Survival of the kindest

Have you heard the latest news out of the Greater Good Science Center? What’s that, you say? You didn’t know that UC Berkeley had a Greater Good Science Center? In a town whose reputation is already firmly in the “touchy-feely” category, there is a group of psychologists and sociologists studying how to make people happier. The video explains it all:

As a former would-be sociologist, I feel a fond nostalgia for the idea of compassion as a tonic for society’s ills. The main goal of the researchers at Greater Good is to show that kindness and cooperation are better survival strategies than competition and selfishness. They tell us Darwin believed that sympathy is our strongest instinct and that studies have shown generous people to be more successful in their communities.

After reading a bit more about Greater Good, my skepticism began to creep in. Some of their claims seem to fall short of the label “science.” Is it really advancing the front of human knowledge to discover that people who smile more in their high school yearbook photos are happier later in life? I also cringed at the section on their website titled “Our Core Beliefs.” I don’t mean to be so biased toward the hard sciences, but it is very strange for me to think about beliefs in the context of scientific research. There are things we have tested and proven, and then there are things that have yet to be tested. Where do beliefs fit into that structure?

In addition to sponsoring psychology research, the people at Greater Good offer other resources for the community, such as parenting advice and seminars on increasing your own happiness levels. In the end, I wholeheartedly support their goal of making people’s lives better. That’s exactly what scientists across many disciplines hope to do. There is no doubt that people’s lives can be bettered through improved technology, as well as through increased positive emotions. We are only using different means to reach the same end.