Thursday, September 8, 2011

The science of happiness

Did you know Stanford has a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and that Berkeley hosts research for The Science of a Meaningful Life? I have been going through YouTube videos of Fred Luskin who teaches forgiveness - how to forgive, why practice forgiveness, and scientific findings of physiological health benefits of practicing forgiveness. Kelly McGonigal uses psychology and neuroscience research results to explain and support the importance of meditation and compassion. Sonja Lyubomirsky does research on happiness, and finds that genetics accounts for 50% of your level of happiness (ie. The personality you were born with); life circumstances accounts for about 10%, but 40% are within our power of control (ie. We can change the level of our happiness by changing our thinking patterns and our actions. Barbara Frederickson does research on positivity. She finds that in order to be genuinely positive (rather than faking it), we need a ratio of 3:1 for overall positive to negative thinking at all times. This is because the human tendency is to focus on the negative thoughts, so we need 3 times as much positivity to counter the negative thinking. This is not to say that we should try to eliminate negative thinking all together (is that even possible?) She finds most people's habitual ratios are at 2:1 or lower, which means we all need to work a little harder to generate a tiny bit more of positive emotions in order to stay positive overall.

Now, it may be weird to be conducting research on "the science of happiness", when the ancient spiritual texts and sutras have already laid it out for us, explaining humanity, the sources of human suffering, and how to deal with it. I agree that spiritual texts give a more comprehensive picture of the whole human condition, why we are the way we are etc. By definition of the way science is conducted (control all variables and change just one variable to see what happens), we will never get the full picture of any subject with science. However, what science does provide is a snapshot of what's going on in the modern times -- the fact that at a 2:1 positive to negative thinking rate, most people have a tendency to be a little negative even though they swear they have been attempting some positive thinking. Genetics studies tell me that my pessimistic personality has determined that I will never win the "happiest person on earth contest" no matter how hard I work on it, BUT if I try really hard, I can improve my current level of happiness by 40% regardless of my life circumstances. This is encouraging to know.

The purpose of most organized religions is to teach the simple ideas of compassion, gratitude, acceptance, positive thinking, non-harming, forgiveness, etc. The 2 main tools used by Christianity to get people to practice these ideas -- the Bible (words of God), and the act of praying -- seem to be sufficient for a small handful of Christians only. A large number of religious people accept that God would like them to practice these concepts in their daily lives, but without providing more tools, they fail at achieving true forgiveness and true compassion sometimes, which make them feel bad, so they pray for God to forgive their "sins" and give them more strength, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, so some people chronically experience shamefulness. Amazingly they keep clinging on the faith, insisting that the system is complete as-is. It's okay to keep their faith, but with a couple more tools at hand, such as practicing loving kindness meditation and some yoga, it'll be easier to open the heart.

I find the series of "forgiveness" talks by Fred Luskin particularly helpful, because I am so good at holding grudges. The explanation that all the suffering that we experience are not unique to an individual, but are all common to mankind, is very clarifying. It is also useful to realize that practicing forgiveness helps improve our own physiological health. Holding grudges punishes no one but our own body and mind. To forgive does not mean to never get worked up about others who have done us wrong, but to realize that my sufferings are not uniquely my experience but is part of humanity. No one is obliged to treat me exactly the way I would like them to treat me, not even my family, my best friend, my partner, my boss, or my server. Forgiveness means being at peace with the fact that life circumstances do not always work out the way we'd like them to. With gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in hand, life will be a happier one.

By the way, I think the way Luskin speaks would make him a very popular reverend/minister. However, he identifies himself as a secular educator, which goes to show that it is not necessary to say "these are the words from God" to effectively teach morality.