Happiness Is A Positive Thought

March 14, 2000

Boston Globe

It's not always easy to be happy. A Japanese proverb describes the pursuit as "clutching a shadow or chasing the wind." And Woody Allen in the movie "Annie Hall" darkly notes: "Life can be divided into the horrible and miserable."

But, in a departure from decades of research on depression, psychologists are now actively studying what makes us happy. Dubbed "positive psychology," researchers ask questions such as: Do happy people tend to share similar attitudes or life circumstances? Does wealth create happiness? How do we define happiness and how do we get there?

Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who is widely regarded as the father of positive psychology, believes that an optimistic outlook is a key component to happiness and that it can be learned. Indeed, Seligman is the author of the popular 1990 book, "Learned Optimism."

After 30 years of research on the topic, Seligman asserts that optimistic people tend to distance themselves from and minimize the causes of their misfortune, instead taking credit for the good things that happen to them. Pessimists, on the other hand, blame themselves for their misfortune and ascribe good events to chance, he says.

If your boss is brusque with you one day, you could either chalk it up to the boss's bad day or believe the event occurred because you're a worthless person.

"We must not just fix what is wrong in people, but find what is strong about them," said Seligman, who coined the phrase positive psychology during his 1998 tenure as president of the American Psychological Association.

Other researchers have looked at the role that friendships, marriage, religious affiliation and money play in achieving happiness. And new studies are investigating the brain activity of happy people.

The American Psychological Association dedicated a special millenium issue of its journal to "Happiness, Excellence and Optimal Human Functioning." And the psychiatric community is taking notice as well.

"It's catching people's fancy," said Dr. George Vaillant, director of psychiatric research at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who published an article last month on the role that altruism and humor play in a joyful life. "It's looking at the positive end of things."

Positive psychology is also seen as a modern-day solution for emotional woes that aren't severe enough to require Prozac or years on an analyst's couch. They say positive psychology is akin to cognitive therapy, which helps people change their negative thought patterns.

"It appeals to people. It makes sense," said Phil Levendusky, director of psychology at McLean Hospital in Belmont. "It doesn't have you languishing in memories of your early childhood, such as what happened when your diapers were changed. It's contemporary problem-solving. It's practical, pragmatic and it works."

But the profession is far from in agreement on the matter. When Seligman was asked what he would recommend for a hypothetical nephew suffering from severe depression, he said he would advise cognitive therapy - with no antidepressant medication.

"(That's) the dark ages," said Bessel A. van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and medical director of its trauma center. "Before anti-depressants, people would be in the hospital for months."

Van der Kolk also said positive-psychology enthusiasts go too far in minimizing the role of past trauma in people's lives, which often must be talked about freely before a depressed person can get better.

Even some researchers who study happiness bristle at the broad definition of positive psychology; Seligman and others include the study of courage and love in the field.

"The label of positive psychology can go very far," said Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. "It becomes warm and fuzzy and hard to understand."

So, while the academics duke it out about what happiness is and isn't, and how you achieve it, what do ordinary people have to say about the matter? Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, in an article called "Subjective Well-Being," found that happy people report mild-to-moderate pleasant emotions most of the time, rather than intense positive moments some of the time.

"One lesson from these findings is that if people seek ecstasy much of the time, whether it be in a career or in a love relationship, they are likely to be disappointed," he wrote.

And now researchers are getting closer to describing what the happy brain might look like.

Over the last 15 years, Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has conducted studies on brain activity of happy and depressed people. The left prefrontal cortices of self-described happy people were bursting with nerve-cell activity while those who were depressed had more active right prefrontal lobes.

People with active left prefrontal cortices, he said, were found to be the kind who "jumped out of bed each day."

He said measuring brain activity may help clinicians confirm if a treatment - say drugs or cognitive therapy - is working for a depressed patient.

His work has led some people to wonder if a "happiness drug" that stimulates the left prefrontal cortex could be developed. Meanwhile, Davidson said researchers are looking at whether external magnetic fields might one day be used to stimulate this area of the brain.

Other researchers are looking at how the typical ups and downs of a day influence happiness, and how chance events fit it into the picture.

Schwarz of the University of Michigan found that people who came upon unclaimed dimes at a copy machine (planted by researchers) reported greater levels of overall satisfaction with their lives than those who did not find coins. (Their upbeat mood, however, lasted for only 20 minutes.)

The study had another twist. When researchers asked participants about their happiness levels - but first asked them if they'd discovered dimes at a copy machine and heard them say yes - the coins lost their ability to influence mood. It seems chance events failed to influence mood once the participants were made conscious of the event.

For Schwarz, the dime study shows just how people's happiness levels fluctuate throughout the day based on random events. We can gain more control over our moods, he explained, if we acknowledge that there are random forces that influence them.

David Myers of Hope College in Holland, Mich., in an article last month called, "The Funds, Friends and Faith of Happy People," found that age, gender and income (except that of those who were very poor; they were unhappy) did not correlate with a person's sense of happiness.

He found it was more revealing to know about someone's "traits and the quality of their work and leisure experiences." In numerous studies over the last two decades, he found people were most happy when they had spiritual faith of some kind and the support of a network of close relationships, including marriage.

Myers said these studies confirm the view that depression's grip on the modern American psyche has much to do with individuals losing traditional social networks.

Of course, marriage is not always joyful. Myers found that people who identified themselves in "not-very-happy marriages" were less happy than those who were single or divorced.

And now, positive psychology is making its way into the workplace. Business psychologist Michael Mercer of Barrington, Ill., said many businesses test optimism using questionnaires during the interview process. Because people in sales, for instance, may require an extra dose of ego-protecting optimism to be effective, employers may offer sales jobs to those highest on the optimism scale.

Positive psychology has clearly triggered a wide range of research, and psychologists continue to work to define the field and its goals. Seligman said he hopes the field keeps its broad focus, because he believes that positive virtues, such as honesty, compassion and wisdom, should be studied so society knows how to encourage these characteristics.

Said Seligman: "This is not just happy-ology."

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