Archive for the ‘Happiness’ Category

* Alok Jha, science correspondent
* The Guardian,
* Tuesday January 29 2008

This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday January 29 2008 on p12 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 09:23 on January 29 2008.

People are most likely to become depressed in middle age, according to a worldwide study of happiness. The team of economists leading the work found that we are happiest towards the beginning and end of our lives, leaving us most miserable in middle years between 40 and 50.

The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, showed that people’s levels of happiness followed a U-shaped curve, a pattern that was remarkably consistent in the vast majority of countries the researchers looked at, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.

For both men and women in the UK, the probability of depression peaked at around the age of 44. In the US, men were most likely to be unhappiest at 50, while for women the age was 40.

Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, and David Blanchflower, from Dartmouth College in the US, led a study of more than 2 million people from 80 countries to find if happiness was related to age.

They found that the signs of mid-life depression were consistent across many groups of people, irrespective of socio-economic status, whether they had children in the house, were divorced, or were facing changes in jobs or income.

“Some people suffer more than others but in our data the average effect is large,” said Oswald.

“What causes this apparently U-shaped curve, and its similar shape in different parts of the developed and even often developing world, is unknown.

“However, one possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations. Another possibility is that cheerful people live systematically longer.”

A third possibility is that older people might compare their lives with their peers’. Seeing their friends die could mean people value their remaining years more highly.

Oswald added: “It looks from the data like something happens deep inside humans. For the average person in the modern world, the dip in mental health and happiness comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year.

“Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period. But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old. Perhaps realising that such feelings are completely normal in mid-life might even help individuals survive this phase better.”

A total of 72 countries were found to follow the U-shaped pattern of happiness. In the eight countries that did not seem to follow the pattern – mostly developing countries – Oswald said that the available data had been less robust, so discerning patterns had been difficult. He added that shorter lifespans might skew the results of a country.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

Happiness Takes Effort


Quirky, Alone and Perfectly Satisfied

Posted: February 29, 2008 by Doc in Happiness


Susan Abram
L.A. Daily News

A growing group of singles spent Valentine’s Day celebrating the power of one. Call them quirky, but don’t call them loners. For the self-described “quirkyalone,” Valentine’s Day was all about thinking outside of the heart-shaped box of chocolates.

“For me, being a quirkyalone doesn’t always mean you are single,” said Sasha Cagen, who coined the phrase nearly 10 years ago in an essay that spawned a book called “Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics.”

“It just means you have another perception of life. It means being single is not a life sentence. It means you disapprove of settling.”

Since writing her essay and starting the Web site, a movement has sprouted, with thousands embracing the concept. They celebrated Valentine’s Day as International Quirkyalone Day.

The quirkyalones are not anti-love, just against contrived notions of coupledom, according to their creed.

“It definitely has struck a deep chord with people,” said Cagen, who is surprised that her word – the one she coined one “kissless New Year’s Eve” – has blossomed.

“It’s something people relate to in a deep way. It’s a movement in that it challenges the prevailing notion that you have to be in a relationship to be happy.”

In fact, quirkyalones are defined as fierce romantics. But they don’t date for the sake of dating, Cagen said. They believe in the magic of love, but only if the right pieces fall into place.Until that happens, a quirkyalone’s best mate can be his or her own soul, as well as a good group of friends.

Defining the term

Quirkyalone traits include displaying a talent for self-reflection, believing that life can be prosperous and great with or without a mate, creating and maintaining chosen families of friends, and treating life as one big choose-your-own adventure, according to the Web site, which also includes a quiz and a list of famous quirkyalones. Margaret Cho, Morrissey and Walt Whitman seem to fit the bill, Cagen said.

At a time when more households are being headed by the never married, divorced, separated and widowed, some find the quirkyalone concept empowering.

Recent U.S. census figures show that slightly more than 50 million American homes are maintained by unmarried men or women, or 44 percent of all households nationwide. The Census Bureau found that 30.5 million people live alone in the United States, up 17 percent from 1970.

For Shane Meserve, 37, learning about quirkyalones gave her a sense of place in a society that seems eager to see everyone in pairs.

“I’ve had significant relationships, but I have had long gaps when I wasn’t necessarily in relationships,” she said.

“The book made me realize I’m not abnormal. I’m just a very independent person. I’ve traveled on my own. I have my own goals and a need for my own time.”

What she liked about the quirkyalone concept is that it allows those who are single to feel good about it, something she often doesn’t see in the media.

“It’s not something often portrayed on television shows,” Meserve said. “The over 30 and unmarried are portrayed as people you should feel sorry for. That’s not realistic. There are lots of us who are single, who are not married.”

But the concept has had some detractors, Cagen said. Some people don’t like the word “quirky.” And others still can’t imagine why someone would be happy being single.

“Sometimes people will say it’s an excuse, that you are celebrating a dysfunction,” Cagen said. “They’ll say, ‘You’re too picky or scared,’ or something like that. Once I was on a radio program and a man just called me and accused me of being cold to men.”

Though most who define themselves as quirkyalone are women, men also have found the word validating. A survey on the Web site conducted in 2005 found that 21 percent of the 750 respondents were men. Almost half of quirkyalones were 35 and older.


Quirkyalones do find love, sometimes even with each other, or what Cagen calls the “quirkytogether.”

Los Angeles resident Elline Lipkin, 40, a self-defined quirkyalone, found her mate and was married recently.

But she still connects with the quirkyalone concept because she found a man who can respect her need to be alone, to pursue creative projects.

“I came upon Sasha’s book years ago, and it was a bold moment,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is me. Here’s a name for a feeling I’ve had that I never had before.’ ”

West Hollywood resident Irene Forrest – who would give her age only as “I could have had generations of children by now” – said she has many friends who are like family, a definite quirkyalone trait.

