Science & Technology

The year’s most popular articles about the “science of a meaningful life”

Jeremy Adam Smith

At a recent retreat for the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, one of our advisors looked at a list of our most popular articles to date. “This is all over the place,” he said, referring to the diversity of topics and approaches.

I replied that this is a feature, not a bug. The mission of our website is to cover the “science of a meaningful life”—and to turn this new research into stories, tips, and tools for a happier life and a more compassionate society. Thus we are not confined to one discipline or field, like psychology or neuroscience, and we’re not confined to just one theme, like mindfulness or empathy.

Instead, we aim for comprehensiveness and conversation across domains. We tackle questions like these:

Those are big questions. Once considered too “soft” for serious scientific inquiry, today they are being tackled every day in peer-reviewed journals—yet that work is often not available to a wider public. So we at the Greater Good Science Center provide a bridge between the ivory tower and people who can put these insights to work at home or on the job; we especially aim for “people who work with people,” like teachers and therapists.

What does this imply for our editorial balance between the popular and the scholarly? As one reader recently asked:

Most of the articles on the website are written at the level of a popular science article, with high-level summaries of research and “5-ways to XYZ” types of lists. While there is certainly a place for these types of articles, the science of a meaningful life is much more subtle than those broad strokes can paint. I would be very happy to see more focus on the actual research, with links (or at least citations) to actual peer-reviewed articles, and discussion of the subtleties.

It’s true that we often lead with lists and high-level summaries—trust me, a piece titled “Six Habits of Highly Grateful People” gets many more clicks than one that is broader and more open-ended. That piece, which was this year’s most popular, actually provides a solid example of our approach, because it is built on a foundation with many layers.

If you scan the piece, you’ll see many links. The very first is to our gratitude topic page, which provides a research-based definition of gratitude, as well as rigorous overviews of research into why and how individuals should strive to be grateful.

That page also provides a deeper set of links, to our research briefs that go into more depth about one study or to the scientific studies themselves. Many of the actual studies are not available to the general public; to read them, you need access to the journal through an institution or a subscription that can cost several hundred dollars a year. As a service, we have embedded some of the most important studies on our site and we provide an overview of those studies. We also feature presentations by leading scientists about their research.

A diversity of topics demands a diversity of editorial approaches; we embrace many. You have to think of a breezy listicle like “Six Habits of Highly Grateful People” as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. But what’s sweet to the reader is often hard, hard work for the writer, requiring quite a bit of skill and editorial help; as an editor, I can tell you that many writers struggle to both entertain and inform readers. Our lists rest on numerous editorial layers—and yes, you as the reader do have to do the work of peeling them away. Is there are a better way to organize the information? There’s a lot of it, and we do our best, and we’re always soliciting feedback from readers to help us improve.

But as you can see in this list of the 10 most popular Greater Good articles from the past year, lists are not all we publish. Many of these are nuanced accounts by scientists of their own research; some explore the complexities of emotions and behaviors that we might too-quickly assume to be very simple. That’s what we do at Greater Good, and I strongly encourage readers with the time and inclination to step through the portals we provide into the studies themselves. Start here, and keep going!

1. Six Habits of Highly Grateful People, by Jeremy Adam Smith: Are you bad at gratitude, just like Jeremy Adam Smith? He has some lessons for you from people who know how to say “Thanks!”

2. How to Focus a Wandering Mind, by Wendy Hasenkamp: New research reveals what happens in a wandering mind—and sheds light on the cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus.

3. What’s Good about Generation Y?, by Karen Foster: They’ve been called ungrateful, narcissistic, and entitled. But new research reveals the hopes, ideals, and positive qualities of today’s young adults.

4. What are the Secrets to a Happy Life?, by George E. Vaillant: In following 268 men for their entire lives, the Harvard Grant Study has discovered why some of them turned out happier than others.

5. Five Surprising Ways Oxytocin Shapes Your Social Life, by Jeremy Adam Smith: New research is finding that oxytocin doesn’t just bond us to mothers, lovers, and friends—it also seems to play a role in excluding others from that bond.

6. The Top 10 Insights from the “Science of a Meaningful Life” in 2012, by Jason Marsh, Lauren Klein, Jeremy Adam Smith: The most surprising, provocative, and inspiring findings published the previous year.

7. Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain, by Louis Cozolino: In an excerpt from his new book, psychologist Louis Cozolino applies the lessons of social neuroscience to the classroom.

8. How to Deal with Mean People, by Christine Carter: Hint: Don’t just turn the other cheek.

9. How to Turn Your Brain from Anger to Compassion, by Paul Gilbert: Attention is like a spotlight—whatever it shines on becomes brighter in the mind. This knowledge can help us build compassion, says Paul Gilbert.

10. How to Grow the Good in Your Brain, by Rick Hanson: Rick Hanson explains how we can protect ourselves from the stress of negative experiences.

If you like what we do at the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, please consider making a donation to support our work!

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