shows how to inject real joy into your life
There's an ancient tale of happiness that appears in many cultures,
and it goes something like this: Once there was a prince who was
terribly unhappy. The king dispatched messengers to find the shirt
of a happy man, as his advisers told him that was the only cure.
They finally encountered a poor farmer who was supremely content.
Alas, the happy man owned no shirt.
Ahhh, happiness. Ineffable, elusive, and seemingly just out of
reach. For most of the 20th century, happiness was largely viewed
as denial or delusion. Psychologists were busy healing sick minds,
not bettering healthy ones. Today, however, a growing body of
psychologists is taking the mystery out of happiness and the search
for the good life. Three years ago, psychologist Martin Seligman,
then president of the American Psychological Association, rallied
colleagues to what he dubbed "positive psychology."
The movement focuses on humanity's strengths, rather than its
weaknesses, and seeks to help people move up in the continuum
of happiness and fulfillment. Now, with millions of dollars in
funding and over 60 scientists involved, the movement is showing
real results. Far from being the sole product of genes, luck,
delusions, or ignorance, happiness can be learned and cultivated,
researchers are finding.
Decades of studying depression have helped millions become less
sad, but not necessarily more happya crucial distinction.
When you alleviate depression (no mean task), "the best you
can ever get to is zero," says Seligman, a professor at the
University of Pennsylvania. But "when you've got a nation
in surplus and at peace and not in social turmoil," he explains,
"I think the body politic lies awake at night thinking about
'How do I go from plus 2 to plus 8 in my life?' "
Indeed, people in peaceful, prosperous nations aren't necessarily
getting any happier. Though census data show that many measures
of quality of life have risen since World War II, the number of
people who consider themselves happy remains flat. And people
are 10 times as likely to suffer depression as those born two
generations ago. Researchers have scads of information on what
isn't making people happy. For example, once income provides basic
needs, it doesn't correlate to happiness. Nor does intelligence,
prestige, or sunny weather. People grow used to new climates,
higher salaries, and better cars. Not only does the novelty fade
but such changes do nothing to alleviate real problemslike
that niggling fear that nobody likes you.
Happiness helpers. Scientists also know what works. Strong marriages,
family ties, and friendships predict happiness, as do spirituality
and self-esteem. Hope is crucial, as is the feeling that life
has meaning. Yes, happy people may be more likely to have all
these things at the start. But causality, researchers find, goes
both ways. Helping people be a little happier can jump-start a
process that will lead to stronger relationships, renewed hope,
and a general upward spiraling of happiness.
The average person has a head start. Decades of international
survey research suggest that most people in developed nations
are basically happy. This tendency toward mild cheerfulness may
have evolved to keep people movingglum ancestors would have
moped, not mobilized.
Some have more of a head start than others. University studies
of twins suggest that about half of one's potential for happiness
is inherited. Researchers think happiness is influenced not by
a single "happy gene," but by inborn predispositions
toward qualities that help or hinder happiness, such as optimism
or shyness. And personality doesn't fluctuate that much over an
average life span. People seem to have "happiness set points"base
lines that mood drifts back to after good and bad events.
There's a lot of wiggle room on either side of that base line,
though. Most positive psychologists refer to a set range. "If
you're a more gloomy, pessimistic person, you're probably never
going to be really deliriously happy, but you can get into the
high end of your possible range and stay there," says psychologist
Ken Sheldon of the University of Missouri.
Michael Lee, too, believes happiness can be learned. "You
practice it day in and day out," says the 28-year-old marketing
director from San Jose, Calif. He has always been pretty happy
but has seen his joy grow. A Catholic, he started a faith-sharing
group with childhood friends. Under guidance from Jesuit priests,
they learned to take time each night to reflect on the positive
in their everyday lives"subtle things like meeting
a new person . . . or kids sitting out in the yard playing."
In cultivating his appreciation of the routine, and surrounding
himself with other happy people, Lee grew happier. Boosting your
happiness isn't always easy, though: Moving up within your range
can mean working against your inborn personality traits, learned
thinking habits, environment, or all three. But the latter two
can change. "If you want to keep your happiness at the higher
end of the set range," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist
at the University of California-Riverside, "you have to commit
yourself every day to doing things to make you happy."
