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Interview: Emiliana Simon-Thomas, UC Berkeley's happiness guru

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SEPTEMBER 12, 2014

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, is teaching a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, on the science of happiness this fall. The course, free and available to all, started Sept. 9 with some 100,000 students enrolled. Simon-Thomas chatted with the Weekender about the ins and outs of happiness, if it can be learned and why so many Millennials — including at least 2,500 from UC Berkeley — signed up for the course. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

The Daily Californian: Can you define happiness? Is there a definition of happiness you’re using in the course?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas: It’s a good question. In many research studies, scientists don’t even define happiness, just trusting that you know when you’re happy and not happy and that you’re a good judge of that state. But when we try to dig down and figure out what it is that happy people do or have that is unique to them compared to people that describe themselves as less happy, there are a lot of pieces to it. What seems to bubble up as being most important is being pretty good at spontaneously having good emotions and pretty good at recovering from negative emotions quickly. We make a big point of saying that happiness doesn’t mean that you feel pleasure or joy all the time or that all your needs are met, it just means that you’re good at feeling pleasure and you don’t spend a long time wallowing in your despair. Bad things happen, and feeling sad and feeling angry are really important parts of your human existence. In fact, it’s an important part of happiness, because recovering from those can be a powerful experience.

computer happy
The MOOC, pictured here, started Sept. 9. Photo: Anya Schultz/Senior Staff

The other part of happiness we focus on is the relationship between happiness and one’s inclination to form meaningful relationships with other people. Being compassionate, feeling grateful through engaging in cooperative endeavors and just being kind at any opportunity. The extent to which we tap into what we would call a “prosocial nature” and connect with people and act kindly really is a big predictor of whether people see themselves as happy or not.

One other idea we focus on in the space of happiness is having a better habit of inner awareness, and for this we look at mindfulness and contemplative practices. Turns out that people who have a greater handle on what they’re thinking and who are better at paying attention to what they’re doing in the moment that they’re doing it are people who also experience more happiness in day-to-day life.

DC: How did the idea for a Massive Open Online Course on the science of happiness come into being?

ES: The Greater Good Science Center for 12 years has been amassing an archive library of wonderful lectures and video snippets from experts and luminaries in the space of positive psychology. And there’s always been the desire to create an online course to package it all together in a coherent and systematic narrative. This is something our Editor-in-Chief Jason Marsh has always wanted to do. There are a lot of different ways you can teach an online course, but once we came to understand that UC Berkeley was partnering on the edX platform, we realized that was probably our best way to go.

The other part of the story is professor Dacher Keltner has been teaching happiness at UC Berkeley for eight or nine years and has a lot of the materials and thinking mapped out. Dacher and I came together and decided to teach the course.

DC: How long did it take to create the MOOC?

ES: Around 12 months. We were able to announce and allow people to register well before we had all of the content on edX, which is how the flow of the work goes. People teach MOOCs in very different ways. One of the common ways which is probably a little faster is to bring a videographer into the classroom and film lectures. We really didn’t do that. Our MOOC doesn’t have any videos that are over twelve minutes long, most average four to five minutes. We don’t expect people to sit there for hours watching someone talk.

One of the challenges of a MOOC is oftentimes 200,000 people sign up, and only 5,000 people finish the course. Part of that is because you can’t just take hour-long videos of someone talking to other people in the lecture hall and post them, expecting that to hold people’s attention and interest. We decided to try something more dynamic and engaging.

DC: Part of your course will be weekly happiness practices. What are those going to look like?

ES: Yeah. When people study happiness, there are a couple (of) approaches. One is surveying people and seeing how happy they are and asking questions about the other aspects of their life. That’s a formative foray into the qualities of happy people. The other is, what can we do to engineer happiness? To make, for example, people go from a five to a seven on the happiness scale? People who have done that type of research have tested various practices and exercises. For example, the “Random Acts of Kindness” practice, which is deciding on a given day to do five kind things out in the world very purposefully, intentionally and thoughtfully. People who do that compared with people who do something else that is not about happiness report feeling happier. So we’re taking these little activities that people have used in research studies and offering them to the people in the course.

Millennials in particular have lived through a time where we’ve watched people succeed in an American Dream sensibility which we thought would guarantee happiness. We see these celebrities who have it all, they’ve got beauty, success and all kinds of resources. They’ve got what we think would’ve been the answer. And then we’re sort of heartbroken by the fact that in some cases, they’re not happy people.

– Emiliana Simon-Thomas

DC: Do you use weekly happiness practices in your own life? How has studying happiness affected your pursuit of happiness?

ES: Fundamentally, in one word. Thinking about all these ideas has impacted how I relate to myself and my spouse and my children. The kind of practices we do as a family, for example, is a gratitude practice. We go around the table and say one or two things that we’re grateful for today and maybe one thing that we could’ve done better. And part of that is gratitude, and part of that is about being vulnerable and open-hearted around the people that are there to support you.

Another thing I try to practice is mindfulness. If I feel myself becoming agitated or angry or frustrated about something, there’s a moment of recognition and an opportunity to take a deep breath and breathe out slowly and reassess. We know this affects the vagus nerve, which has a relaxing effect on the body. And then I try to decide how I want to behave instead of being reflexive and judgemental.

DC: So what’s the course structure?

ES: Each week, you’ll have five or six sections of material, which will be made up of videos and readings and interactive problem sets. We’ll link people out to various quizzes, so when we study gratefulness, we’ll have students take tests measuring how grateful they are. We’ll also have a couple live video chats.

DC: Thousands and thousands of students are registered to take your class. Is that daunting?

ES: When we started this, our high goal was 50,000. We thought, if we can get 50,000 people to take the course, we can dump a container of Gatorade on our heads. But, in fact, we’ve been incredibly surprised and humbled by the snowballing interest in the course.

It’s very sobering, and I feel very responsible. Certainly, it’s nerve-wracking at some other level. Every funny mannerism I do that I never knew about until I had to watch myself on video will be out there. I’m really just hoping that what we say will really help people improve their own lives, and it’s an honor to be a part of that.

DC: The demographic for your course is younger than the typical age you get at the center, with a lot of students between the ages of 18 and 35. Why do you think the MOOC is attracting more Millennials?

ES: Well, there’s one practical answer to that, which is that those are the people on edX. I also think that at a more interesting level, we’re all curious. Millennials in particular have lived through a time where we’ve watched people succeed in an American Dream sensibility which we thought would guarantee happiness. We see these celebrities who have it all, they’ve got beauty, success and all kinds of resources. They’ve got what we think would’ve been the answer. And then we’re sort of heartbroken by the fact that in some cases, they’re not happy people. In more dramatic cases, we have Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman. People that were really, really loved that were fundamentally were suffering in deep and profound ways that we as a society have been unable to support.

By no means am I suggesting that this course could’ve helped those individuals. Mental illness is not something that the science of happiness can cure or treat. But certainly, having a broad cultural understanding of what really does add to happiness and what doesn’t is something Millennials are interested in. They’re trying to figure out, what am I going to do with my life? Am I going to take that job that I always thought I should have? Or am I going to do the thing that moves me and brings me joy? I hope that some of what we teach will give people some perspective. I know that when I was 25 and at a crossroads trying to figure out what to do with my life, I would’ve really liked to have some of this under my belt.

Contact Libby Rainey at [email protected]

SEPTEMBER 12, 2014