Being Dad: Greater Good Science Center Executive Director & Editor-in-Chief Jason Marsh
Named one of Time magazine’s “27 People Bridging Divides Across America,” Jason Marsh has been an integral part of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley, for nearly 20 years. In addition to Jason’s position at the GGSC, he also plays a purposeful role at home as dad to his 13-year-old daughter, Sarah.
Since its inception in 2001, the GGSC has become an internationally recognized leader in the “scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior — the science of a meaningful life,” and Jason Marsh has contributed every step of the way. Now the Executive Director and Editor-in-Chief, he discusses the evolution of the GGSC, how it’s impacted and influenced his parenting, and his daughter’s transition from at-home learning last year to being back on campus.
Can you tell our readers a bit about Greater Good and your initial role there?
The Greater Good Science Center was founded 20 years ago by a couple of Berkeley alums, Thomas and Ruth Ann Hornaday, who wanted to honor the memory of their daughter, who had recently passed away. Their goal was to advance the science and practice of what they referred to as “interpersonal peace and well-being.”
They connected with a dean and several psychology faculty, and together came up with the idea of this interdisciplinary center that would not only support research on peace and well-being but also share it widely with the public. There was new research on compassion, generosity, happiness, and related topics that was just starting to take off. They knew they wanted to communicate the results of that science but didn’t quite know the best way to do that. I had just moved to Berkeley after editing a journal with a similar mission in Washington, DC, and I was fortunate to connect with the center then. I essentially pitched them a concept for a publication for the center, and they liked the idea. We did a pilot issue of Greater Good magazine, it was well received, and it grew from there.
How has the GGSC evolved over the past 20 years?
It initially centered on the print magazine, Greater Good, that came out twice a year, then four times a year. In 2009, Greater Good became an entirely web-based publication. When we made that shift, we had 5,000 subscribers to the print magazine, which we were thrilled about. Now we have about a million visitors to the website per month. We have also developed a wide range of programs and initiatives that grew out of the magazine — an event series, online courses, programs for parents and educators. So the GGSC has grown a lot in terms of the size of our audience and the range of our offerings.
Over time, the science has really evolved as well. When we first started covering the science of compassion, forgiveness, and gratitude, for instance, there was not a ton of research in those areas. In the last 20 years, though, there has been an explosion of new studies, so we’ve tried to keep up. When we first started, we focused a lot on defining what these concepts mean, how you measure them, and why they matter — that’s really where the research was at. Now more and more research is exploring how you cultivate and spread these skills, so our coverage has similarly evolved to become more focused on practice and application.
You have been a part of the GGSC for your daughter’s entire life. How has your work there affected your approach to parenting?
It’s definitely helped me understand a lot of aspects of child development and parenting, which can be a mixed blessing. Many lessons that I’ve taken away from my work have been incredibly helpful — like the insight that there’s probably no better way to encourage certain positive behaviors than to model them yourself.
At the same time, I’ve definitely felt certain expectations or even pressure to be this perfectly patient, compassionate parent — and even for my daughter to act a certain way. I think that has at times made me hard on myself, and on her, for not living up to certain Greater Good ideals. That’s been an important realization over time — to keep those expectations in check. And it has also given me deeper appreciation for the importance of self-compassion, which we’ve also covered for years on Greater Good. Because mistakes are inevitable as a parent. The trick is to recognize that, and respond with humility and understanding, and even humor, rather than beating yourself up.
Having interviewed some of the foremost experts in parenting, psychology and mindfulness, which words of wisdom continue to resonate?
I remember when Sarah was not even a year old, we hosted a talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness and compassion. He tried to demystify mindfulness, highlighting opportunities to practice it every day.
