The Science of Happiness
Sunday, March 20, 2016

What is it

Positive psychology is an emerging science that investigates the qualities, attitudes, and practices that enable people to thrive and be happy. So what does this research reveal about human happiness? Are some of us just born with happier dispositions than others? How (if at all) do health, wealth, family relations, and community ties affect our happiness? Do happy people have a better or worse grip on reality than unhappy people? And is happiness something really worth pursuing? John and Ken get happy (scientifically) with Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Listening Notes

How do we define happiness? Is happiness a subjective feeling, or an overall evaluation of your life? John considers whether he can even characterize himself as happy. Ken questions whether we can imagine someone who is unsatisfied with their lives but is still happy. Perhaps happiness is a dispositional state—that we tend to have it, so we can call ourselves happy, even if we do not have it at every given moment. John and Ken veer over to a discussion of Aristotle, whose notion of eudaimonia based happiness on daily habits—a theory that has come to find some scientific backing.

John and Ken welcome Emiliana Simon-Thomas to the show. Simon-Thomas shares her favorite way of thinking about happiness: an acronym called OKRA that stands for Optimism-Kindness-Resilience-Awareness. Ken wonders whether this definition conforms to people’s ordinary conceptions of happiness. Simon-Thomas thinks it does, but adds that it goes a step further in explaining why they call themselves happy. After a short break, Simon-Thomas claims that interpersonal relationships and compassion towards others is the easiest and most-surefire way to become happier. Ken presses whether people living monastically have a lesser tendency to happiness, and Simon-Thomas does not buy that these lifestyles necessitate less human connection. John ponders whether relationships with non-human entities like pets or religious entities would have a similar positive effect. Simon Thomas cites some evidence to suggest so.

The conversation turns towards whether the OKRA definition of happiness is morally-laden—that the inclusion of the kindness term admonishes against certain anti-social behavior. Ken asserts that happiness seems to be a morally neutral concept. Simon-Thomas is skeptical that such anti-social behavior can consistently make a person happier. The first audience question asks whether memory has much of a role in happiness. Simon-Thomas clarifies that memory tends to amplify neither positive nor negative memories; moreover, the neutrality of memory suggests that we ought to cultivate happy moments on a daily basis.

Another audience member returns to the question of how to precisely measure happiness using the OKRA pneumonic. Simon-Thomas concedes that the definition is not as rigidly defined as she hopes it to be one day. Ken interjects whether this room for interpretation in the definition makes it difficult to measure happiness consistently across cultures and across genders. After a third audience question, Ken challenges what the role of other emotions is in making people happy. Simon-Thomas emphasizes that expressing a whole range of emotions is puzzlingly helpful for one’s happiness. A fourth audience inquires whether awareness of your own happy at a given time diminishes your positive feelings.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 7:58): Shuka Kalantari tells the story of San Diego resident Natalie Price who suffered from a heart attack but participated in a study that encouraged her to be more grateful. Meredith Pung, a co-author of the study, testifies to the positive effects of “gratitude journaling.” Finally, Kalantari profiles another study conducted over 75 years that showed that positive relationships were the biggest predictors of happiness.
  • 60 Second Philosopher (seek to 46:21): Ian Shoales documents some news coverage about how mindfulness may not be as beneficial as conventionally thought. Through this sarcastic report, he interrogates whether the internet makes us happier or not.

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Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Science Director of the Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley

Bonus Content


VIDEO: Opening montage

MUSIC: Tin Cup Serenade, I've Got the World on a String

MUSIC: Tin Cup Serenade, Jump For Joy

Researched By

Mohit Mookim

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