The Science of a Meaningful Life

Last week we had the opportunity to host Dr. Dacher Keltner, founder of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley, and a leader in the movement to apply neuroscience to study happiness and well-being. His numerous books, talks, and support in the creation of the film Inside Out have brought his research to millions of people, and we've been honored to work with Dacher and his team for the past three years in the design and creation of Millennium School. Last Wednesday, he spoke to an audience of parents about his findings around "The Science of a Meaningful Life." Needless to say, he had our full attention!

Here are a few things that stuck with us:

  • Individuals Seeking Material Gain turns out to be a poor recipe for happiness, at least after a certain point. That point comes around $75,000 of income in the US - any income beyond that no longer creates more happiness. Similarly, he presented research on how individualism can work against us; social connectedness is one of the most powerful predictors of happiness, adding ten years of life expectancy vs those who are more isolated (and, many of us were interested to note, his research indicates this is true for introverts as well).
  • Compassion: First and foremost, happiness springs from compassion. As the Dalai Lama said: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." 
  • Gratitude is one of the most powerful contributors to happiness. Dacher defines this as "a feeling of appreciation, wonder, reverence for what is given." Those who have a practice of noticing and expressing gratitude are more likely to experience happiness; for parents, Dacher suggested a practice of talking about things you feel grateful for around the dinner table.
  • Awe & Purpose. Here was a link that particularly caught our attention, as we prepare to help our students create Personal Quests, which are long-term, structured projects chosen and executed by students in order to follow a personal learning interest. Dacher's research points to the connection between finding awe and finding purpose - when we discover awe, we have a powerful clue as to work that will feel purposeful, motivating and inherently important to us.
  • Accepting Negative Emotions. Dacher helped to shape the film Inside Out, and he reflected on the core message presented in the film: that we must accept our negative emotions, even seeing them as helpful pointers toward new identities. It's no coincidence that the movie focuses on a girl entering middle school, when emotions explode in power and become increasingly socially influenced. This is the time to help students accept and learn from their full emotional range, ultimately building self-regulation. He encouraged educators and parents alike to help kids become aware of their self-narrative - to think of their lives as a novel, remembering that in any good story, the darkest and hardest moments are the pivots, and ultimately the engine for the best parts of our narratives.

For Dacher's most recent research, take a look at his latest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. We're thrilled to be collaborating with Dacher and his colleagues at the Greater Good Science Center, serving as their laboratory school, and finding new ways to apply these practices for middle school youth. 

Millennium TeamComment