Both ancient wisdom and current scientific research claim that happiness is about leading good and meaningful lives.

Dacher’s research is all about how compassion, gratitude, wonder, awe, and amusement, among other positive emotions, which he refer to as jen emotions, are essential ingredients of happiness. He says that “we are Born to Be Good“. He coins a new term y called the “jen ratio” as a true metric of well-being. Jen ratio is simply the ratio of ”  the recent actions by someone that bring good in others to completion” to “the recent actions that bring bad in others to completion”.

Darrin M. McMahon’s article beautifully brings together and contrasts the ancient and modern views of happiness. Let me quote from it: “Happiness is a life lived according to virtue,” Aristotle famously says. It is measured in lifetimes, not moments.

June Gruber, in his article – Four Ways Happiness Can Hurt You, raises an interesting point: The state of happiness makes one slow down and relax, and hence hurts in competition. What I don’t understand is, if we are happy, how can we become less happy, so that we can fare better in a competition? Or, if we don’t see winning the competition as essential to maintaining or improving our happiness, does it matter if we win or lose? Or put in another way, if winning or doing better in a competition is essential to our well-being, we would definitely strive for it right? This implies that our present condition is “less happy”. Of course, I understand the logic that happy people lack the drive to do well in a competition compared to unhappy people (the same point discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in his book – David and Goliath). But why the blind pressure to succeed in the first place? After a point, success means nothing, just like money.

A small digression: Of course, success gives a sense of accomplishment and augments self-esteem. But I think that, after a point you have to free yourself from having to prove your worth to yourself and others. I think it all comes down to Gita’s philosophy – do what you have to do without thinking about the results. Enjoy the journey!

The important takeaway so far for me from the course is the unsettling notion that – pursuing happiness may actually make one unhappy.

I think that detachment is the best and “striking the balance/finding the fine line” is the second best.

Part 1 of Science of Happiness series.




16 responses

11 09 2014
SVDivvaakar, Writer (@svdivvaakar)

interesting how so many of us have started seeking happiness, despite material progress of sorts compared to our parents. Clearly, we have missed some larger lessons in our pursuit of success. Good show, keep it up.

16 09 2014

Obviously it shows that “material progress” is not at the core of happiness, unless of course when one lacks basics and some comforts.

11 09 2014
Sashank Bhogu

I find, when I am happy. I tend to become forgetful. This maybe because, contentment has set in my mind. Also, I am not able to sense the gravity of an important situation during happiness. To be able to grasp the gravity of a situation is a serious activity.
I think, there is also a type of happiness that results from ignorance. But, this kind of happiness may not be a lasting one.
Do we have to keep pursuing it? Is it not tiring? Maybe I just don’t understand happiness…

I have heard of a apt saying: Don’t make a promise when you are happy and don’t take a decision when you are sad.

16 09 2014

Yeah, I know. It’s complex when you think about it! 🙂

16 09 2014

I never knew such kind of courses exist. Good one Sireesha !
Looking forward for the next one in the series 🙂

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