If Thomas Jefferson were a psychology graduate student today, he’d probably think of himself as a positive psychologist. It was Jefferson, after all, who began the Declaration of Independence with the statement that human beings aren’t only created equal but “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Happiness was the word he chose, not pursuit of power or economic gain.
Jefferson didn’t formally study happiness. He wanted each man to find his own. Judging by his writings, he wasn’t always happy himself, especially if you define happiness as a smiley-faced succession of positive feelings. Nor was he a particularly religious man. He didn’t think that a happy human life was a reward for obeying a Supreme Being or a set of rules laid down in a holy book. He was a lover of the Greek classics, a believer in progress, a deist, and a man of the Enlightenment. His faith lay in the notion that philosophic inquiry, reason, and study of the natural world could lead one to what Aristotle called “the good life.” That was the bedrock of Jefferson’s secular faith–a view that many positive psychologists share today.
That faith led Jefferson to a full and productive life, replete with the factors that today’s positive psychologists say are crucial to the whole-grained, solid, muscular happiness they promote. Jefferson had many friends (recent demographic research finds that the happiest people have huge social networks). He didn’t agonize about his faults, but rather exercised his creative talents as a writer, politician, and thinker (positive psychologists urge people to maximize strengths rather than correct weaknesses, and to turn their work into a moral calling). He was a man of complex identities: not only a lawyer and slaveowner, but a farmer, Southerner, architect of Monticello, letter-writer, father, gracious host, bon vivant, and lover of women and wine, of oysters and sonatas. Such complex identities, positive psychologists say, are a crucial ingredient in that elusive, nebulous, eternally-sought-after state we call happiness
Today, Positive Psychology, as popularized by former American Psychological Association president and bestselling author Martin Seligman, is taking folk wisdom and Greek philosophy, mixing them with solid contemporary research on joy, optimism, satisfaction, contentment, forgiveness, and gratitude, and popularizing the result as scientifically validated fact. The result, they hope, will be a new take on psychology, at once Victorian and scientific.
They’re doing so in a country Jefferson wouldn’t recognize. Even as Americans spend $76 billion a year on antidepressants and additional millions on talk therapy for depression; even as they overwork relentlessly in pursuit of the “good life” defined in material terms; even as they grope their way through crises in divorced and blended families stripped of the aunties and grandmothers who once stabilized extended families, positive psychologists are administering happiness questionnaires, writing happiness books, and giving radio interviews on how to be happy.
Much of what they say is as old-fashioned as Jefferson’s viewpoint and cuts hard against the modern grain: their studies, for instance, suggest that within certain constraints, money doesn’t buy happiness (Brazilians, according to demographic data, are almost as satisfied with their lives as Americans, despite having only 23 percent of the purchasing power). Positive psychologists say that most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. Like Victorian moralists, they argue that almost Stoic moral and emotional practices–lowering your expectations, looking on the bright side, counting your blessings, volunteering, forgiving others, expressing gratitude–can make you much happier than going shopping or excavating childhood hurts in therapy.
This list may make some therapists cringe (and make positive psychologists sound like nuns), but its proponents include many of the most creative and influential psychological researchers alive in America today. Seligman, for instance, is the original elucidator of “learned helplessness.” He’s Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and attracts grant money the way a magnet attracts iron filings. George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School is the chief architect of a respected, 60-year longitudinal study of the lives of Harvard graduates and blue-collar Boston men. Social scientist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi is a noted business professor at Claremont College and author of the bestseller Flow, the famous study of work satisfaction.
In the seven short years since Seligman convened Positive Psychology’s first organizational summit in a resort in Mexico, the surge to popularize this new discipline–and challenge clinical psychology’s 60-year preoccupation with mental pain and illness–has spilled far beyond academic backwaters. Positive psychologists have set up courses in at least 20 universities in North America, leavening syllabuses previously heavy on abnormal psychology and DSM criteria with courses discussing “signature strengths,” learned optimism, faith, and contentment. While the National Institute of Mental Health gives millions of dollars each year to study schizophrenia, panic, depression, and other mental illnesses, the Templeton, Mellon, Annenberg, and Pew foundations are now funding research into the happiness-producing potential of civic engagement, gratitude lists, forgiveness, hope, and altruism.
