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Shiny Happy People

An emerging movement known as positive psychology aims to provide a scientifically validated set of exercises, known as interventions, that lead happiness seekers to the grail.

By Brad Lemley
Aug 1, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:28 AM


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"I am happier," says Sherrod Ballentine, a district court mediator in ­Chapel Hill, North Carolina. "Every day, I feel so grateful to wake up this way."

Ballentine, 57, wasn't clinically depressed before; she was, as psychologists say, functional. But hoping to kick her mood up a notch, she took a one-day continuing education course called "Authentic Happiness and How to Obtain It." She has since completed a six-month class on the same subject, faithfully doing exercises like writing and reciting a "gratitude" letter to a friend and jotting down three happy events of each day every night for a week.

"It trains your mind to focus on the past as being very positive," she says. "It's completely different from traditional psychology, where you spend your time trying to figure out why you are so irrevocably sad." Ballentine says her newfound happiness even inspired her to take the next step in her career. She is soon to be a certified superior court mediator.

At first blush, her story sounds both seductive—who doesn't want to be happier?—and perhaps a little nutty. Surely the average person can't make herself happy the same way she would master calculus or Thai cooking, simply by taking a class. "The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase: if you pursue happiness, you'll never find it," grumbled novelist C. P. Snow, and until recently, most psychologists, and perhaps most of the public, probably would have agreed. But an emerging movement known as positive psychology aims to do precisely that—provide a scientifically validated set of exercises, known as interventions, that lead happiness seekers to the grail.

"We seem to be developing a science that will increase the tonnage of happiness in the world," says Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist widely credited with inventing the movement. "In my more grandiose moments, when I think about all these fitness centers where people are working up a sweat, I think you could have a little room called a well-being center and have a coach or psychologist take you through 6 or 10 weeks to make you happier. I would do it on a contingency basis. I would say people have to pay only if they are happier after 10 weeks."

While health-club happiness tutors remain on the horizon, the movement is definitely on a merry romp. Seligman coined the term positive psychology in 1998 when he was president of the American Psychological Association, and the association's official journal devoted its entire January 2000 issue to the subject. Some 350 psychologists from 23 countries attended the seventh annual Positive Psychology International Summit last October; as evidence of the movement's mainstream credentials, the next one, this fall, is cosponsored by Toyota. You can now subscribe to the Journal of Happiness Studiesand buy one of Seligman's best-selling books, like Authentic Happiness or Learned Optimism. Psychology professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has even proposed a "National Index of Subjective Well Being" that could, according to Diener, identify "which segments of society are least happy and perhaps fashion policies to aid them."

The movement's boosters claim it's all overdue. Psychology, Seligman says, has done a bang-up job of making dysfunctional people functional: "After 60 years and $30 billion in research, there are 14 disorders that are relievable, and two of them are curable." (Relievable disorders, he claims, include premature ejaculation and social phobia; curable ones are panic disorder and blood-and-injury phobia.) But studies show that despite ever-increasing wealth, typical Americans are no happier than they were 50 years ago. Leaders of the positive psychology movement argue that the situation needs changing because happy people don't just feel better, they are also healthier, longer-lived, more productive, and are more likely to triumph in elections. Happiness, it seems, makes winners.

But happiness is a surprisingly contentious subject, and at least some psychologists argue that "think positive" exhortations should be left to pop purveyors like Norman Vincent Peale and Tony Robbins. "We live in a culture that already expects you to be happy all the time. I call it the tyranny of the positive attitude," grouses Barbara Held, professor of psychology at Bowdoin College and the author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching. In Held's view, having the positive psychology movement throw its weight behind that cultural bias serves up a double whammy: People who feel bad must now shoulder the added weight of feeling defective for feeling bad. "People say we are trying to tell people what kind of lives to lead," Seligman responds. "But I'm old-fashioned about science. I think science needs to be descriptive. I am just trying to describe." He wants to leave the choice of whether to follow to others.

There is plenty more to this debate, but first things first. Is there really a scientific path to happiness?

It's a sparkling late-spring day in Martin Seligman's suburban Philadelphia garden. More than 400 rosebushes spill over trellises in a riot of pink, peach, and crimson. Bees buzz. Robins chirp. The scene is idyllic and manages to make even a jaded journalist feel relatively cheerful.

Slumped in a webbed lounge chair in the middle of it, wearing shorts and a blue T-shirt and sipping from a plastic tumbler, is a patch of damp weather in this sunny Eden: Seligman himself. He is friendly enough, smiles now and then, and has a sharp wit, but no one, including Seligman himself, would characterize him as ebullient. "Some people are blessed with good genes," he says in a low, rumbling voice, aggravated by a virus. "I am not one of them. I think I am by nature a gloomy, depressive, pessimistic sort of person."