Forrest has attended International Quirkyalone Day parties in Los Angeles and San Francisco and always found common ground.

“The concept speaks to me in many ways,” she said. “I actually enjoy going to the movies by myself, and I love to walk, to roam around the city on my own. It’s sometimes intrusive when I have to talk to someone.”

Forced dating and holidays don’t appeal to Forrest and other quirkyalones.

“It’s really awful sitting at a table with someone to generate some sort of conversation when you are thinking, ‘I’d rather be (going) home to my slippers.’ ”

But Forrest believes true love in some form exists. She hopes she finds it on her terms, on the path she has chosen for herself.

“I just feel that I am starting in so many ways to live my life now,” she said. “It’s still an adventure. There are still dreams to be had.”


Positively Singular

Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics

Take the Quirkyalone Quiz

Twenty strategies adapted from the scientific research and applied to New York living.

By Ben Mathis-Lilley
Published Jul 9, 2006 New York Magazine

Decide where to go to college by picking two decent schools and flipping a coin.
The relatively unexamined life is worth living. Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice documents numerous studies in which thinking too hard about multiple choices leads people to preemptively regret the options they’re going to miss out on. This triggers a stress reaction that tends to focus narrowly on random variables—producing unwise decisions, paralysis, and superfluous law degrees. Those who seize the first option that meets their standards (which don’t have to be low, just defined) are happier than those who insist on finding the perfect solution.

Don’t go to law school.
Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than members of other professions, and it’s not just because their jobs are more stressful. For most people, job stress has little effect on happiness unless it is accompanied by a lack of control (lawyers, of course, have clients to listen to) or involves taking something away from somebody else (a common feature of the legal system).

Fire your therapist
Illustrations by Knickerbocker

Fire your therapist if he so much as mentions your childhood.

Contra Freud and pro common sense, much of Authentic Happiness author Martin Seligman’s research suggests that rehashing events that enraged you long ago tends to produce depression rather than sweet closure and relief.

If someone tells you he’s still pining for his ex, ask the ex out.
Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert is currently conducting a study designed to show that the best way to predict how much you’ll enjoy a blind date is to ask the last person to go out with your date how much fun he had.

If you can’t decide what TV to buy, walk across the hall and ask your neighbor if he likes his.
In multiple studies, subjects felt they’d be better able to predict their reaction to an experience by imagining it, rather than hearing somebody else’s testimony. Even regarding such seemingly straightforward activities as deciding whether to eat pretzels or potato chips, they were wrong. Turns out, people are happier following advice.

Send the kids

Illustrations by Knickerbocker
Send the kids off to day care, summer camp, and boarding school.
On a day-to-day basis, caring for children creates roughly the same level of satisfaction as washing the dishes. In fact, surveys of parents invariably find a clear dip in happiness after the Blessed Miracle of Childbirth, which continues unabated for twenty years—bottoming out during adolescence—and only returns to pre-birth levels when the child finally leaves home.

But make sure they’re busy once they get there.
Seligman cites research indicating that children who develop hobbies and interests besides loitering and watching TV are much more likely to be satisfied later in life.

If you go on a shopping spree, throw away the receipts.
In one study cited by both Schwartz and Gilbert, photography students were allowed to keep only one picture taken during their course. Some students were later allowed to swap their choice for a different photo, yet those who couldn’t change were much happier. How did they deal with inflexibility? By rationalizing how much they enjoyed their new decoration.

If you’re on the fence about whether to sell your stock, sell it.
Most people predict that they’d be more unhappy if they sold a stock that went through the roof than if they kept one that tanked. They’re wrong—aggressive actions that go awry are mentally catalogued as valuable learning experiences.

Take the local, and don’t wait for the express.
Inaction, on the other hand, gnaws away at the mind relentlessly, like so many rats chewing on an empty Mountain Dew bottle someone dropped onto the tracks as you idly waited for the 4. You should have just jumped on the 6.

Give up the great American novel, and start temping.
Some poor countries (China, Brazil) are happier than others, but few nations are mired in spiritually fulfilling poverty. Money, when used to feel secure about your ability to shelter and feed yourself, can, in fact, buy happiness.

But don’t work overtime . . .
The marginal life-enhancing value of each extra dollar quickly levels off, however; hence the existence of James Bond villains and studies showing that lottery winners and Forbes 100 members are no more likely to be satisfied than anyone else.


Illustrations by Knickerbocker
. . . As long as you’re content socializing within your tax bracket.
Nevertheless, being aware of how much less money one has acquired than one’s peers is quantifiably frustrating.

Join a church, a yoga studio, an Alcoholics Anonymous group, or an underground fight club.
People who have more friends and belong to community-building groups are happier. To paraphrase the Norm MacDonald–era “Weekend Update,” perhaps that’s the kind of finding that could have been published in the scientific journal Duh, but there it is.

Illustrations by Knickerbocker
Order from the same takeout menu every time.
Researchers found that subjects asked to choose their meals weeks in advance mistakenly predicted that variety would make them happier, while those who simply decided what to eat on the spot were completely satisfied with the same thing each week. (Although eating macaroni and cheese endlessly, like repeating any pleasant experience over and over, reduces its appeal—so switch it up with cheeseburgers.)

Take advantage of your exercise machine’s “cooldown period.”
One study found that men who underwent short, uniformly unpleasant colonoscopies found them more repulsive than men who had long procedures with a brief respite near the end. Adding a slightly less grueling epilogue to a grueling but valuable experience—like a workout—makes you more willing to repeat it in the future, even if it means an increase in the overall gruel endured.

