The Surprising Science of Happiness

Semester: 

Spring

Offered: 

2023

Nancy L. Etcoff (Harvard Medical School)
Freshman Seminar 24K                 4 credits (spring term)        Enrollment:  Limited to 15

After a century of studying how to cure mental illness, scientists have started to explore what makes us happy. What have they discovered? In this seminar, we will critically examine the findings from the new science of happiness, including research in cognitive science, evolutionary biology, psychology, and neuroscience and reveal how this work alters our understanding of what happiness is, the optimal ways to achieve and increase it, the role of circumstance in its occurrence, its effect on our physical health, and its place in human nature. We will consider the notion of a biologically determined “hedonic set point,” and question whether there are people who “have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain threshold,” as William James noted over a century ago. We will examine how the brain’s reward circuitry generates feelings of pleasure, desire, comfort and craving, and the ways it propels us to achieve biologically significant goals. Among the questions we will consider are: What is happiness for? Can one make oneself happier by conscious effort? What are some of the myths about happiness? Finally, is happiness a worthy goal for one's life? Highlighting the most rigorous and promising work in this field, we will attempt to construct a “happiness toolkit.” The seminar will be didactic, interactive and experiential and provide an introduction to a burgeoning field of scientific inquiry.

See also: Spring 2023