Last January, Time magazine devoted 40 pages to “The Science of Happiness,” and similar cover stories have appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Psychology Today, Scientific American, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Books on the subject range from Seligman’s 2002 bestseller Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment to British economist Sir Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons From a New Science to Richard Nettle’s Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile and the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. Google “science of happiness” and you’ll get close to 70,000 hits.
Seligman and his colleagues are trying to forge a new cultural role for psychology. This isn’t psychology as practiced for the past half-century plus–as a diagnostic system for the many ways human beings go horribly wrong, dedicated to changing pathological misery into ordinary unhappiness, one damaged client at a time. Nor is it psychology as a research profession so focused on administering shocks to rats or measuring eye-blink rates that it forgets about overarching questions of life satisfaction, social contribution, effectiveness, and connection. And despite their emphasis on nebulous concepts like joy, compassion, virtue, character, and what goes right in life, positive psychologists vigorously differentiate themselves from their forerunners like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in the Human Potential Movement, dismissing that earlier work as short on hard-boiled research and long on therapeutic intuition and quests for radical, almost effortless, personal transformation. Theirs is a new vision of psychology as a muscular, morally prescriptive, socially influential, positively focused, and thoroughly researched discipline. It’s psychology as a way of life.
The Positive Psychology movement is a sunny place for people whose lives have been lived at least partly in shadow. And it’s impossible to fully understand it without understanding the less-than-rosy early life of its leading popularizer, Martin Seligman.
Seligman has called himself “a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist.” His five home-schooled children have called him a grouch. His parents were civil servants who wanted to see him get into a good college, and so they saved from their modest salaries and, when he was 13, took him out of the local public school and enrolled him in a private military academy full of rich kids. There Seligman felt isolated and rejected. He calls the experience the “first crisis of my life,” and adapted by becoming something of an amateur psychiatrist, like Luci, for pretty girls who wouldn’t otherwise have looked at him.
One morning while he was still in military school and spending the night at a friend’s house, he felt something was terribly wrong and ran home in a panic. There he watched his father, who’d recently been acting strangely and prone to weeping, being carried out in a stretcher, immobile. Three more strokes followed. His father, once a vital man who hoped to run for public office, was left permanently paralyzed, alternating between bouts of euphoria and sadness, as Seligman writes in his 1990 book, Learned Optimism. “This was my introduction to the suffering that helplessness engenders. Seeing my father in this state, as I did again and again until his death years later, set the direction of my quest. His desperation fueled my vigor.”
For the next two decades, Seligman committed himself to the study of helplessness, while making double-sure that he wasn’t helpless himself. A high achiever, he graduated from Princeton and went on to graduate studies in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1964, when he was 21, he watched a group of lab dogs in their electrified wire cages there, acting as despairing as his own dad. They were slumped with their heads on their paws, whimpering, and doing nothing to avoid the shocks being administered to them. In a previous experiment, they’d been unable to escape being shocked. Now, even though the experimental parameters had changed and they could leap to safety on the other side of the cage, they didn’t. They simply endured.
Seligman concluded that the dogs were no longer learning sets of discrete behaviors through reward and punishment, as the Skinnerian behaviorism of the time maintained they would. They’d come to an overarching conclusion: that “nothing they did mattered,” which perpetuated its own reality even when circumstances changed. Seligman’s observation was heretical–animals weren’t supposed to adopt abstract, generalized attitudes like helplessness.
Fascinated, Seligman (in loose concert with Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology, the rationalist Albert Ellis, and others) began studying the effect of helplessness. Such thinking styles, they hypothesized, generated depressed moods. They then dissected the thinking styles of pessimists and noted that they globalized their failures like the dogs had (“I’m no good with people” or “Nothing I do makes any difference”) and minimized their successes (“I was just lucky”). Not surprisingly, the pessimists’ moods measured consistently low. In the face of adversity, they often gave up. Optimists, by contrast, were consistently cheerier and more effective. They drew global conclusions about their successes (“I’m an excellent athlete”) and considered their failures and disappointments to be momentary flukes that weren’t their responsibility (“She must have been in a bad mood”). The optimists had huge advantages. They got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people. Even though they were less realistic, their thoughts helped them create their own sunnier universes: their good moods helped them get along better with others, and they performed better on tests of creativity, efficacy, and intelligence.