Patronize King Cole’s and other establishments that employ a “mixologist”; avoid any bar named after an Irish person.
Spending your alcohol allowance on a few finely crafted cocktails is probably better than guzzling giant troughs of beer, since the ability to limit one’s indulgence is one of the baseline characteristics of happy people. Researchers aren’t sure whether moderation is chicken or egg, but they do know that teetotaling doesn’t confer any particular advantage.

Ask the next person you meet on to marry you.
Studies show that married people are happier than unmarried people. Too much choice, whether over tonight’s dinner or your partner for the next 50 years, can create paralysis and anxiety. If you make a mistake, you have the capacity to rationalize the worst decisions. And if all of that doesn’t work, well, we’re able to find happiness in even the most hopeless situations.

Splurge on a restaurant after the Yankees playoff game.
College kids surveyed in the weeks before emotionally high-stakes athletic competitions tended to dramatically overestimate how happy they’d be after wins because they forgot victories don’t eliminate sources of irritation. Similarly, they overestimated how upset they’d be after their team lost because they failed to remember that they could be comforted by other sources of pleasure.

Don’t watch the Knicks.
Not related to any recent scientific findings. Just sound advice.


Stress and depression can ruin your holidays and hurt your health. Being realistic, planning ahead and seeking support can help ward off stress and depression.
For some people, the holidays bring unwelcome guests — stress and depression. And it’s no wonder. In an effort to pull off a perfect Hallmark holiday, you might find yourself facing a dizzying array of demands — work, parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, caring for elderly parents or kids on school break, and scores of other chores. So much for peace and joy, right?

Actually, with some practical tips, you can minimize the stress and depression that often accompany the holidays. You may even end up enjoying the holidays more than you thought you would.

The trigger points of holiday stress and depression
Holiday stress and depression are often the result of three main trigger points. Understanding these trigger points can help you plan ahead on how to accommodate them.

The three main trigger points of holiday stress or depression:

Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time. But tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you’re all thrust together for several days. Conflicts are bound to arise with so many different personalities, needs and interests. On the other hand, if you’re facing the holidays without a loved one, you may find yourself especially lonely or sad.

Finances. Like your relationships, your financial situation can cause stress at any time of the year. But overspending during the holidays on gifts, travel, food and entertainment can increase stress as you try to make ends meet while ensuring that everyone on your gift list is happy. You may find yourself in a financial spiral that leaves you with depression symptoms such as hopelessness, sadness and helplessness.

Physical demands. The strain of shopping, attending social gatherings and preparing holiday meals can wipe you out. Feeling exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. High demands, stress, lack of exercise, and overindulgence in food and drink — all are ingredients for holiday illness.

12 tips to prevent holiday stress and depression
When stress is at its peak, it’s hard to stop and regroup. Try to prevent stress and depression in the first place, especially if you know the holidays have taken an emotional toll in previous years.

Tips you can try to head off holiday stress and depression:

1.Acknowledge your feelings. If a loved one has recently died or you aren’t able to be with your loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness or grief. It’s OK now and then to take time just to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
2.Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. They can offer support and companionship. Consider volunteering at a community or religious function. Getting involved and helping others can lift your spirits and broaden your friendships. Also, enlist support for organizing holiday gatherings, as well as meal preparation and cleanup. You don’t have to go it alone. Don’t be a martyr.
3.Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. But accept that you may have to let go of others. For example, if your adult children and grandchildren can’t all gather at your house as usual, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or videotapes.
4. Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Practice forgiveness. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. With stress and activity levels high, the holidays might not be conducive to making quality time for relationships. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression, too.
5. Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget. If you don’t, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
6.Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That’ll help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients — and you’ll have time to make another pie, if the first one’s a flop. Expect travel delays, especially if you’re flying.
7. Learn to say no. Believe it or not, people will understand if you can’t do certain projects or activities. If you say yes only to what you really want to do, you’ll avoid feeling resentful, bitter and overwhelmed. If it’s really not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
8. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a dietary free-for-all. Some indulgence is OK, but overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and schedule time for physical activity.
9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Steal away to a quiet place, even if it’s to the bathroom for a few moments of solitude. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
10. Rethink resolutions. Resolutions can set you up for failure if they’re unrealistic. Don’t resolve to change your whole life to make up for past excess. Instead, try to return to basic, healthy lifestyle routines. Set smaller, more specific goals with a reasonable time frame. Choose only those resolutions that help you feel valuable and that provide more than only fleeting moments of happiness.
11. Forget about perfection. Holiday TV specials are filled with happy endings. But in real life, people don’t usually resolve problems within an hour or two. Something always comes up. You may get stuck late at the office and miss your daughter’s school play, your sister may dredge up an old argument, your partner may burn the cookies, and your mother may criticize how you’re raising the kids. All in the same day. Accept imperfections in yourself and in others.
12. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for several weeks, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. You may have depression.

Take back control of holiday stress and depression
Remember, one key to minimizing holiday stress and depression is knowing that the holidays can trigger stress and depression. Accept that things aren’t always going to go as planned. Then take active steps to manage stress and depression during the holidays. You may actually enjoy the holidays this year more than you thought you could.


Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

Posted: November 30, 2007 by Doc in Happiness
Tags: ,

Rubik’s Cube by Stephen Doyle
Rubik’s Cube by Stephen Doyle

More and more psychologists and researchers believe they know what makes people happy. But the question is, does a New Yorker want to be happy?

By Jennifer Senior
Published Jul 9, 2006 New York Magazine

The smiley face, that symbol of empty-headed cheerfulness, is a visage no New Yorker (or happiness researcher, in fact) could love. So, in the following pages, several New York graphic designers offer their own riffs on the icon

They say you can’t really assign a number to happiness, but mine, it turns out, is 2.88. That’s not as bad as it sounds. I was being graded on a scale of 1 to 5. My score was below average for my age, education level, gender, and occupation, sure, but at exactly the 50 percent mark for my Zip Code. Liking my job probably helped, being an atheist did not, and neither did my own brain chemistry, which, in spite of my best efforts to improve it, remains more acidic than I’d like. Unhappy thoughts can find surprisingly little resistance up there, as if they’ve found some wild river to run along, while everything else piles up along the banks.

