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Charting the Science of Happiness | New MOOC registers 65,000 students seeking insights into well-being. | By Michael Berry

How can the act of writing a list of things for which you are grateful lead to a healthier immune system and better sleep? Why is spending money on someone else better for your sense of well-being than buying something for yourself? And ultimately, what's the best way to spread the word about these scientific findings regarding happiness to tens of thousands of students across the globe?

Those kinds of questions lie at the heart of the Science of Happiness online course offered by UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, starting Sept. 9. The center's science director, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, and the center's founder, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, will co-teach a free eight-week online course, available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. So far, more than 65,000 students around the globe have registered for the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, placing it among Cal's top five most popular MOOCs.

Hosted on the edX platform, the course will include short videos with the co-instructors, guest lectures by top experts, accessible readings, plus weekly "happiness practices."

Participants can proceed at their own pace, but those who follow the coursework between Sept. 9 and Nov. 4 will be able to interact with fellow students with greater ease. Psychologists, social workers, therapists, nurses, and counselors can take the course for credit.

In addition to appearing in the videos that will be part of the Science of Happiness MOOC, Simon-Thomas acts as the public spokesperson for the Greater Good Science Center. The part suits her well. As she talked by phone about her career in neuroscience, her work at UC Berkeley, and her ambitions for the online project and its massive audience, she projected the kind of positive energy recommended by the research literature, a friendly openness and eagerness to explain how the science of emotions can dramatically improve people's lives.

Raised in Berkeley and a graduate of Berkeley High School, Simon-Thomas attended Vassar College, where she majored in cognitive science. She earned a Ph.D. in cognition brain and behavior at UC Berkeley.

Throughout her career, Simon-Thomas has explored how negative states affect thinking and decision-making; the positive effects of compassion, awe, and love of humanity; and how health and happiness are connected to social connection, care-giving, and collaborative relationships.

While working at UC Davis, Simon-Thomas began to question the standard wisdom that emotions are the enemy of reason. She said she asked herself, "Why are emotions getting the raw end of the deal here? How can I respectfully point out why and how they're important?"

One experiment she conducted involved showing subjects pictures containing upsetting imagery, and then testing their proficiency in tests involving either spatial or verbal tasks.

"When people did the spatial task, the emotion made them perform better," she said. "The interpretation is that that aversive stimulus rallied a system of physiological mechanisms geared toward getting you ready to escape. Part of escaping is being able to navigate your spatial environment.

"Depending on what the emotion is, sometimes it helps certain kinds of thinking and hurts others. You can't just treat an emotion as positive or negative. It's more nuanced than that."

Simon-Thomas, 41, says that it was motherhood that recast her interest in the neuroscience behind emotion and put her on her current career track.

After having delivered her dissertation a few hours before giving birth to her first child, Simon-Thomas discovered that her plans to commute from Berkeley to Davis every day weren't realistic. And when she later served as associate director/senior scientist at Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, she eventually had to re-think making the trip to Palo Alto every day. The Greater Good Science Center, part of UC Berkeley's Institute of Human Development and a sponsor of groundbreaking scientific research into social and emotional well-being, seemed like a better fit for her and for her family.

"I went from this goal-oriented academic trajectory to being captivated by being a parent and the desire to connect and be close and have a secure attachment with my child."

While struggling with these issues, Simon-Thomas connected with Dacher Keltner while he was writing his book, Born to Be Good, and lecturing about compassion and the pro-social nervous system. That connection led to a job offer at the center.

"It seemed like a really good fit, since Dacher didn't have a neuroscientist in his wake, and I was really interested in what he had developed," Simon-Thomas said.

The idea for the GGSC online course came from Jason Marsh, founding editor-in-chief of Greater Good magazine and the center's director of programs. With archived content and videos developed from years of events, he, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas realized that, rather than build their own MOOC from scratch, they could rely on the edX platform to spread their message.

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If you're going to apply scientific principles to something as nebulous as happiness, shouldn't you be careful in how you define that emotion?

"We're very careful to say that happiness doesn't mean being joyful or enthusiastic or having pleasure all the time," Simon-Thomas said.

Nevertheless, happiness involves experiencing those states with some regularity. According to Simon-Thomas, it also depends on some sense of positive progress. "It's this idea that your life is going in the direction that you had hoped, that it's meaningful in a way that you like and that you feel good about it."

Simon-Thomas continued, "What's unique about the [center's] viewpoint on the science of happiness is an emphasis on research showing that pro-social factors like connection, kindness, cooperation, and community are fundamental to happiness, and that with practice, people can strengthen these capacities to boost their own happiness levels."

Simon-Thomas and Keltner are part of Facebook's "compassion research team," and they have helped the social media giant find better ways for its users to handle online complaints with fewer hurt feelings. The consulting job has put Simon-Thomas in contact with young employees experiencing a lot of financial success at early points in their lives

"The culture of the tech industry is not to connect. The culture is to stick around with a company for three to four years, and then move on to the next one. Now I think a lot of [young tech employees] are questioning themselves."

According to Simon-Thomas, other major Bay Area institutions, such as the Haas School of Business and Kaiser Permanente, are now turning to the center for advice. She says that, again and again, the main objective for the center's business clients boils down to: "How can they manifest a more pro-social ethos in their organization, not just at work, but in all aspects of life?"

So far, the Science of Happiness MOOC is attracting a different audience than the one that usually signs up for Greater Good newsletters and events. The typical audience for the programs and products of the center are well-educated professionals, age 45 to 65, In other words, Boomers, particularly female Boomers. Millennials—roughly between the ages of 18 and 35—are more heavily represented in the MOOC.

Battered by the lingering effects of the Great Recession and anxious about climate change, Millennials may indeed have a different mind-set, but their level of participation in The Science of Happiness may have its roots in more mundane considerations.

"We could think of it as this eco-spiritual exploration issue, but I also think it's also merely a technical access issue," Simon-Thomas said. "Millennials are much more likely to be the ones looking through the edX catalog and considering doing a MOOC."

Asked whether there's something ironic about an online class designed to foster community among a far-flung audience whose participants will probably never meet face to face, Simon-Thomas acknowledged, "It's a total irony. The way we try to mitigate that is by infusing the course with 'homework,' practical exercises that have been shown to work in laboratory studies."

For example, students will be encouraged to choose two days out of a week to perform five random acts of kindness. "When people have done it in the lab, it boosts happiness," Simon-Thomas said.

No matter what else they may do, it's clear that the Science of Happiness MOOC is already a source of good feelings for its creators.

Noting that she and Keltner had not anticipated more than 50,000 registrants, Simon-Thomas said they feel "blessed and amazed" by the response.

"We're humbled and mortified," Simon-Thomas said. "I say 'mortified' because of the prospect that at any one time, 65,000 people are going to be watching a video of me."

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Michael Berry lives in Berkeley and writes about books, entertainment, and science.

 

 


Happiness guru: Emiliana Simon-Thomas is co-teaching a MOOC on emotions. Photo Courtesy Emiliana Simon-Thomas.