The Science of Happiness

By Geoffrey Cowley

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..

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’.”

                                 --   Excerpt: 'Authentic Happiness'

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.

A second lesson is that our circumstances in life have precious little to do with the satisfaction we experience. Married church-goers tend to outscore single nonbelievers in happiness surveys, but health, wealth, good looks and status have astonishingly little effect on what the researchers call “subjective well-being.” Even paraplegics and lottery winners typically return to their baselines once they’ve had six months to adjust to their sudden change of fortune. People living in extreme poverty are, on average, less happy than those whose basic needs are met. But once we cross that threshold, greater wealth stops making life richer.

People in Japan have nearly nine times the purchasing power of their neighbors in China, yet they score lower in surveys of life satisfaction. In America, notes Hope College psychologist David Myers, real income has doubled since 1960. We’re twice as likely to own cars, air conditioners and clothes dryers, twice as likely to eat out on any given night. Yet our divorce rate has doubled, teen suicide has tripled and depression has increased tenfold. Somehow, we’re not cut out for the ease that comes with wealth.


If genes can make us happy but circumstances can’t, is chemistry the key to contentment? In drug-company laboratories, small armies of neuropharmacologists are racing to formulate compounds that will boost positive emotions and mask unpleasant ones, enabling any gray-faced tax lawyer to try on Roberto Bernini’s ebullience. In “Authentic Happiness,” Seligman proposes a saner goal and a lower-tech strategy for achieving it. Drawing on cognitive psychology and his own studies of “learned optimism,” Seligman argues that anyone can inhabit the upper floors of his emotional “set range” by examining negative assumptions, savoring positive experiences and managing the natural yearning for more. Desire, as the Buddha understood, is infinite, but our capacity for pleasure is not. By adapting to ever-richer indulgences, we only narrow our options for pleasing ourselves. Restraint may yield higher returns.

But “authentic happiness,” as Seligman defines it, is not about maximizing utility or managing our moods. It’s about outgrowing our obsessive concern with how we feel. Life in the upper half of one’s set range may be pleasant, but is it productive or meaningful? Does it stand for anything beyond itself? These questions push the boundaries of a psychologist’s traditional turf, but Seligman tackles them with refreshing clarity.

Beyond pleasure lies what he terms “gratification,” the enduring fulfillment that comes from developing one’s strengths and putting them to positive use. Half of us may lack the genes for bubbly good cheer, he reasons, but no one lacks nascent strengths or the capacity to nurture them. What Gavagan has accomplished in the past year is a near-perfect embodiment of kindness, one of the two dozen strengths that Seligman and his colleagues have cataloged. She now hopes to save another child’s heart every September.

And she herself will be richer for it.

With Anne Underwood





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