The test I took was something called the Authentic Happiness Inventory, and the man who designed it, Chris Peterson, is one of the first people I meet at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike many who study happiness for a living, he seems to embody it, though he tells me that’s a recent development. He offers me an impromptu tour of the place (walls of salmon and plum and turquoise; tables piled high with complimentary granola bars), then wanders toward his office, absently hugging an orange-juice bottle to his stomach as he drifts, having graciously offered to check, at my request, which Zip Codes are the happiest and the most miserable in his 350,000-person database. At the end of the day, I check in with him.

The happiest, he reports, is Branson, Missouri’s.

“But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not representative respondents,” he says. “These are just people who logged on to our Website and took our happiness measure.” In other words, hundreds of mental patients from Chicago could have decided to take the test, while only fifteen Buddhists in Baja did the same, which would result in a very skewed perception of the well-being of Chicagoans and Bajans. I ask how many people from Branson took the test. “A small number,” he warns. “I think it was two or three. And the other happiest Zip Codes are also represented by a very small number of respondents. Nonetheless, I think the results are kind of interesting. Missoula, Montana. Rural Minnesota. Rural Indiana. Rural Alabama. Savannah, Georgia. The Outer Banks. Is there a theme here? There’s a theme here. It seems to run through the Bible Belt and go straight up north. And if you want to know the absolutely most miserable Zip Code—and this is based on a very large number of people—it seems to start with 101.”

That’s the prefix assigned to many of the office buildings in midtown Manhattan. “Staten Island is also miserable,” he adds.

So what does this say about New York? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe that if you make it there, you can make it anywhere, but you won’t be happy doing it.”

This past spring, the Boston Globe reported that the single most popular course at Harvard was about positive psychology, or the study of well-being. Its immense appeal took everyone by surprise. Just one year before, the instructor, Tal Ben-Shahar, offered the course for the first time, and although it was certainly a hit, with 380 students enrolled, no one could have imagined that the following year the number would have jumped to 855.

There’s a theme here, too. Back in the mid-1840s, a Scot by the irresistible name of Samuel Smiles was invited to lecture before a class in “mutual improvement” in the north of England—a class, he later noted in a book, that also began with two or three young men but grew so large it took over a former cholera hospital. That book is called Self-Help, published in 1859. It is considered by many to be the first of its genre. Today, it’s still in print, and has even come up in Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class. He has tremendous respect for it.

“For many years,” says Ben-Shahar, “the people who were writing about happiness were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. It was all ‘five easy steps,’ rather than dignity and hard work. What I’m trying to do in my class is to regain respectability for the concept of self-help. It’s a great thing, if you think about it literally. It’s what this country was built on.”

The pursuit of happiness was indeed at the heart of America’s conception. But the study of happiness—as a science, with random-assignment, placebo-controlled testing—is a far more recent phenomenon. And right now, it’s booming. At least two basic positive-psychology textbooks are being published this fall, one written by Peterson, the other by a University of Kansas professor named Shane Lopez, whose publisher estimates that roughly 150 colleges will be offering some kind of positive-psychology course next year. Since 2000, the University of Erasmus at Rotterdam has been publishing the Journal of Happiness Studies (whose editorial board is represented in curious disproportion by Californians and Germans). At Barnes & Noble, there are three excellent books about happiness now sitting on the shelves: the divinely readable Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, about how hopeless we are at predicting our moods; The Happiness Hypothesis, by University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt, about the ways that ancient wisdom about flourishing intersects with the modern; and Happiness: A History, an intellectually elegant work by historian Darrin McMahon, which is exactly as it sounds, but darker.

Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard, ventures that the explosive interest in positive psychology is, like so many cultural curiosities involving self-obsession, a boomer phenomenon. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I’m not going off to some nursing home,’ ” she says. (And she should know: During the seventies, she found that the more control nursing-home patients had—over watering their plants, for example—the longer they were apt to live.) And there are undoubtedly other factors at work. Universities, for example, have become more sensitive today to the intense pressures on their students (at Harvard, the chief of mental-health services recently came out with a book called The College of the Overwhelmed). Economics has also started to take the discipline of psychology seriously again—Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a sure testimony to this—and the psychology of positivity and productivity were a perfect fit for the ethos of the bubble years. (Recently, I’ve come to wonder whether positive psychology isn’t also the perfect discipline for the era of George Bush, the decider, the man who remains shinily optimistic no matter how many red lights are glowing on his dashboard.)

Story continued at New York Magazine

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness
Happiness Takes Effort

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

Posted: August 11, 2007 by Doc in Happiness


from Harvard Magazine Aug 2007
The Science of Happiness
Psychology explores humans at their best.

by Craig Lambert

This doesn’t feel like a normal academic conference. True, the three-day Positive Psychology Summit is a sellout, with 425 attendees thronging the meeting rooms in downtown Washington, D.C. But despite the familiar trappings, something seems different. There’s herbal tea available at breaks, and the conference’s organizer, Shane Lopez of the University of Kansas, walks around smiling and ringing a dinner bell to prompt people to take their seats for the next session. This group is slimmer, healthier, younger, and more female than the usual scholarly crowd. Some stretch in yoga-like postures in the aisles, or recline on friends’ bodies as if resting on a chaise longue. The professional jargon includes recurring words like flow, optimism, resilience, courage, virtues, energy, flourishing, strengths, happiness, curiosity, meaning, subjective well-being, forgiveness, and even joy.