Seligman figured that if depressed people had somehow learned to be helpless, they could also unlearn it, but as he moved from animal research into clinical psychology, he didn’t just want to undo negative thinking, he wanted to foster good feelings. He had a hunch that people who consistently celebrated and exercised their strengths would be buffered against inevitable bad times when they struck. This had worked for Seligman himself: he’d learned to focus on his strengths, becoming a prolific researcher and a popular writer. He also successfully used cognitive therapy techniques on himself, learning to dispute “negative self-talk” and to marshal reality-based data that supported looking on the bright side. People, he contended, could argue themselves out of their black moods if they took action. They just had to stick to it, dispute their knee-jerk negative globalizations and catastrophizing, engage in “positive self-talk,” and do their homework in journals and exercise books.
Seligman’s career progressed and his grants and awards piled up throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but he was after bigger fish. He didn’t want to simply bump unhappy people a few steps up the misery scale. He wanted to expand human happiness, and he wanted to do it in a much larger theater. Having morphed from researcher to clinical psychologist, he now morphed again–to social scientist and small-pond politician.
Seligman didn’t like the direction his own profession was taking. For more than two decades (as private insurance reimbursements for treating DSM -defined disorders and NIMH grants for the study of mental illnesses mushroomed) he’d watched clinical psychologists who weren’t interested in research-based psychology come to dominate the American Psychological Association (APA). Many of these clinicians, Seligman thought, accentuated the negative and used treatments that weren’t proving effective. He liked active, evidence-based, cognitive and behavioral therapies, not those that encouraged clients to talk about their pain. He believed that many therapists were promoting a therapeutic ethos preoccupied with childhood woundedness, consumeristic entitlement, passivity, and self-centeredness. That approach, he thought, unrealistically raised expectations and set people up for disappointment and social isolation, which, in turn, contributed to the skyrocketing rates of depression.
In 1997, after campaigning vigorously, he was voted president of the APA by the widest margin in the association’s history. As a researcher in an association now numerically dominated by clinicians, he was an unusual choice. His theme for his three-year term was an equally unusual choice: he’d push for a change in the focus of psychology, he announced, away from the study of some of the worst things in life to the study of what makes life worth living.
For years, Seligman had been assembling contacts and shaping his vision. On New Year’s Day 1998, at a resort in Akumal, Mexico, he got together with fellow researcher Czikszentmihalyi and Ray Fowler, then the Executive Director of the APA, to brainstorm a taxonomy for a new field of Positive Psychology. They decided their new field would have three main pillars: the study of positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. They’d also recruit psychology’s best and brightest to do longitudinal, demographic, and outcome studies–all unimpeachably rigorous and scientific–of everything from civic engagement to forgiveness.
Within a year, the Templeton Foundation (which specializes in the interface of science and religion) had approached Seligman to fund more research. In 1999, Seligman began to teach a Positive Psychology class at the University of Pennsylvania, assigning homework that included performing altruistic acts, writing autobiographies that showcased strengths, and making gratitude lists. The movement was on its way.
Growth of a Movement
In the seven years since the founding of Positive Psychology in Akumal, its adherents have done their best to lay claim to a large, sprawling, and only partially mapped field of inquiry, which they’ve framed as the study of happiness. The twists and turns of Seligman’s exploration have been distilled into a simple and elegant theory of the three features that constitute happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.
He defines the “pleasant life” as characterized by fleeting positive moods and immediate experiences of comfort and pleasure. At its best, the pleasant life can be defined as the Epicureans did: the simple satisfaction of a mind and body at peace. It can be amplified by learning to savor good moments and to lighten up habitual patterns of thought. But in Seligman’s scheme, the “pleasant life” is the least important aspect of happiness, because it depends heavily on an inherited positive temperament and on good fortune: luck and genes. Simply enjoying the pleasant life doesn’t build character or resilience. It’s perilously close to shallow hedonism, and when pursued too hard, it leads to a grasping “hedonic treadmill.”
