Home All Putting the Science of Happiness into Practice

Putting the Science of Happiness into Practice

written by Geoff Fallon 23 April 2015

Geoff Fallon, J.D., LL.M., LL.M., is a retired attorney who has been self-studying positive psychology for three years. He is writing a book entitled 16 Proven Ways to Get Happier at Work: Even When You Can't Change Your Company, Boss, Co-workers or Customers, which is based largely upon positive psychology. Full bio.

Geoff's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

From February 27 to March 1, 2015 at the spectacularly beautiful Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California experts from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (“GGSC”) “explored the roots of personal happiness and offered concrete, science-based approaches to boosting happiness in one’s self and others.“ 125 people attended the workshop, and since Wi-Fi was limited to the dining room at non-meal times, there was lively interaction among participants.

Happiness Rooted in Social Connectedness

Emiliana Simon-Thomas began the workshop with a brief and general overview of the sources of happiness and the importance of social connectedness. Sources of happiness include:

  1. Luck, when nothing bad happens. Of course, this is haphazard.
  2. Virtue, which may be simply defined as doing the right thing.
  3. Pleasure, status and achievement, which may produce high intensity positive states, but when the novelty wears off (hedonic adaptation), they cease to be pleasurable
  4. Friendship and community service, where happiness comes from one’s sense of connection. There is humility in connectedness that can help us maintain a life-long happiness.

Emiliana noted that very happy people have rich and satisfying relationships and spend little time alone relative to average people. While social relationships do not guarantee happiness, it does not appear to occur without them. It is the strongest predictor of happiness.

Vicki Zakrzewski spoke about self-compassion and reiterated Emiliana’s point that relationships are key to happiness. Vicki went on to say that the relationship to one’s self is vitally important to happiness. Self-compassion is the ability to be with our stress, pain, and suffering while responding to ourselves with warmth and kindness. Being kind to one’s self is essential for our well-being and enhances our ability to both care for others and have stronger relationships with them.

Tracking Happiness

Matt Killingsworth developed the “Track Your Happiness” app for smart phones. The tens of thousands of people who have signed up for this app are pinged throughout the day and asked to fill out a one-minute survey which asks, among other things: How happy you are now? What are you doing at the moment? Have you exercised recently? Are you alone? Is your mind wandering or in the moment? Responses are captured electronically and statistically analyzed to provide a very broad-based data set about happiness.

Among Matt’s findings are that minds wander about 47% of the time no matter what they’re doing. His data shows that when peoples’ minds wander they are generally less happy than when focused. Virtually all mind wandering is about the future and may be related to an innate tendency to scan ahead in order to anticipate threats. Besides mind wandering Matt’s research also shows that when people are more social they are happier, and indeed, people get more out of doing pleasurable things when they do them with others.

A particularly interesting finding concerns interacting with others through technology such as e-mail and Facebook. Unlike face-to-face interactions, however, electronic interactions show no appreciable increase in happiness and indeed, score at about the same level as when one is not interacting with others.

Mindfulness and Awe

Simon-Thomas and Keltner

   Simon-Thomas and Keltner

Emiliana took the podium again and discussed the importance of mindfulness. She stated that mindfulness enhances emotional intelligence by increasing the awareness and agency around one’s emotions. In order to relate to one’s emotions in a healthy way it is important to: properly label the emotion; express the emotion authentically and fearlessly; and to not reflexively create a narrative about the emotion but to truly feel it. Emotions are usually brief and should be allowed to dissipate without a created narrative, which often causes more problems than the emotion.

Dacher Keltner discussed the emerging science in connection with the experience of awe. He is one of the first scientists to rigorously research awe, which he defines as being in the presence of something vast. In addition, awe may be produced by observing the goodness of another person’s acts, or sometimes even by being terrified. To date his research shows that awe appears to uniquely predict whether people will be happy a couple weeks later. Experiencing awe increases pro-social behavior such as increased modesty (i.e. less focus upon one’s self) and produces a desire to work for the group versus for one’s self. Awe triggers the feeling that one is part of a group with a common humanity where the self gets smaller.

Experiencing awe appears to have several benefits that include enhanced happiness, creativity and curiosity as well as the ability to better handle stress. Dacher recommends that people intentionally put themselves in situations where they are likely to experience awe.

Finishing Up with Gratitude

Robin Stern spoke last and her presentation focused upon gratitude. Looking at gratitude from an inter-personal viewpoint, grateful people elicit more support and positivity from other people. Robin noted that gratitude, generosity and abundance go together and hence the more partners express gratitude to one another, the deeper the relationship becomes. The more we allow ourselves to experience gratitude the more it becomes part of us. Robin concluded by leading the group through an interesting gratitude exercise.

It was an enlightening weekend at Esalen and a truly special experience to learn about concrete, happiness-producing techniques from the GGSC experts. The spectacularly beautiful natural setting – with severely restricted Wi-Fi – produced interesting and fruitful conversations among the participants that uniquely enhanced the overall learning experience.


Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Killingsworth, M. Track your happiness application.

Killingsworth, M. (2011). Want to be happier? Stay in the moment. TED-x Cambridge.

Simon-Thomas, E. (2015). Measuring compassion in the body. Greater Good Science Center.

Simon-Thomas, E. & Breines, J. (2015). Can an online course boost happiness? Greater Good Science Center.

Simon-Thomas, E. & Keltner, D. (2015). Science of Happiness Online Course. From the page: “Self-Paced Course Is Now Live! Take It at Your Own Pace Through May 2015”

Stern, R. & Emmons, R. (2013). Gratitude Practice Explained. Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Adapted from Emmons, R. A. & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 846–855.

Photo Credit
: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Big Sur from Esalen Big House courtesy of Linda N.
Connectedness courtesy of NJIT Connections Miniversity

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Judy Krings 24 April 2015 - 5:33 am

Great summaries, here, Geoff. I will post your article in my upcoming MentorCoach course, “Positive Psychology Coaching” that begins this Monday, April, 27. Good luck with your upcoming book, too. Your title is engaging. Many thanks!

Homaira 26 April 2015 - 12:01 am

Thank you Geoff! Re-inspired to do more good deeds, greater inward and outward connection and heartfelt gratitude!

Sharon Thompson 28 April 2015 - 9:24 am

Geoff ~ clear recap and insightful. Thank you. I am particularly interested in the “awe” factor.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com