But the main difference probably shows up in the question periods. Typically, academics seem obsessed with poking holes in the argument of the presentation just made—finding fault, pointing out counter-examples, insisting on qualifications—with the transparent purpose of one-upping the speaker. Such shenanigans are absent here. “They’re trying to build,” explains one participant. “There’s none of this academic carping,” observes professor of psychiatry George Vaillant, who has spoken at five of these “summit” events. “The teaching exercises I’ve done for positive psychology audiences have been an absolute joy. Here, people really laugh at the jokes.”

This October morning, they are laughing with Tal Ben-Shahar ’96, Ph.D. ’04, an associate of the Harvard psychology department, who argues in his opening keynote address that positive psychologists need to build bridges between “the ivory tower and Main Street,” to unite academic rigor with the accessibility of popular psychology books. “Most people do not read the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” he notes. “In fact, one of my colleagues at Harvard did a study, and he estimated that the average journal article is read by seven people. And that includes the author’s mother.”

Ben-Shahar is a psychologist and author who has never pursued a tenure-track position nor published research in professional journals (even so, his third book, Happier: Finding Meaning, Pleasure, and the Ultimate Currency, is due this spring). Ben-Shahar’s passion is teaching, and he goes on to explain how he teaches positive psychology. His Harvard course on the subject has been offered twice, in 2004 and in 2006, when its enrollment of 854 students was the largest of any course in the catalog, surpassing even introductory economics. This startling fact seized the attention of national media, and pieces about “Happiness 101” (actually, Psychology 1504, “Positive Psychology”) appeared in the Boston Globe and on CNN, CBS, National Public Radio, and overseas in the Guardian, the Jerusalem Post, and the Shanghai Evening Post, making Ben-Shahar one of the best-known positive psychologists alive. At 36 years of age, he is a young star in a field that is only eight years old.

For much of its history, psychology has seemed obsessed with human failings and pathology. The very idea of psychotherapy, first formalized by Freud, rests on a view of human beings as troubled creatures in need of repair. Freud himself was profoundly pessimistic about human nature, which he felt was governed by deep, dark drives that we could only tenuously control. The behaviorists who followed developed a model of human life that seemed to many mechanistic if not robotic: humans were passive beings mercilessly shaped by the stimuli and the contingent rewards and punishments that surrounded them.

After World War II, psychologists tried to explain how so many ordinary citizens could have acquiesced in fascism, and did work epitomized in the 1950 classic The Authoritarian Personality by T.W. Adorno, et al. Social psychologists followed on, demonstrating in laboratories how malleable people are. Some of the most famous experiments proved that normal folk could become coldly insensitive to suffering when obeying “legitimate” orders or cruelly sadistic when playing the role of prison guard. Research funders invested in subjects like conformity, neurosis, and depression.

A watershed moment arrived in 1998, when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, urged psychology to “turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage.” That speech launched today’s positive psychology movement. “When I met Marty Seligman [in 1977], he was the world’s leading scholar on ‘learned helplessness’ and depression,” says Vaillant. “He became the world’s leading scholar on optimism.”

Though not denying humanity’s flaws, the new tack of positive psychologists recommends focusing on people’s strengths and virtues as a point of departure. Rather than analyze the psychopathology underlying alcoholism, for example, positive psychologists might study the resilience of those who have managed a successful recovery—for example, through Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead of viewing religion as a delusion and a crutch, as did Freud, they might identify the mechanisms through which a spiritual practice like meditation enhances mental and physical health. Their lab experiments might seek to define not the conditions that induce depraved behavior, but those that foster generosity, courage, creativity, and laughter.

Seligman’s idea quickly caught on. The Gallup Organization founded the Gallup Positive Psychology Institute to sponsor scholarly work in the field. In 1999, 60 scholars gathered for the first Gallup Positive Psychology Summit; two years later, the conference went international, and ever since has drawn about 400 attendees (the maximum for the meeting space, Gallup’s world headquarters) annually. The October conference-goers represented 28 countries, 70 businesses or foundations, and 140 educational institutions.

Teaching has mushroomed, too. In 1999, the late Philip J. Stone, professor of psychology at Harvard, taught a positive psychology course to 20 undergraduates. There were hardly any college courses on the subject then; seven years later, there are more than 200 across the United States. The University of Pennsylvania offers a master’s degree in the field. International growth, too, is strong. Recently, Ben-Shahar gave seminars in China on the relationship of positive psychology to leadership, and he says “interest from Chinese educators and media was huge.”

The field’s roots go back at least to 1962, when Brandeis psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote about what a human life could be at its greatest in Toward a Psychology of Being. His “humanistic psychology” became the discipline’s “third force,” following psychoanalysis and behaviorism. “The fundamental difference between humanistic psychology and positive psychology is in their relationship to research, epistemology, and methodology,” says Ben-Shahar. “Many who joined the ‘Third Wave’ were not rigorous. Humanistic psychology gave birth to the self-help movement, and lots of self-help books have come out with concepts grounded in emotion and intuition. Positive psychology combines those things with reason and research.”

Doing so apparently answers needs the first and second forces have left unsatisfied. “I’m in a department of psychiatry, and psychiatry does not have a good model of mental health,” says clinical instructor in psychology Nancy Etcoff, who is based at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “Is there a model of mental health beyond ‘no mental disease’?” Vaillant, a psychiatrist and a trained psychoanalyst, says, “As a psychoanalyst, I’m paid to help you focus on your resentments and help you to find fault with your parents. And secondly, to get you to focus on your ‘poor-me’s’ and to use up Kleenex as fast as possible.” He recalls visiting, as a medical student, the most famous teaching analyst at Harvard and asking him if he knew of any case history in which psychoanalysis had worked. “Yes,” the great man said, after a moment’s thought. “Why, just recently, a former patient of mine referred her 18-year-old daughter to me.”