Seligman, who loves to work himself, is much more enthusiastic about the next tier of the pyramid: “the good life”–what Thomas Jefferson meant by happiness. This part of happiness is anchored in building a full life that goes well. It comes from exercising our talents and virtues–what Seligman calls our “signature strengths”–and it depends heavily on the ability to lose oneself in the earned pleasures of sustained effort, absorbing work, conversation, accomplishment, contemplation, or what Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” To many people’s surprise, studies in which people record their mood states in daily diaries have revealed that most people feel happy far more often at work than at home.
The third aspect of Seligman’s happiness is the “meaningful life,” defined as the dedication of one’s life to something larger than yourself–something beyond family and personal or intellectual achievement. Although Seligman rarely uses these words, the meaningful life includes altruism and love. His definition harkens back to the Victorian moralists and to Enlightenment figures like Jefferson, who once said “Happiness is the aim of life, but virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Meaningfulness is encouraged, Seligman says, by “positive institutions” that support the virtues–thriving schools, churches, community groups, and democracies–and is weakened by the splintered, consumeristic society that surrounds us. In a secular society barraged by advertising celebrating the individualistic and consumer-driven life, this approach to happiness is a tough sell.
Positive Psychology’s massive public relations successes may have encouraged millions to take a fresh look at their attitudes and to think, at least fleetingly, about what really brings them satisfaction. But what happens when the movement moves from the realm of ideas to the realm of experience, and people try to carry out the snappy exhortations they read in a Time magazine article? Can descriptive research be made prescriptive? Can Positive Psychology materially change the lives of ordinary people?
Practicing Positive Psychology
In the fall of 2004, I had a chance to find out when I joined a Telecourse called “Authentic Happiness Coaching,” presided over by Seligman from his office in Philadelphia. Every Thursday at 1:00 p.m. for 20 weeks, I sat at the telephone in my home in Toronto, Canada, linked not only to Seligman in Philadelphia, but to 190 fellow students. We came together to listen to lectures by Positive Psychology’s leading lights, and to absorb research. We were also expected to try out practices distilled from grandma’s wisdom and the sayings of the ancient Greeks and 19th-century moralists, all scientifically researched and packaged for a new secular century.
Some might consider me a hard case for this kind of stuff. For starters, there’s my occupation: I’m neither a coach nor a therapist, but a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting System. As a journalist, I’ve tried through the years to hone my natural skills in critical thinking, which makes me wary. On top of that, my disposition is reflective, rueful, at times downright melancholy. I’m a former New Yorker descended from Jewish immigrants and refugees who fled Europe and the Holocaust. I grew up, like Woody Allen and many other Jews, with thoughts of historic catastrophe and personal discontent, each feeding the other. My family is a case study in how to live with a long list of cognitive distortions, from assuming the worst will happen to thinking it should, because either they deserved it or other people thought they did. Personally, when it came to rah-rah notions like “thinking positive,” I remained decidedly ambivalent; I’d try them, and then curse myself for failing.
Four years ago, my doctors discovered a large, dangerous, benign brain tumor in my cerebellum. I survived three difficult brain surgeries (the last one should have killed me, said one doctor). I still work part-time, walk with a cane, and suffer from physical imbalance and fatigue. At times, it was hard to put a positive spin on all that, although knowing others who’d succumbed, I felt downright lucky. So I bucked myself up through four months in the hospital and a long recuperation. I’m rightly proud of my staying power and my sheer doggedness, which helped me during the many low points and reversals. Perhaps my pride in triumphing over odds–including my own temperament–explains why I’m a secret fan of self-help literature.
All told, I was delighted to take the Telecourse, thinking it might do me some good; but, yes, I did drag the rest of my character into the enterprise, too. Seligman–he had us call him “Marty”–has the silky baritone of an accomplished lecturer and was a delight to behold by telephone. Early on, he told us a story that he’s told and retold in many interviews, about the experience that led him to come up with his version of Positive Psychology. In 1998, he was in the garden with his daughter Nikki, who was throwing weeds into the air and fooling around while Seligman was toiling away. Getting exasperated, he yelled at her for not taking her gardening more seriously. Nikki, who was only 5 at the time, looked straight at him and told him that, on her fifth birthday, she’d decided not be a whiner. She said it was the hardest thing that she’d ever done. “If I can stop whining, Daddy, you can stop being a grouch.” This encounter, Seligman told us, forced him to further examine questions like: Why, after 30 years of inner work, was he still a grouch? Why have psychologists ignored positive emotion and well-being? How can we flourish as human beings?