A big one was for parents. He pointed out that as a parent, you’ll be in situations where you’ll be pressed to rush out the door, get to work, get your kid to school. You’ll be exasperated or impatient with something your kid is doing. But they’ll only be that age at that very moment once in their life. It was a helpful reminder to actually try to savor and appreciate the small moments, especially moments I might gloss over because I was annoyed or impatient or just focused on the next thing. You can’t always do this — sometimes you really do need to get out the door — but it’s useful to try to find the balance.
You have collaborated with GGSC contributor and author of Raising Happiness, Christine Carter, to discuss a range of parenting topics. What are some takeaways from your work together?
I took to heart a lot of the lessons Christine has written about, like on the importance of family mealtime — trying to make that a priority despite other things going on, to sit and eat together and have at least 20 minutes to check in over dinner.
The other topic that Christine has written about that I find really fascinating is the importance of family stories and narratives for kids. A big factor associated with all kinds of positive social and emotional outcomes in a kid’s life is this idea of being able to identify and articulate their family’s story or history.
That has been a challenge for us because my wife and I both grew up on the East Coast, and most of our family is thousands of miles away. So it’s taken a lot for us to help Sarah feel like she has a real connection to her roots and a connection to her extended family. We have always tried to find ways to regularly communicate with them — virtually or in person — and having these relatives be a part of Sarah’s life so she knows that she’s part of this bigger community, something bigger than herself.
Now that schools have welcomed kids back to campus, what changes have you noticed in your daughter?
I think she is still in a honeymoon period, where she is still really happy every day to go to school. That said, we were fortunate during the pandemic in that she did not have an especially bad experience not being in school. We fortunately have this small community of families in our neighborhood who she was with every day, so she had regular social contact. And she’s a self-motivated kid, so she was able to stay on top of her own school work independently, which I think is a challenge to do virtually. I was impressed by her ability to do that. Plus, I think there are many people out there who wouldn’t have minded skipping a year or two of middle school!
What have you observed about the resilience of adults and kids in general throughout the pandemic?
I think on the one hand there’s a lot of research suggesting that kids — and even, to a certain extent, adults — can be remarkably adaptive and adjust to positive and negative experiences in life. That said, given that finding, sometimes there’s a risk of exaggerating how true that can be, and to gloss over the actual impact of trauma on kids.
I think it is important to recognize that there is often still hope even in challenging circumstances — facing adversity does not necessarily condemn you to negative results in life. But it’s important to maintain that hope and at the same time recognize how challenging adverse circumstances can be and the lasting effects they can have on one’s psychological and physical health — and give kids the support they need to work through that adversity.
My son took the GGSC’s course on mindfulness and inspired our family to practice 3 Good Things each night at the dinner table. What sorts of gratitude rituals do you practice with your kids?
We used to do 3 Good Things and we also did Rose & Thorn, naming one good thing and one hard thing, at dinner each night. We did that on and off for a while, but there were times when my daughter rolled her eyes and pushed back when she felt like I was pushing Greater Good stuff on her, making her my own experiment at home. I could definitely understand that.
That said, recently she had a bat mitzvah, and she worked with one tutor initially, then started with a new tutor. I learned later that Sarah told the new tutor that she and her first tutor had instituted a practice that she wanted to keep up: At the start of every lesson, they named one thing they were grateful for over the past week. We actually had no idea she was doing this until later on. So I guess those rituals planted a seed!
The Greater Good website is an amazing resource for parents and families. What do you recommend for those new to the site?
I often recommend for people in general — parents, educators, everyone — to start by checking out the Keys To Well-Being that we list in the site’s navigation. We focus on everything from awe and empathy to gratitude and mindfulness, and this offers a crash course on what each of these skills mean, why they matter, what the benefits are, and the basics of how to practice them. It’s a good basic introduction to GGSC concepts.
Another great place to look is our parenting initiative, called Raising Caring, Courageous Kids.
We also have a parenting newsletter that goes out once a month, and our general Greater Good newsletter goes out twice a week. Because the science is ongoing, and new findings are emerging every week, I always point people to the newsletter because it helps track new developments in the science and in our coverage of it.