Vaillant notes that the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the clinical “bible” of psychiatry and clinical psychology, “has 500,000 lines of text. There are thousands of lines on anxiety and depression, and hundreds of lines on terror, shame, guilt, anger, and fear. But there are only five lines on hope, one line on joy, and not a single line on compassion, forgiveness, or love. Everything I’ve been taught encouraged me to focus on the painful emotions, ‘because people can’t do that themselves.’ My discipline taught me that positive thinking was simply denial, and that Pangloss and Pollyanna should be taken out and shot. But working with people’s strengths instead of their weaknesses made a difference. Psychoanalysis doesn’t get anybody sober. AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] gets people sober.”

Effective psychological interventions like AA are in acute demand nowadays. “There is an epidemic of depression in every industrialized nation in the world,” declared Seligman at the 2006 positive psychology summit. “It’s a paradox; the wealthier we get, the more depressed young people get.” Richard Kadison, chief of mental health at the Harvard University Health Services, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, cited a national survey of 13,500 college students which found that 45 percent reported feeling depression deep enough to prevent them from functioning, and 94 percent felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do. “In our time, depression is on the rise,” Ben-Shahar says. “More and more students experience stress, anxiety, unhappiness. Until a few years ago, we didn’t have e-mail; now, students check their e-mail 20 times a day. Students work longer hours and are having to build up their résumés to levels that, 20 years ago, were not expected of young people. Students today are looking for ideas that will help them to lead better lives.”

Such ideas affect not only psychological states, but economics and culture. “Our world has been run according to neoclassical economics,” said Gallup’s longtime chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton, at the fall summit. “We squeezed every drop out of that rock—data and equations—and that got maxed out. The world has gotten so much more competitive and now, you need so much more. Edward Deming went to Japan and then the world put Total Quality Management on top of classical economics. Now that’s maxed out. The next wave will be behavioral economics and cognitive economics—positive psychology, well-being, strengths science. I’m betting my job and this company on it. We are in it for keeps.”

Despite abundant evidence arguing for building success on one’s personal strengths, about 75 percent of respondents in surveys say that working on one’s weaknesses is more important than fostering strengths. This may be because human beings are “very sensitive to danger or pain,” says Nancy Etcoff. “Our taste buds respond more strongly to bitter tastes than to sweet ones. That might help us to avoid poison.” Etcoff, an evolutionary psychologist, studies how natural selection may have shaped not only our bodies, but our psychological dispositions. Extending the sweet/bitter argument to relationships, she mentions research showing that, unlike couples destined for divorce, spouses in successful marriages have a five-to-one ratio of positive-to-negative gestures when they argue.

“We start with a mild tendency to approach [others],” Etcoff continues. “But when we encounter something negative, we pay extraordinary attention to it. Think about hearing a description of a stranger: ‘Joe is happy, confident, and funny. But he’s cheap.’” Negative information like this can forecast a problem: if Joe is cheap he may hoard, rather than share his resources with us. “Our emotions are like a smoke detector: it’s OK if they sometimes give a false signal,” Etcoff says. “You don’t die from a false positive. It’s better to be too sensitive. We evolved in a world of much more immediate danger—germs, predators, crevasses.”

Etcoff’s 1999 book, Survival of the Prettiest, argued that our attraction to beauty, and beauty itself, were evolutionary outcomes of natural selection. “One big question was, Are beautiful people happier?” Etcoff says. “Surprisingly, the answer is no! This got me thinking about happiness and what makes people happy.” Etcoff, who directs the Center for Aesthetics and Well-Being at MGH, explored “hedonics”—the science of pleasure and happiness—to find out how scholars have measured happiness. (In mood surveys, at any random moment, around 70 percent of people say they are feeling OK, Etcoff says.)

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman of Princeton (see “The Marketplace of Perceptions,” March-April 2006, page 50) asked thousands of subjects to keep diaries of episodes during a day—including feelings, activities, companions, and places—and then identified some correlates of happiness. “Commuting to work was way down there—people are in a terrible mood when they commute,” Etcoff says. “Sleep has an enormous effect. If you don’t sleep well, you feel bad. TV watching is just OK, and time spent with the kids is actually low on the mood chart.” Having intimate relations topped the list of positives, followed by socializing—testimony to how important the “need to belong” is to human satisfaction. Etcoff applied these methods to 54 women, in a study sponsored by the Society of American Florists, and found that an intervention as simple as a gift of flowers that stayed in one’s home for a few days could affect a wide variety of emotions—for example, less anxiety and depression at home and enhanced relaxation, energy, and compassion at work.

Environs, too, affect mood. Settings that combine “prospect and refuge,” for example, seem to support a sense of well-being. “People like to be on a hill, where they can see a landscape. And they like somewhere to go where they can not be seen themselves,” Etcoff explains. “That’s a place desirable to a predator who wants to avoid becoming prey.” Other attractive features include a source of water (streams for beauty and slaking thirst), low-canopy trees (shade, protection), and animals (proof of habitability). “Humans prefer this to deserts or man-made environments,” Etcoff says. “Building windowless, nature-less, isolated offices full of cubicles ignores what people actually want. A study of patients hospitalized for gall-bladder surgery compared those whose rooms looked out on a park with those facing a brick wall. The park-view patients used less pain medication, had shorter stays, and complained less to their nurses. We ignore our nature at our own peril.”