The meat of the Telecourse was the weekly lecture, which deftly packaged Seligman’s findings, collected from 30 years of research (by him and others). He ended the lectures with a homework assignment, which we’d discuss in our weekly “pods” or telephone tutorials, comprised of about 15 students. Our pod leaders assigned us different partners with whom to talk about our experiences of doing the exercises. A couple of weeks into the course, Marty gave us an exercise he called the Three Blessings. At the end of every day, we were to write down three good things that had happened to us, and why we found them beneficial. It seemed like a feel-good cliche–like “Count your blessings,” the advice of grandmas everywhere.
I did the assignment like a good little student. And I was a bit dumfounded by what happened. For years, I’d kept diaries filled with ruminations–to blow off steam and to practice writing. They bored me when I wrote them, and only succeeded in tying me in knots. They read something like a transcript of the obsessions of Woody Allen’s unfunny younger brother, stripped of any redeeming humor. Over the years, writing these morbid documents only made me feel worse.
Then, some years ago, I was assigned to criss-cross Canada producing documentaries on the environment. Before I left, I thought, if I were killed in a plane crash, I didn’t want anybody to find my journals –they weren’t what I wanted to be remember by. So I gathered them up, piles and piles of them, and tossed them out in the garbage. Even now, I imagine my notebooks depressing the trash that surrounds them in some landfill north of Toronto.
But Marty’s assignment of diligently writing down three daily blessings asked me to pay attention to the good stuff, not the sores. As the Buddhists say, scratch the good dog, not the bad one. In years of writing drivel, I’d never done that before. It’d never even occurred to me to write out of a sense of pleasure.
I loved it.
I soon found that I had far more than three blessings to write about: conversations with friends and good, simple things, like walks and yoga sessions and exercise. By eleven or noon, I’d find myself stopping to check for what had gone well already. And lots of little things had! I began to mark little events in my mind, so I could include them in my notebook later that night. Reviewing my notebook, I discovered I often wrote about what I ate and drank (though I often experience great difficulty eating and drinking because of my surgeries). I relished small victories. It was simple stuff, but it worked in making me feel good.
Positive Psychology research, meanwhile, reassured me that writing my gratitude list wouldn’t turn me into a softie, incapable of dealing with life’s glancing blows. Strange as it seemed, being grateful might even better equip me. In a 2003 two-month experimental comparison conducted by psychologists Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, volunteer subjects who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than subjects who recorded neutral life events or hassles, as I’d done for years.
Over time, cultivating gratitude helped me experience everyday events as gifts–part of the basic bounty of life. “For the grateful man,” a Turkish proverb says. “the gnats make music.” I kept the assignment up long past the due date, but eventually I stopped. Why, I don’t know. Was I addicted to negativity? Lazy? Didn’t know what was good for me?
The second most important exercise for me was the one that followed: we had to express gratitude to another human being. We were to pick a person important to us whom we’d never thanked, and then write him or her a letter describing what we valued in the relationship, and how it affected our lives. Marty told us that this was one of the most powerful exercises. It would make us happier, and make those who got the letters happier, too.
I picked a dear friend of mine, an 82-year-old Anglican priest I’d known for more than 25 years, who now lives in a retirement home. I love this man. When I was in my mid-thirties, I used to visit him in the country, where he had a rural parish. We had serious talks about God and philosophy. He loved to cook and garden, and had a grand appreciation for the natural world. I loved his eye for the wonders of creation, a gift from his God. But he isn’t an overly pious man. He also shares my absurdist sense of humor. I’m his Jewish media friend, very different from the old ladies who used to lavish attention on him and bring him pot roast dinners. He isn’t a father figure to me because he’s hardly stern and has never given me personal advice. Jung has a better term for what he is to me: a warm, embracing “male mother.”
