20 Weeks to Happiness: Can a Course in Positive Psychology Change Your Life?

Article excerpt

20 Weeks to Happiness

Can a course in Positive Psychology change your life?

by Richard Handler

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. …