The Science of Happiness

I’m participating in an EdX course called The Science of Happiness.

I’m only in week 1 so far, but it seems worth a look – I’d recommend giving it a try!

I LOVE EdX for that nostalgic feeling of being back in school. (Or – maybe this is a more desirable way to look at it – that feeling of being a life-long learner who is never done with her education.) And without the stress and the tuition! I can learn all I want but when I take the tests, I don’t really have much riding on the grades.

A caveat: in week 1 of this course, they haven’t really talked about how to interpret study results where x is associated with y. The way they’ve presented some of the introductory information so far, they make it easy for folks to misinterpret an association as correlation or even causation – happiness causes good health, for example, rather than happiness is associated with good health. Maybe they’ll correct this problem a bit further into the course.

I think one question I’m going to try and answer for myself as I take the course is actually a philosophical question (so maybe I won’t succeed…maybe I’ll need to take a philosophy of happiness course):

Should people pursue happiness? 

It’s a question that I think a lot of folks – myself included – take for granted or don’t think about that much. But sometimes we struggle with day-to-day decisions that SEEM to pit our own individual happiness against other priorities or values that we may have. Sometimes we worry that we’re being selfish when we do the things that we think will make us happy. Other times we assume that we must do x, y, or z – even if doing so is difficult or inconvenient or unconventional – because if we don’t, we might blow our chances at happiness.

Some questions I’ll need to examine in order to answer the above question are below. While the Science/Psychology of Happiness won’t tell me if feeling pleasure is inherently good, or if life has meaning (these are philosophical questions)… it might help me answer some of the following:

  • How do we define happiness? – When most people talk about happiness, what are they really trying to express? Is it the same as pleasure or feeling good, or does happiness also entail living a good or meaningful life? Is it fleeting or is it something long-term? Is it the case that none of ‘us’ (whoever ‘us’ is…all humans? all beings? all members of our in-group, however we define it?) can truly be happy until all of us are?
  • What does happiness – as we define it – do/accomplish? (What are its advantages?) – Is it just a subjective ‘good’ in its own right, or does it have positive spin-off or positive outcomes for productivity, physical health, societal well-being, etc.?
  • Does the intentional pursuit of happiness generally yield good results? – Is happiness something you can successfully pursue, or do we have to cultivate it indirectly somehow? In the course introduction, the instructors talk about how people can sometimes go overboard in the pursuit of feeling good all of the time, and stress themselves out or neglect the experience of ‘negative’ emotions like anger or grief that are actually necessary or useful for our long-term survival and well-being. So I will probably end up needing to explore questions like ‘what are the best ways to pursue or produce happiness’? (Maybe the answer to the question ‘Should we pursue happiness’ will be ‘Yes, BUT only if you do it in the following way…’)

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