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The science of happiness


Narrator:        Christine Carter is NOT an elementary school teacher. She's a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. She's giving the students at Havens Jr. elementary school a lesson in a new subject — one that is finally getting some attention, from grade schools on up to research universities:  the study of... happiness.

Carter:  I think that there's been a long-fueled notion in our culture, in our society, that happiness is "fluffy," that it is something that is not important, that it certainly is not something that the most intelligent among us necessarily need, or even want.

Narrator: Carter has set out to change that.  Armed with the results from a wide-range of recent studies, Carter visits schools, gives parenting classes, has written a book and publishes a blog — all about the benefits of raising happy children.

Carter: If what we want for our children is to be high achievers, to be good learners, if we want for ourselves is to be successful in life, one of the best things we can do is focus on our emotional well-being.

Narrator: Carter coaches families to practice the habits that lead to more happiness - like showing gratitude. It's now known that gratitude is a skill that can be learned with practice, and those people who do it report feeling happier.

Kate Campbell, Teacher/Havens School, Piedmont: I think what she does is really important. When you feel happy, when you feel confident, and you like coming to school you're going to be able to take risks, you're going to be able to try to learn new things and that's how you do go further in education - is to feel good about those experiences.

Narrator: For decades, research psychologists tended to focus on studying negative emotions — fear, anger, and greed. But increasingly over the last decade, they've turned instead to our positive emotions — examining our capacity for compassion, gratitude and trust. They call it the "science of happiness," and it's blossoming here at UC Berkeley.

Dacher Keltner:  We've gotten interested in compassion, or gratitude. Only eight or nine years ago, there was ONE study of gratitude in scientific literature — THOUSANDS of studies on anger, ONE of gratitude.

Narrator:    Dacher Keltner is a psychology professor leading research on emotion and social interaction. He says that science now has the technology for a much closer look into the brain and nervous system, allowing scientists put to the test some of our oldest scientific notions.

Keltner: There is this long-standing assumption that in terms of evolution, it really is survival of the fittest, and it's important to know that it wasn't Darwin who said that, but someone who came after Darwin named Herbert Spencer. What Darwin said, in "Descent of Man," is "Sympathy is our strongest instinct," which, when I read that, I was FLOORED.

Narrator: Keltner and others have found that our bodies are BUILT to care, to be sympathetic.  They've found that a smile, or a compassionate touch, releases certain stress-reducing hormones, both in the person giving the smile or touch, and in the recipient. Looking at happiness, Keltner found that the more-successful NBA teams were those whose players expressed more social touching as a show of camaraderie. He also did a long-term study showing those people who smiled more positively in their high school yearbooks, had a higher level of emotional well-being — 30 years down the line.

Narrator: Jenny Stellar works with Keltner on their latest research, studying participants' reactions to a sad video. They look at their subjects' heart rate and breathing when the person is relaxed; then, again, when the person is watching a neutral video, NOT meant to evoke emotion. Then, the subject watches a video about children with cancer. One would assume that participants' heart rates would go up, because watching young cancer patients would be stressful.

Stellar: That's actually kind of the opposite of what we found. So, when individuals are watching this sad video we actually see that the heart rate goes down. And what we think that may be signaling is that the body is calming itself surprisingly, but its doing that to prepare to engage in a very peaceful manner maybe to sooth or to help somebody and that's what we're getting at when we show them this video. 

Narrator: These new studies are discovering that the age-old "Golden Rule" — treat others as you want to be treated — is actually part of our genetic make-up, and it may be the answer to our survival as a species.

Keltner: Do sympathetic people do better in the game of reproduction? It turns out, that they're more attractive as mates. // Sympathetic parents have kids who are more resilient and who thrive more. Do sympathetic people do better in competitive situations with strangers?  And we're starting to marshal data that show kind people // actually fair pretty well and evoke trust in others.

Narrator: In another Berkeley experiment, researchers are seeking answers to overcoming prejudice. They put two strangers of different races together in a room. They first measured their level of the hormone, cortisol, which is elevated when a person is under stress. The pairs meet up three times over three weeks. They're increasingly more personal questions to ask each other, to compel them to get to know each other better. After the last meeting in which they play a cooperative game, their cortisol levels are tested again. The study showed that cortisol levels (stress levels) dropped significantly — as low as the low levels of the same-race pairs. Rudy Mendoza-Denton designed the study.

Mendoza-Denton: I expected those anxiety effects, and those awkwardnesses that happen in those initial interactions to persist for a long time, but those barriers came down pretty quickly. I think the primary lesson to learn is that cross-race friendship could be good for your health.

Narrator: Psychology professor Robb Willer studies why people DO come together at all. Why do we cooperate? Why are we NOT just out for ourselves?

Willer: If we continue to portray individuals as purely selfish, then we'll create more selfishness than is necessary. But we also want to understand why it is that we do behave in a compassionate and empathetic way, so that we can create context and systems that support that.

Narrator: In one study using computer games, he told participants that they have a certain amount of money they can invest in a fund with other people. If they invested in the fund, the fund would be increased and divided equally amongst all the participants. Or, they can keep the money for themselves.

Willer: When people do overcome the temptation of self-interest and instead help others, cooperate with others, they're respected more in their group. And upon receiving that respect, they then help others even more.

Narrator: Willer and the others studying the science of happiness believe their positive results can help re-write the prescription for a happier society. From UC Berkeley, this is Roxanne Makasdjian.

 Related Links:

Greater Good Science Center