Happiness Studies 101

Positive Psychology, “a class whose content resembles that of many a self-help book but is grounded in serious psychological research,” is Harvard University’s most popular course this term.

Apparently happiness is scientifically measurable now. Or so contends Martin Seligman, who’s identified as the progenitor of the “positive psychology movement,” and who wrote the treacly and cultish Learned Optimism. Here’s an excerpt from Seligman’s letter to the editor in the most recent issue of The New Yorker.

[I]t wasn’t until recently that science proved that, among other things, optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all risk factors, and that women who display genuine (Duchenne) smiles to a photographer at age twenty-one go on to have fewer divorces and more marital satisfaction than those who display fake smiles. Positive psychology has also shown that engagement and the pursuit of meaning are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure, and that externalities (e.g., weather, monty, health, marriage, religion) together account for no more than 18% of the variance in life satisfaction.

(Emphasis added; thanks to Bill for the pointer.)

Just out of curiosity, when we quantify happiness in this way, are we talking about: (1) contentment, (2) euphoria, (3) optimism, or (4) something else? Is perpetual happiness required, or can there be lapses? Do we gauge a person’s happiness from her own reports about her emotional and mental state, or do we rely on external factors like smiles captured in photographs taken of her at the age of 21? What if she’s smiling genuinely in some photographs from that time but forcing it in others? What if she believes she’s smiling for real when she appears to be faking?

Also, is a person only engaged with life and “pursu[ing] meaning” if he is relentlessly cheerful? (Because I’d like to know how Mr. Seligman would account for my friends, who are some of the most searching, creatively engaged people you’ll meet but aren’t exactly known for their sunny dispositions.)

Earlier this week, I sent that Boston Globe article to my friend Bill, saying, “A secular religion?”

He wrote back, “[T]here’s a fascinating subtext of justification and authenticity: it’s based on ‘serious psychology’ (i.e., a science [sort of]), so it must be true. So I wanna say… science is our secular religion — and science lite is our gospel.”


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