So I sat down and wrote a letter detailing what he means to me. Then, following Marty’s instruction, I called him up and told him I wanted to read him something . I arrived at his retirement home, cane in hand. Entering his small apartment, I embraced him, sat down in his new La-Z-Boy chair, and read him my gratitude letter. He smiled, looking a little puzzled. Then he folded the letter up and told me, “I’m not the sort who gets depressed, but if I ever do, I’ll take this out and read it.”
Struggling for Happiness
During our telephone lecture a few days later, Marty called on some students to describe their gratitude visits. All their stories seemed much better than mine. Their visits were life affirming, full of positive emotion. One fellow had given a letter to his wife as a birthday present. Another had taken the train to another city to read a letter to an old friend, who welcomed it as if it were a gift from God. I felt a little cheated. My visit was so matter of fact, so incidental–a hiccup in a long friendship, followed by a spot of tea.
Another exercise Marty had us do was to “design a good day.” Since I wasn’t working much at the time, I seemed always to be designing a nice day (as my wife kept telling me). So I began writing out lists of what I was going to do to have a good day, only to discover that I was just writing the simple chores that I’d do anyway. My messages to myself (about exercise and yoga and reading this book or that) created much amusement in my house. Lists are supposed to be for what you think you’ll forget. My life was already an endless self-improvement exercise, without the benefit of great good health. But this assignment gave my leisure the dignity of a homework assignment.
There was much more, of course, to our curriculum in happiness. We took pen-and-pencil tests to identify our “signature strengths” (like perseverance, critical thinking, love of learning, social intelligence, spirituality, bravery, and zest). We were encouraged to try using them to turn a mundane task into one with “flow.” We were sent out to savor routine events, like a meals or a walk in the park. We were even taught how to lower our expectations when we went shopping. Guest lecturer Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, the author of The Paradox of Choice, talked to us about the research showing that all the choice in our wealthy, consumer-driven world, could make you dither yourself into a state of unhappiness. For the first time in human history, huge numbers of people may become mental from all the choice in front of them. (Have you seen how many colors of beige there are?) All the choice can make people anxious about making mistakes–not getting the perfect “one.” Schwartz sent us out shopping with this simple message: lower your expectations, and settle on something “good enough.” This he calls “satisfysing,” shorthand for not driving yourself crazy.
I went searching for a pair of winter boots way too late in the season. There was choice, but not many boots left. After trying different footware, I settled on a pair in a size that usually doesn’t fit (it was shorter but wider), but that’s all there was. When I got home, I completely panicked thinking I’d made a mistake. I worried that, because I bought the boots at a small store, I couldn’t get my money back. So I went to other stores and tried on other pairs, just to see if I’d made the right choice. All in all, I spent more time looking for these $150 boots than I did buying the biggest investment in my life, my house. Schwartz was right: choice can make you plain neurotic, especially if you’re neurotic to begin with.
I never told people this story: everybody in my pod was just too sane or on their best Positive Psychology behavior. Or perhaps they were more accomplished shoppers than I was, and didn’t have my traces of OCD. This was more the stuff of Seinfeld than Authentic Happiness. I don’t think that George was somebody Marty would approve of.
Listening to the Inner Cynic
But Seinfeld may have a point that Positive Psychology should consider. This show–famously devoted to “nothing”–is so popular precisely because it speaks to something elemental in ourselves. However much we may aspire to be solid citizens and publicly embody the classic virtues, the makers of Seinfeld captured our secret: we’re filled with internal quirks, psychic peccadilloes, and unaccountable likes and dislikes, including many “negative” traits and predilections. Altogether, they’re what make us distinctive, identifiable to ourselves as ourselves. Imagine Jerry Seinfeld without his characteristic sense of irony, or George or Elaine without their whining, which certainly wouldn’t rank high on the Positive Psychology Scale of Approval.
At my worst moments in the course, I feared that positive psychologists were in danger of sandblasting the rough edges of individual personality and character to produce a shiny idealization of virtue. I wasn’t at all sure that they appreciate how much the search for the “positive” can interfere with the natural rhythms of life; how necessary it is to include all the ups and downs, all the bumps and fissures that make us complete human beings.