Etcoff’s next book, on happiness and evolution, will attempt to deconstruct happiness itself, distinguishing between concepts like pleasure and desire, or euphoria and craving. “Our reward system is fed by [the neurotransmitter] dopamine that is thought to activate the brain’s pleasure centers,” Etcoff says. “It is really a brain desire system—it’s really about wanting. You see all these pleasures, but which ones do you really want? People like good-looking faces, but that doesn’t mean they desire them. Pleasure and pain are related in the brain, through the opioid neurotransmitters that produce a feeling of comfort. The opioid system triggers pleasure. Sugar, which recalls the sweetness of mother’s milk, can set it off. Caressing, sex, fatty foods, sunlight on the skin—all these can do it, too.

“We evolved in a much different world, with much less choice and no sedentary people,” Etcoff continues. “We didn’t evolve for happiness, we evolved for survival and reproduction.” For this reason, we are sensitive to danger. “Pleasure and the positive-reward system is for opportunity and gain,” Etcoff explains. “And pleasure involves risk, taking a chance that can override some of your fear at that moment.”

Like reaching for joy. “Mammalian evolution has hard-wired the brain for spiritual experience,” said George Vaillant at the 2006 summit, “and the most dramatic spiritual experience is joy. Developmentally, the child’s smile, the kitten’s purr, and the puppy’s wagging tail emerge at the same time. These social responses are elicited by, and in turn elicit, positive emotion. They all occur when the infant brain’s more primitive limbic system becomes effectively wired to the forebrain.”

Negative emotions, like aggression and fear, are as developed in lower animals as in humans. But “the limbic system differentiates mammals from reptiles, and contains most of what we know of positive emotions and spirituality,” Vaillant argued. “Negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. Joy, unlike happiness, is not all about me—joy is connection. Beethoven knew little happiness, but he knew joy. The mystics have linked joy to connection with a power greater than themselves.”

Happiness activates the sympathetic nervous system (which stimulates the “flight or fight” response), whereas joy stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (controlling “rest and digest” functions). “We can laugh from either joy or happiness,” Vaillant said. “We weep only from grief or joy.” Happiness displaces pain, but joy embraces it: “Without the pain of farewell, there is no joy of reunion,” he asserted. “Without the pain of captivity, we don’t experience the joy of freedom.”

Yet there is far more research on happiness than on joy, the “least-studied emotion,” according to Vaillant, whose next book’s working title is Faith, Hope, and Joy: The Neurobiology of Positive Emotion. “For the last 20 years, emotion has been an unwelcome guest at the table of scholarship,” he says. “We treat joy as secret, dirty, and awful, the way the Victorians treated sex. Happiness is largely cognitive; it’s a state of mind, not an emotion. That’s why social scientists and economists love to study happiness. Happiness is tame.”

Don’t call Daniel Gilbert a positive psychologist. He isn’t one, and doesn’t approve of the label, although he doesn’t quarrel with the research. “I just don’t see what the parade is for,” he says. “I don’t think psychology needs a movement; movements are almost always counter-productive. By including some people and filling them with irrational exuberance, they divide the field. Positive psychology doesn’t cut psychology at the joint. I wouldn’t condemn the work or ideas; probably 85 percent of the ideas are worthless, but that’s true everywhere in science.”

That said, Gilbert, a professor of psychology, shares a lot of subject matter with the positive psychologists. His book Stumbling on Happiness became a national bestseller last summer. Its central focus is “prospection”—the ability to look into the future and discover what will make us happy. The bad news is that humans aren’t very skilled at such predictions; the good news is that we are much better than we realize at adapting to whatever life sends us.

“Is happiness elusive?” Gilbert asks. “Well, of course we don’t get as much of it as we want. But we’re not supposed to be happy all the time. We want that, but nature designed us to have emotions for a reason. Emotions are a primitive signaling system. They’re how your brain tells you if you’re doing things that enhance—or diminish—your survival chances. What good is a compass if it’s always stuck on north? It must be able to fluctuate. You’re supposed to be moving through these emotional states. If someone offers you a pill that makes you happy 100 percent of the time, you should run fast in the other direction. It’s not good to feel happy in a dark alley at night. Happiness is a noun, so we think it’s something we can own. But happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live. It’s like the child’s idea that if you drive far and fast enough you can get to the horizon—no, the horizon’s not a place you get to.”

Gilbert reconsiders his grandmother’s advice on how to live happily ever after: “Find a nice girl, have children, settle down.” Research shows, he says, that the first idea works: married people are happier, healthier, live longer, are richer per capita, and have more sex than single people. But having children “has only a small effect on happiness, and it is a negative one,” he explains. “People report being least happy when their children are toddlers and adolescents, the ages when kids require the most from the parents.” As far as settling down to make a living—well, if money moves you into the middle class, buying food, warmth, and dental treatment—yes, it makes you happier. “The difference between an annual income of $5,000 and one of $50,000 is dramatic,” Gilbert says. “But going from $50,000 to $50 million will not dramatically affect happiness. It’s like eating pancakes: the first one is delicious, the second one is good, the third OK. By the fifth pancake, you’re at a point where an infinite number more pancakes will not satisfy you to any greater degree. But no one stops earning money or striving for more money after they reach $50,000.”

The reason is that humans hold fast to a number of wrong ideas about what will make them happy. Ironically, these misconceptions may be evolutionary necessities. “Imagine a species that figured out that children don’t make you happy,” says Gilbert. “We have a word for that species: extinct. There is a conspiracy between genes and culture to keep us in the dark about the real sources of happiness. If a society realized that money would not make people happy, its economy would grind to a halt.”

When we try to project ourselves into the future, we make a systematic series of errors, and much of Stumbling on Happiness analyzes them. One common miscalculation is “presentism,” the belief that we will feel in the future the way we feel today. “In a grocery store, feeling hungry, I try to shop for what I will want to eat next Wednesday,” Gilbert says. “Then Wednesday comes, and I ask myself, ‘Why did I buy jalapeño pockets?’”

