WHAT IF, as a caged white rat learns to press a lever in order to get food, we could learn to press our own mental buttons and voilà: -- happiness? Could we train ourselves so well that we’d start to get happy in anticipation, à la Pavlov’s dog with food?
The short answers: We can, and yes.
Of course, the truth is way complicated. The study of happiness reaches back thousands of years, to philosophers you’ve (probably) never heard of. It deals with the human brain, still a mystery even to neurologists. And these days, it’s making its way through academic journals and conferences and university classrooms, bubbling up into the popular press every once in a while, like now. Happiness -- just what is it? What causes it? Can it be cultivated?
The answers to these questions, once the province of philosophy, now belong to positive psychology, a newish branch of the psychology profession that studies healthy minds rather than sick ones. Thanks to positive psychologists, we now know the following:
• The things we think will make us happy often don’t.
• Money does not make us happy.
• Having more money than our neighbors might.
• And having less than the neighbors is guaranteed to interfere, big-time.
• Friends and family do make us happy.
• Moving away from them for a great new job doesn’t.
• Old fogies are happier than the young.
• Beautiful people aren’t happier than the rest of us (they just look better unhappy).
• Having lots of choices doesn’t make us happy; it seriously stresses us out.
• Oh, and commuting is an immense drag on gross national happiness.
In fact, we can even take courses in how to craft such a pursuit. The godfather of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, PhD, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, launched the first such course in 2003. Before long, universities across the United States -- including the University of California, Berkeley; Princeton; and the University of Texas -- added similar courses to their curricula. Tal Ben-Shahar’s positive-psychology class is the single most popular course at Harvard University.
The syllabi for these classes should carry this black-box warning, if not about the courses themselves, then about chasing felicity in general: It’s hard work. As Benjamin Franklin observed, the Declaration of Independence only gives people the right to pursue happiness; you have to catch it yourself.
HAPPINESS IS …
A good habit.
A butterfly that will rest on your shoulder if you sit still enough.
A cudgel optimists use to beat pessimists silly.
Positive psychology as a discipline wants to set in motion a positive-feedback loop: Think good thoughts and you’ll be happy, do good and you’ll feel good, smile and the world smiles with you, etc. The happier you are, the more good thoughts you’ll have. And the more good things you do, the happier you’ll become.
Of course, the details of each approach are much more nuanced, but in essence, this is the philosophy: Negative leads to negative, and positive leads to positive.
The thing is, some people think good thoughts naturally. Other people -- and not just the Eeyore types -- have to be tricked into it. Lead them to tiptoe through the tulips repeatedly and regularly, preferably taking a few detours to do good and be nice, and said tiptoeing becomes habitual for them. Habitual positive thinking equals habitual happiness.
At least, theoretically.
Just as physical exercise is proven to stave off heart disease and cancer, happiness exercise is shown, in study after study, to actually aid emotional resilience. But although well-meaning doctors, medical researchers, and government types have pounded the physical-exercise drum for decades, people aren’t exactly thronging the gym or track. Happiness calisthenics, which are still new and not widely publicized, have even fewer adherents. As anyone who’s ever tried to keep a New Year’s resolution knows, we mortals resist change about as much as we resist paying taxes. If sticking to good habits were a cinch, everyone you know would be fit and healthy, and have a clean desk, a lint-free dryer filter, and absolutely no credit card debt.
You can lead a human to the happiness well, it appears, but getting him to come back to drink every day is another story.
HAPPINESS IS …
A perfect score on a positive-psychology quiz.
A point of view that can be taught.
Like intelligence -- you either have it or you don’t. But with education, good actors can fake it well enough to fool a Freudian.
We can indoctrinate the young by teaching happiness in school -- something that is already happening. Perhaps the strangest thing about these classes isn’t the fact that they exist or that they’re immensely popular but what happens after the semester is finished and the syllabus is filed away.
“Some students got really excited, sent me letters later, the kind of letters I’ve never received before,” says Mark Setton, a University of Bridgeport philosophy professor who teaches a course that explores psychological perspectives on happiness. “One student was going to commit suicide and stopped herself by concentrating on something I’d taught during that course. I realized this stuff can change people.”
In true trickle-down fashion, the teaching of positive-psychology techniques is spreading to high schools and even some elementary schools. Setton is one of the people trying to get it to trickle faster. He started the website pursuit-of-happiness.org as a go-to portal for teachers who want a little happiness in their classrooms. Eventually, he’d like to have an entire happiness curriculum, every lesson a multimedia wonder, in order to get the happiness gospel to as many students as possible. When we talked, he’d just received an e-mail from a potential happiness teacher in Nepal.
Amy Fineburg, a high school teacher in Alabama, teaches a positive-psychology unit and helped develop an American Psychological Association curriculum for secondary students. It’s free to anyone who requests it. Her own students are eager consumers. “Intuitively, it’s something they want to know about,” she says.
These classes include some of the new happiness theory as well as practical exercises to put the theory to the test. Almost all of them require what’s known in positive- psychology parlance as a “gratitude visit” or a “gratitude letter.” It involves writing a thank-you note -- to a former teacher, a grandparent, a coach, or anyone you haven’t properly thanked for something -- and presenting it to the recipient in person. The act of writing (and delivering) that letter single-handedly makes the sender happier. And studies show the effect lasts for a full month.
Easy, right? So easy a child could do it? Well, not necessarily. Children might be able to do it, but the effect might not be as pronounced as it is in adults who’ve been harboring overdue thank-yous for years. Researchers have actually tested one positive-psychology exercise on kids and adults. It did a bang-up job on the grownups but affected the kids more like a whimper. The truth is, positive psychology is so new, there hasn’t been time for multiyear studies of children who’ve learned the drill versus those who’ve never heard of it. Common sense says that focusing on older kids is probably the surest bet.
“My gut feeling is that you can teach a few specific techniques to kids in junior high but that in general, kids would be much more able to profit from these lessons beginning around age 16 or 17,” says Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia professor whose specialty is studying morality and its relationship to happiness.
Haidt wrote The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, which while optimistic that the rapidly unfolding knowledge about happiness can help people, is pointedly skeptical of overnight success. The danger of positive psychology is that the exercises are simple -- not simplistic -- but in a Thoreauvian kind of way. Like many difficult things in life, they sound easy. And Haidt makes the point that sounding easy and being easy are as far apart as Los Angeles and Cairo. The human mind is a mysterious thing, the product of thousands of years of evolution, a marriage of hunter-gatherer spear-carrying man and contemporary iPod/cell phone man. We’re not entirely in control of our own impulses. Yet by dint of hard work and much gratitude, you, too, can be happier. It’s just not as instant as potato flakes.