During the course, I learned some truly valuable lessons about appreciation, gratitude, optimism, and the often underestimated role of conscious will and perseverance in the pursuit of happiness. And yet, as the weeks went by, I became gradually more aware that something about this experience just wasn’t going deep enough; no new, positive roots were being planted. Was it simply the curmudgeon within me, my long-standing “bah-humbug” that kept me from getting with the program? Perhaps. But as our class continued marching relentlessly toward positiveness, I became aware of my own growing sense of difference. In short, I felt lonely.
I felt it when others raved about their epiphanies following the gratitude exercise. By contrast, all I could come up with was a pleasant, but low-key, anticlimax. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my boot-buying story! And I felt this same sense of loneliness during an exercise called “One Door Closes and Another Opens.” Here, people talked about seemingly dreadful things that’d worked out well. One person didn’t get the job he wanted, but got a better job instead. Another was fired, which prompted her to go into business for herself, forcing her to finally do what she always wanted to do, while making more money. I dared not say what I wanted to say: that even to the present day, behind some of the doors I’ve closed lay the lingering stench of regret.
So, instead of revelling in a connection with 200 souls in exploring the true meaning of life, I often found myself retreating into my own solitary consciousness. I knew what was required of me as a good student: that I be upbeat and cooperative in our discussion groups between classes–our pods. But it seemed that the conversations lacked openness and candor, and had little spontaneity. Our happiness lessons and tasks dominated the agenda; ordinary human vulnerability and undue attention to tragedy, failure, disappointment, and loss weren’t permitted, except as asides. Once I talked about “the inevitability of suffering,” and ended up feeling like a jerk. Nice, positive people don’t think, much less talk, about such things. Or if they do, they have to “move on” quickly. Negative emotion is only acceptable if it’s in the past.
After the stilted atmosphere of the discussion groups, however, I was always a little surprised to discover that whenever a homework assignment gave me an opportunity to talk one-on-one with my fellow pod members, they were bright, alive, and interesting, and I felt a real, authentic connection. But however simpatico I might feel, even with the most sympathetic partner, there was one topic I never brought up: how much shame I found myself feeling as the course dragged on.
What was I ashamed of? How could a course on Positive Psychology shame a smart, cynical person like me? I was ashamed of my loneliness, sure (though I knew the course wasn’t therapy). But I was also ashamed that I didn’t seem to “get it.” As the course, and the brutal Canadian winter unfolded, I often felt in the pods that I was a small, nasty person who knew he’d best keep all of his doubts and inadequacies well hidden. I simply couldn’t be as positive as Seligman or his instructors wanted me to be. And like the George character on Seinfeld, I felt ridiculous. But, unfortunately, I didn’t have Jerry and the gang to kvetch to over lunch.
To be sure, Seligman wisely includes community–and the devotion to a cause larger than the lonely, isolated self–as one of the keys to a “meaningful life.” Yet the actual experience of the course seemed to ignore the deep human hunger for real community. If our culture’s infatuation with the “maximal self,” as Seligman describes our inbred individualism, is one of the major causes of unhappiness in our time, then surely a course in Positive Psychology ought to make genuine human connection a central element, at least in the small community of the pods. But the structure of the course and its implicit pressure to “be positive,” whatever the cost, undermined the experience of this critical source of human satisfaction. True, we only had 20 weeks. And true, our last homework assignment was to go out and join an organization. But it was as if we were being told, “Okay, folks, commit to something larger than ourselves. But you’re on your own, from here on in.” I know Seligman was trying to condense a lifetime’s work into a few short weeks, but just because you’re a great lecturer doesn’t mean the message gets embedded in people’s lives: that’s what the real work of human culture is about.
Oddly enough, while we were never supposed to give in to negativity and depression, they both shadowed the whole course; they were the unacknowledged elephants lurking in the corner. It sometimes felt that the strategies of Positive Psychology–shopping trips, savoring tips, play days, counting blessings, and gratitude exercises–were being used as amulets to ward off life’s inevitable miseries. If you suffered from these miseries, Seligman eventually advised that you see a REAL therapist, quickly. But if you weren’t “clinically depressed,” the full range of human mood seemed to be something to be engineered out of your soul. He told us to dispute our bad moods in the theater of our minds, like the lawyerly cognitive therapists we should all learn to be–as if negativity were just a kind of superstitious taboo. In the end, I thought, Positive Psychology shares with that very unscientific cousin, positive thinking, this one thing: if you don’t have the right optimistic temperament, you need to regularly apply heavy doses of intentionality and embrace the positive with an iron will. In this, there’s an odd parallel between Freud and the positive psychologists: repression, said Freud, is at the heart of civilization. And it’s at the heart of Positive Psychology.
