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The Science of Happiness: We've Tried Health, Wealth and Prozac, but Still We Are Not Contented. Can a Different Approach to Psychology Lead Us to the Good Life? A New Book Makes the Case

By Cowley, Geoffrey | Newsweek, September 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Science of Happiness: We've Tried Health, Wealth and Prozac, but Still We Are Not Contented. Can a Different Approach to Psychology Lead Us to the Good Life? A New Book Makes the Case


Cowley, Geoffrey, Newsweek


Byline: Geoffrey Cowley

If good lives were built on good fortune, Jacqueline Gavagan would have reason to despair. All was well when she got out of bed last September 11. She had a loving husband and a satisfying profession as speech pathologist. Her two young children were thriving, and a third was due in seven weeks. You can guess the rest. Gavagan's husband, 35-year-old Donald, worked as a bond broker in the World Trade Center. By midmorning, he was entombed in a million tons of burning rubble. So were many of the couple's closest friends.

Does she still grieve? Of course. But over the past year, the 36-year-old Brooklynite has managed to restore meaning and even some joy to her life. She started the effort at her husband's memorial service, by asking people to contribute to a fund that might save a child's life in his memory. Surgeons at NYU Medical Center had successfully repaired her own toddler's defective heart earlier that year, and Gavagan wanted to sponsor the operation for a child whose family couldn't afford it. The money flowed, and by April she was back at NYU, comforting a woman from Kosovo while her son had the surgery she sponsored. When asked who had fixed the boy's heart, Gavagan's beaming 3-year-old answered, "Everyone who loved Daddy."

Psychologists talk a lot about the pathologies that can grow out of trauma and loss--the chronic fear and anxiety, the guilt and anger, the hopelessness. People with pathologies are, after all, the ones who need help. But in its rush to understand illness, science has given sanity short shrift. Why are people like Jacqueline Gavagan so resilient? How do they deal so well with setbacks? And what, beyond survival, do they live for? Is mental health just an absence of illness, or can we realistically strive for something more? Preachers and philosophers have always relished such questions. Now, after a century of near silence, scientists are asking them, too. Words like "optimism" and "contentment" are appearing with ever-greater frequency in mainstream research journals--and some enthusiasts foresee a whole new age in research psychology. As University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman declares in his new book, "Authentic Happiness" (321 pages. Free Press. $26), "The time has arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the 'good life'."

Progress has been brisk. Like medical detectives sussing out risk factors for a disease, the new positive psychologists have amassed a heap of data on what people who deem themselves happy have in common. Lesson one is that mood and temperament have a large genetic component. In a now famous 1996 study, University of Minnesota psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen surveyed 732 pairs of identical twins and found them closely matched for adult happiness, regardless of whether they'd grown up together or apart. Such findings suggest that while we all experience ups and downs, our moods revolve around the emotional baselines or "set points" we're born with.

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