Far from disqualifying him from happiness science, his dour nature makes him ideally suited to the field, Seligman contends. "Happiness is too important a topic to be left to happy people," he says. "A lot of the self-help stuff out there does seem to be written by the genetically gifted." In his view, the fact that he has scrabbled to even a moderately upbeat perch is a victory, and he owes it to the positive psychology interventions he and his colleagues have crafted. "I am someone who takes his own medicine," he says.

It's a recent turn in a long career. Seligman, 64, describes himself as working "smack in the pathology tradition" for most of his life. In the 1960s, as a graduate-student researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, he discovered that dogs zapped with an electric shock and allowed to escape by jumping over a low barrier quickly learned to do so, but most shocked dogs given no escape option eventually gave up, even when a way to flee was introduced later. Experiments with people, using annoying sounds rather than shocks, garnered similar results.

Seligman's pioneering investigation of what he called "learned helplessness" made him a rising psychology star, but he was intrigued that some of the findings were ignored. Learned helplessness, he found, could not always be induced. About one in three dogs, and a similar ratio of humans, never gave up in the experiments. They kept looking for a means of escape no matter how often they were shocked. They were natural optimists.

Optimism, strictly defined, is "happiness about the future," says Seligman. Starting in the late 1980s, in the middle of a prestigious career devoted to studying standard psychological fare like depression and suicide, he began to look at optimism, aiming for techniques to instill it in normal people.

Looking at identical-twin studies, Seligman concluded that genes clearly give some people a head start. He found that about 50 percent of a person's self-reported happiness level, known as subjective well-being, can be predicted by his or her genetic makeup. Indeed, one small study published in 1978 showed that lottery winners were no happier one year after receiving their prizes than were other, similar nonwinners and that recent victims of paralysis conversely seemed less unhappy than expected. Those results suggest that each person seems to stick to a baseline level of satisfaction—or lack thereof—regardless of life events.

Seligman was also impressed by a happiness equation, written as H = S + C + V, developed in 2000 and since reformulated into a pie chart by psychologists David Schkade, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Kennon Sheldon. In this formula, H is a person's enduring level of happiness, S is his genetic contribution to his level of happiness, C is his life circumstances, and V is factors under his voluntary control.

You can't—at least for now—do much to improve S, and C seems to count for surprisingly little. According to Schkade, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Ed Diener, money (beyond a certain minimum requirement), health, education, race, and local climate have only a minimal effect on happiness. Living in a wealthy democracy, being married, having a rich social network, and adhering to a religion do boost contentment, but altogether life circumstances count for no more than 8 to 15 percent of the variance in happiness among people. Lucky thing, notes Seligman, as these factors can be difficult or even impossible to change.

So Seligman, along with psychologists Tracy Steen and Chris Peterson, created interventions—actions anybody can take to boost V, the remaining roughly 40 percent of a person's happiness quotient that is under immediate, voluntary control. It is this immediacy, the researchers say, that makes this variable different from life circumstances, which are also often voluntary but tougher and slower to alter. Or, as Lyubomirsky and her colleagues wrote in 2005, "Circumstances happen to people, and activities are ways that people act on their circumstances."

Seligman's interventions aimed to boost all three of what he calls the basic types of happiness: pleasure, which includes sensory enjoyments like good food and sex; flow, the sensation of being fully absorbed in a task; and meaning, using your highest strengths in service to something larger than yourself.

To test the interventions, Seligman created authentichappiness.org, which currently has more than 500,000 registrants. Seligman, Steen, and Peterson tracked 577 of those who had completed baseline happiness-level questionnaires, did a randomly assigned one-week intervention or a control, and took five follow-up happiness-level assessments.

"It's a random-assignment, placebo-controlled study, the best kind of study there is," Seligman says. He believes that the study, the results of which were published last year in the journal American Psychologist, was the first to rigorously test happiness-creating interventions.

He found that three of them were particularly effective. The "gratitude visit," in which the participant wrote down and recited an essay of gratitude to a "kind" person in his or her life, caused an immediate spike in happiness, but after a month the effect was gone. Two others had more lasting impact. The "three good things" intervention—in which the participant wrote down three things that went well and their causes each day for a week—lifted happiness for a full six months, as did the "using signature strengths" intervention, in which the participant took a test to identify his or her personal strengths, like creativity or forgiveness, and used a "top strength" in a new, different way daily for a week.

