Jason Marsh is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley, and the founding editor-in-chief of the center’s award-winning online magazine, Greater Good. The GGSC sponsors research into social and emotional well-being and provides resources to help people apply this research to their personal and professional lives.
Marsh was recently featured in TIME magazine’s “Apart. Not Alone” series responding to the COVID-19 crisis in a list of “27 People Bridging Divides Across America.” The GGSC has published an online Guide to Well-Being during Coronavirus, including advice about approaches for practicing character virtues during the outbreak. Earlier this month he spoke with Nate Barksdale, lead writer for the John Templeton Foundation’s Possibilities newsletter, about Greater Good’s mission as well as the big questions being raised by the personal and collective challenges of COVID-19.
How did you first get interested in the topics you address in Greater Good? How did the magazine come about?
My background is in both journalism and education. I’d always been drawn to reporting on big ideas and understanding social movements and in the practicalities of education — in understanding what works. For a few years I was at George Washington University working on a publication called The Responsive Community. It was founded by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni and had a mission to bridge the world of academia and the general public, especially around topics of civic engagement and volunteerism. When I moved out to California in 2002 and joined what became the Greater Good Science Center, I realized there was a tremendous opportunity to create a publication serving a similar function for the science of social and emotional wellbeing, connecting scientists with members of the public who could apply this research to their personal and professional lives. Greater Good launched as a print magazine in 2004 and I’ve been here ever since.
Initially, every issue of Greater Good centered on a theme like compassion or forgiveness or gratitude and we assembled a variety of authors to contribute articles on that theme. Some of those pieces reported on research, some were more practical pieces written by education or healthcare practitioners. Greater Good became an online-only publication in 2009, which enabled us to expand our audience dramatically — the print magazine peaked with 5,000 subscribers, and the website now has more than 1 million readers each month. Over time we have also expanded the range of topics we cover to include emerging research on topics like awe, humility, and purpose. At the same time, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in topics related to personal happiness. We have tried to appeal to that interest while also maintaining our focus on the greater good — we try to show how our personal happiness in many ways depends on the strength of our social connections and on commitments that go beyond the self.
What would you like people to understand about the work being done by Greater Good and the GGSC?
A key idea we want to get across is that expectations can often dictate behavior. There’s a dominant narrative in much of our popular culture that humans are born self-interested and aggressive. We want to call people’s attention to the fact that we also have these strong propensities for compassion, care, and kindness. That’s not to deny that we have these aggressive tendencies, but those behaviors are not inevitable. What really matters are the assumptions, environmental factors, and other social circumstances that can help elicit and evoke our more compassionate or our more aggressive instincts. By trying to shift that narrative, to have people recognize their own capacity for goodness, we hope to encourage more people to act on that capacity for kindness and nurture it in others.
How is the current COVID-19 pandemic changing what you and your team are working on?
The pandemic has affected our team the way it has most everyone — disrupting our normal lives, and making us all feel heightened fear and uncertainty. But it has caused us to drop or delay much of the content we were working on, and to focus most of our editorial energy on some of the big questions raised by the pandemic. Two questions in particular really speak to our mission. One is: How do you foster or fortify a sense of psychological resilience to help people deal with the stresses in their lives, managing them in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming and harm their psychological, physiological, and social well-being? We’ve been trying to produce resources that help people deal with the enormous stress and anxieties they’re experiencing and to help them help others, especially kids, deal with those psychological challenges.
The other question is: How do you encourage feelings of connection and compassion towards others, even under trying circumstances? We’ve been trying to help people deal with their own feelings of isolation and loneliness, thinking through ways that they can experience greater feelings of connection to others and find a sense of purpose in this moment.
It seems clear that this is a major, existential event that will perhaps change the way people see the world and perceive their own safety. But it will also hopefully change the way they perceive their relations to others in their community and around the world. We are all interconnected — perhaps now more than ever. Our health, well-being, and sense of self, safety, and security are dependent on the choices that other people make, and vice versa. People have been struck by the profound idea that simple choices — such as going outside or washing your hands — can have life or death implications for other people. Every time you go out in public, you are in some way entrusting your life, well-being, and health to others. While this might feel especially true to us now, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that it was true even before the pandemic. I’d hope when we come out of this, there’s a heightened sense of appreciation for our interconnection and interdependence on one another, causing not only a deeper investment in public health but also a greater commitment to everyday generosity and compassion for others.
What are some of the big questions that currently inspire your work?
One relates to how we can expand our circles of compassion and concern. Humans have these strong psychological and even neuro-biological tendencies to perform kind acts and derive some sense of pleasure from performing them. But research suggests we’re more likely to demonstrate that kindness towards those who we see as part of our immediate “in-group”—to our family and those with whom we have an obvious sense of kinship. So how do we shift out of a narrow, tribalist mentality, so that we’re less likely to see certain people as “the other” and more likely to see them as part of our own communities? It’s a question that takes on greater relevance as we’re confronted with challenges, like political polarization or climate change, that can only be addressed collectively. We have a new initiative on Bridging Differences to address this question head-on.
Another big question is one that arises from looking at the last 20 years of research in positive psychology, happiness, and social-emotional well-being. There’s a growing body of work pointing towards certain interventions or activities that seem to boost character virtues like generosity or gratitude. But not all of those interventions work equally well for every person. If we’re truly trying to promote well-being on a large scale and develop the skills of gratitude, generosity, humility and awe, we need to better understand what kinds of activities are the most effective for which types of people. We launched a website, Greater Good in Action, as a hub for research-based practices for a meaningful life. We’re trying to encourage people to try those practices more frequently, and are working to enhance the platform so that it can better identify which practices are going to be the most effective and engaging for which types of people.
What books, articles or other things have been most interesting or influential to you recently?
I’ve been reading Together, by former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy, which comes out later this month. It’s incredibly timely, in ways he never could have foreseen. Murthy documents the epidemic of loneliness that has been afflicting our country for years, along with all of its costs for our psychological and physical health and even the future of our democracy. It’s a great service to collect all of this research in one place, but he goes one step further by laying out how we can expand our circles of connection, individually and collectively. I’m impressed by its scope, breadth and ambition. At a time when we’re forced to be physically isolated from one another, he makes a compelling case for maintaining and rebuilding our social connections — and to find greater civic unity at a time when we’re being pulled apart.
I’ve also been enjoying the podcast Everything Is Alive. It features deadpan interviews with inanimate objects, like a lamppost or subway seat. My family has loved it for a while, but it feels especially well-suited to the present moment: It provides a light, often hilarious diversion—yet nearly every episode is also a gentle meditation on purpose, death, and finding meaning in life.