Secondly, humans are marvelous rationalizers. “Find a large number of people who’ve been left standing at the altar and ask them if that was the worst day, or the best day, of their lives,” Gilbert says. “On the day it happens, almost without exception, they will say it is the worst day. But ask these same people the same question a year later and most will say it was the best day of their lives. People are much more resilient than they realize. In the lab, it’s very easy to get people to rationalize, but almost impossible to get them to foresee it. Rationalization is an invisible shield that protects us from psychological pain, but we don’t realize that we are carrying it.

“Much recent data show that people fare reasonably well in a variety of tragic and traumatic circumstances—Christopher Reeve was not unusual,” Gilbert continues. “Paraplegics are generally quite happy people. And blind people often say that the worst problem they have is that everyone assumes that they are sad: ‘You can’t read.’ ‘But I can read.’ ‘You can’t get around.’ ‘But I can get around.’ People do feel devastated if they go blind, but it does not last. The human mind is constituted to make the best of the situations in which it finds itself. But people don’t know they have this ability, and that’s the thing that bedevils their predictions about the future.”

One of Gilbert’s colleagues, professor of psychology Ellen Langer, prefers to spend her time in the present, and she aims to analyze and share that experience with others though her many books—like On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity—all of which explore her central theme of mindfulness. To Langer, mindfulness means noticing new things and drawing new distinctions. “It doesn’t matter whether what you notice is smart or silly,” she says, “because the process of actively drawing new distinctions produces that feeling of engagement we all seek. It’s much more available than you realize: all you need to do is actually notice new things. More than 30 years of research has shown that mindfulness is figuratively and literally enlivening. It’s the way you feel when you’re feeling passionate.”

Everyone says they want to live in the present, but there’s a paradox: “If you’re not in the present, you’re not there to know you’re not there,” says Langer, with a smile. “So how do you get there? This work tells us how: when you’re actively noticing new things, you become more aware of context and perspective. You end up with a healthier respect for uncertainty, something we are taught to fear. Our baseline state should be mindful; it’s how we should feel virtually all the time.”

What stops us, according to Langer, are our fears of evaluation, our acceptance of absolutes, and our mindless ideas about mistakes. All three are actually different facets of the same sensibility. “Anything hierarchical suggests that there is a single metric—a ‘right’ way of understanding the world, and better and worse ways to view things,” she explains. “But the world is a social construct. Mistakes are not mistakes in all contexts. With writing and art, mistakes tend to make the product more interesting. The major difference between a machine-made rug and a handmade one is that the regularity of the machine-made rug makes it uninteresting. Errors give the viewer something to hold onto. When you make a mistake in a painting, if—instead of trying to correct the mistake—you incorporate it into what you are doing and go forward, you are working mindfully. And when we ask viewers to choose between this kind of art and ‘flawless’ works, people say they prefer the mindfully created pieces.

“We also have mistaken notions of talent,” Langer continues. “People learn about activities as if there are absolute standards. Think about a jockey, a boxer, and an archer: three very different sports. Which one has athletic ‘talent?’ Or suppose someone tells you that you have no artistic ‘talent’—you can’t be a Pollock, Mondrian, Klee, or Picasso. But they are so different from each other! Act mindfully, and that state of consciousness leaves its footprint in what we do. Mindfulness is the essence of charisma; when people are there, we notice. When you don’t take the world as given, but as full of possibilities, it becomes endlessly exciting.”

The positive psychology class Ben-Shahar teaches at Harvard aims to keep its students engaged and excited, too. As they filter in, sit down, and boot up their laptops, a Whitney Houston song plays through the sound system in Sanders Theatre. Ben-Shahar, in black slacks and a blue pullover sweater, fiddles with his own laptop and brings up the first image on the screen for today’s lecture on self-esteem: it’s a New Yorker cartoon of a troubled man writing in his diary, “Dear Diary, Sorry to bother you again…” During the lecture, Ben-Shahar will flesh out his discussion with images and film clips, along with concepts and research citations. He also shares a personal experience with the class, telling how, in his 20s, as a College graduate who had been a national squash champion, he nonetheless “realized that I didn’t have the answers. External validation broke down. I had the success and validation, but still experienced low self-esteem.”

This is another way that positive psychology classes are different: they are experiential. “There are two levels to the course,” Ben-Shahar says. “One is, like any other course, an introduction to the research and to the field. But secondly, students explore ways to apply these ideas to their lives and communities. They write response papers and perform exercises, connecting these theories with their own lives and experiences. We try to ask, to use William James’s phrase, ‘What is the cash value of these ideas?’”

It is clear that the “cash value” of positive psychology can be far greater than enhanced well-being, though that is a good start. Vaillant brings up one of positive psychology’s constructs, forgiveness, in contrasting the Treaty of Versailles and the Marshall Plan. After World War I, Germany agreed not only to apologize but to send its countrymen to rebuild France. The French rejected this on the grounds that it would hurt employment in France if the Germans rebuilt it, and insisted instead on monetary reparations. In contrast, Vaillant says, “The Marshall Plan put people in Gary and Pittsburgh out of work by giving the Germans and Japanese more efficient steel mills. But the result of Versailles was World War II and the Holocaust. The Marshall Plan led to 60 years of peace in Western Europe for the first time in recorded history.”

Forgiveness, of course, means trusting someone who has hurt you, and so inevitably runs a risk. But positive psychology says such risks are worth taking. “You hope to free up people in their lives,” says Langer, “so they will take more chances and live more before they die.”

Happiness 101
Stumbling on Happiness
Happiness Takes Effort