All five of the experimental interventions worked better than the control, in which the participant simply wrote down a different early childhood memory each night for a week.

To Seligman, there is little mystery about why they worked: "Emotions are often a consequence of thinking. You can change what you think and get some conscious control over your emotional life."


No. At least, not always, says Julie K. Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. (It's worth noting that most of the major players in this debate have written at least one mass-market book.) "It's not impossible to change, but it's much more difficult than Seligman describes," she says. "Stability in traits is considerable. . . . I am generally skeptical of recipes for happiness."

What about the positive results so far? The tricky bit, skeptics say, is that they're all self-reported. To judge an intervention's effectiveness, the respondent is asked—over and over in various ways—how happy he feels. "Some people are repressors," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, who is a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside. "They might really be unhappy but claim they are happy. There is no thermometer for happiness."

Still, the interventions do appear to work for some people; it seems unlikely that everyone who reports improved happiness is a repressor. But do they work for nearly everyone, as the proponents of positive psychology assert? There seems to be little doubt that interventions aimed at replacing selfishness with caring are probably worth trying for most people. Seligman believes much modern unhappiness springs from what he calls "the society of the maximal self," which encourages an obsessive focus on the individual rather than the group. Numerous studies show that the happiest people are those who devote their lives to caring for others rather than focusing on themselves, and many of Seligman's suggested exercises—talking with homeless people, doing volunteer work, or spending three hours a week writing fan letters to heroic people—aim to foster selflessness in daily life. Other psychologists say such interventions make sense. "The more selfish you are, the more unhappy you are," says Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard University psychologist who is writing her own popular book on happiness. "If you look at suicide notes, they are filled with 'I,' 'me,' and 'my.' " The same seems to hold true for the work of suicidal poets.

More controversial are interventions that try to increase optimism with techniques like actively disputing negative thoughts. "What my research shows is that there's a kind of pessimism that works for anxious people where optimism does not," Norem says. "What I call defensive pessimism is where you set low expectations and imagine all of the things that could go wrong. Anxious people become very effective planners by turning their anxiety into a motivating force." Optimism-building interventions, she says, could make such people even more anxious than they were before, as they struggle and fail to vanquish worrisome thoughts.

Barbara Held agrees. "If optimism works for you, great. But I think people need to hear that life is hard, and it's OK if you are not happy all the time. There are some negative ways of coping that can be done successfully." The problem with interventions that train attention on the positive, she says, is that "there may be something to be gained by feeling bad and paying attention to it. Maybe you can do something to change the cause of feeling bad in the first place."

On the largest scale, critics say, rampant optimism might be a recipe for global disaster. "Cruelty, murder, slavery, genocide, prejudice and discrimination, and worst of all perhaps, indifference to human suffering, abound, both today and in previous centuries," wrote the late Richard Lazarus, then a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, in the journal Psychological Inquiry in 2003. Against such tyranny, Lazarus argues, optimism is worthless: "Pessimists, or realists as many would prefer to think of themselves, mobilize valuable outrage against human depravity and its banality."

For their part, some leaders of the ­positive psychology ­­­movement are forthcoming about its limitations. "My task is to act as more of a brake than an engine," says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California and the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. "Developing a premature orthodoxy is not good."

Seligman, too, takes pains to point out that pessimism has its place. "In some situations—the cockpit of an airliner, for example—what's needed is not an upbeat view but a mercilessly realistic one," he wrote in Learned Optimism. The best approach is one he calls flexible optimism, in which a person learns to dispute unproductive, catastrophic thoughts but to listen to pessimistic ones and heed them when warranted.

Which is no doubt a good idea, if it can indeed be done. While Ballentine, the now-happier court mediator, proclaims, "I have a different life now," it's important to note that she said so while in the middle of an intensive course on the subject. Evolutionary psychologists such as Etcoff like to point out that happiness, by its very nature, tends to be short-lived. "You would not survive if you were happy all the time," she says. "You would not be reaching for resources, and you would not be protecting yourself."

It may turn out that short-term change is easy, while long-term improvement is not. For a movement that burst on the scene just eight years ago, it is probably too soon to say whether the happiness it seeks to create can endure. For that matter, it is too soon to say whether positive psychology itself will endure. "As of now, the movement is, in my view, in danger of being just another one of the many fads that come and go" in psychology, Lazarus wrote.

"The bottom line is, this stuff is all new," Etcoff says. "It has certainly met with a receptive audience, and people do seem to get better. It's less clear that they will stay better." 

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