Seligman himself spoke about depression during almost every session, and admitted freely to being temperamentally pessimistic, though he never called himself a depressive, recovering or not. But when he did point out his negative quirks, it was as if to remind us (and himself, perhaps) that they’d been resolutely banished to his past life. My pod leader admitted to being a reformed hysteric–a catastrophist who’d learned to soothe herself when little details of her life went awry. It had required work for her to get past these feelings, but it wasn’t that hard to do: you just had to use a few cue words and internal exercises. As with Seligman’s depressive tendencies, it felt as though she was telling us to throw our negative feelings into the dirty laundry basket.
The point of these admissions by Seligman and others was to renounce “the dark side” as castoffs from an old personality–primitive throwbacks to an earlier, less evolved self we in the class should learning to transcend. To improve ourselves in this way, we should all be vigorously programming ourselves by doing the exercises and tests, “disputing ourselves” out of our negativity when it showed its atavistic head.
Seligman says he’s interested in restoring old-time character to its rightful place–a worthy goal for our self-indulgent time. But does that mean that we must return to the rigid Victorian rule that you keep all your darkness under wraps; let the world see your Dr. Jeykll and keep your Mr. Hyde to yourself? One of the great advances made by the much maligned therapeutic culture is that it actually allows people to look compassionately at their own pain and gives them the vocabulary to describe it. Therapy helps them eliminate the necessity of suffering in silent shame. For all the powerful insights of Positive Psychology, it won’t advance the cause of human happiness if it too enthusiastically endorses the antiquated ethic of the stiff upper lip.
Certainly Seligman and his colleagues can claim credit for turning the fuzzy, mushy concept of happiness–always before the exclusive purview of poets and philosophers–into a truly objective, empirically backed science. They’ve systemically defined particular habits of thought, will, intention, and feeling that are correlated with the good life. And these pioneers have even gone further; for that we should be thankful. They’re constructing from this new science a set of principles, a practical discipline, a program of concrete procedures and exercises whereby those of us not naturally blessed with the gift of happiness can learn how to acquire it. Is this the culmination of America’s revolutionary promise–the pursuit of happiness–or what?
But a basic question still nags at me. Whatever science might discover about the constitution of happiness and optimism, is it possible for science to teach us how to get them? Can you teach human beings the proper principles of living by displaying your evidence and drawing from it a series of rules that people can learn in 20 weeks? Is it really possible to devise a system, a curriculum of happiness that we can really weave into the fabric of our daily lives? Can this system become as much a part of our neural makeup as, say, the ability to read or ride a bicycle? No doubt we can all learn better habits of mind that’ll relieve suffering and reduce our tendency to fly toward misery rather than away from it–after all, that’s the basis of cognitive therapy. But learning how to be happy, wise, and virtuous still seems far too difficult and elusive a quest to be fulfilled by taking a didactic course, no matter how scientific its pedigree.
Seligman has undoubtedly done the field of psychology an enormous service by demonstrating that, for any science purporting to understand human nature, the study of what makes people happy, optimistic, and wise is just as important as the study of what makes them anxious, depressed, and crazy. If this work did no more than remind a therapy-soaked population that grandma’s old values–gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, selflessness, dedication to something larger than oneself–have never been surpassed as the map to a life well lived, it would be worthwhile. Reminding us what’s valuable in our lost traditions is no small thing. And yet, I still am left wondering if the spark that fires the flame of happiness, the will to try for the optimistic life, must come from something deeper, more mysterious, less definable than anything science can devise. After all, the question of what makes for a happy, meaningful, worthwhile life has preoccupied philosophers, mystics, and masters of ancient wisdom traditions since the beginning of human history. Will we finally be able to resolve this primeval riddle with a neat, scientifically based set of cognitive procedures and prescriptions? Allow me this last bit of negativity–I have my doubts.
Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to email@example.com.