One way is to find the right goals and pursue them. Sheldon's
research suggests that goals reflecting your interests and values
can help you attain and maintain new levels of happiness, rather
than returning to base line. By setting and achieving a progression
of goals, you can boost your well-being. Even when you fail, you
can better maintain that higher level next time you reach it,
though you'll probably top out at the high end of your range.
Allison Waxberg, 30, wasn't miserable and wasn't depressedbut
she wasn't especially happy, either. After six years as a skin
scientist in the cosmetics industry, she longed for more-creative
work. "I grew up drawing, but I always felt like I had to
do something like be a doctor or a lawyer or something professional,"
she says. When people feel they have no choice in the goals they
pursue, they're not going to be satisfied. Goals that derive from
fear, guilt, or social pressure probably won't make you happier,
even if you attain them. "Ask yourself, 'Is this intrinsically
interesting and enjoyable?' If it isn't, do I at least believe
in it strongly?" says Sheldon. "If I don't, why the
hell am I doing it?"
Waxberg tried a series of jobs, including making prosthetic limbs,
but had yet to combine her technical and creative sides. Finally,
she took some art classes and proved to herself that she had talent.
She's now earning an industrial design master's from Brooklyn's
Pratt Institute, where she has won acclaim for her ceramics, and
is doing her thesis on skin. She hopes to start a new career as
a design consultant this year.
For Waxberg, finding the right goal was keybut first she
had to figure out why the old ones weren't working. The trick
is to know what kind of goals you have. Diffuse goals, such as
"be someone," are next to impossible to achieve. More-concrete
goals ("get a job") that relate back to the abstract
goal ("be a success") are more satisfying. That also
goes for the goal of "being happy." "You'll be
happier if you can get involved in things and do well at them,
but don't be thinking too much about trying to get happier by
doing them," says Sheldon. "It's really kind of Zen
in a way."
Out with the bad. Another path to greater happiness is cultivating
positive emotions. They're good for more than warm fuzzies: Good
feelings broaden thinking and banish negative emotions, says Barbara
Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. Negative
emotions narrow thought, by necessity. Ancestors didn't have time
to sift through creative escape options when fears loomed. But
positive emotions open new routes for thinking. When researchers
induce positive emotions, thinking becomes more expansive and
Most people can't feel positive emotions at will. But you can
approach events in a way that gets them going, then let momentum
take over. Jay Van Houten made a decision to see the positive
when faced with a potentially fatal brain tumor. The 54-year-old
business manager from Boise, Idaho, listed the benefits, such
as "a built-in excuse for not hearing things like 'Please
take out the trash,' " as the surgery left him deaf in one
Though laughing at yourself is fleeting, Fredrickson believes
such moments have lasting consequences. "Positive emotions
and broadened thinking are mutually building on one another, making
people even more creative problem-solvers over time, and even
better off emotionally," she says. Coping with one problem
wellas Van Houten did with humormay make people more
resilient next time trouble comes along. Van Houten says he's
much happier now, especially as nothing seems as bad as a potentially
fatal brain tumor. After his surgery, he had to relearn balance.
"I still drill into the ground if I turn too fast,"
he says. "You've got to approach it with a certain amount
of humor to get you through the day."
Using humor to feel better works because thinking can't be both
narrow and broad. To test this idea, Fredrickson had subjects
prepare a speech, then let them off the hook. As they calmed,
she showed them video clips that sparked various emotions: a puppy
playing with a flower (joy), ocean waves (contentment), a scene
from the 1979 tear-jerker The Champ (sadness), and a computer
screen-saver (neutral). Those who felt joy and contentment calmed
down faster. This doesn't mean you should think about puppies
when you're down (though if it helps, go for it), but that when
you've done all you can about a problem, a positive distraction
can banish lingering bad feelings.
One of the worst enemies of positive emotions is feeling threatened,
says Fredrickson. A safe environment is key. Rebecca Shaw found
that happiness just needed a chance to flourish. "The day
I met my husband was the day my boyfriend broke up with me, and
I was pregnant," says the 32-year-old of Ridge, Md. Miserable,
lonely, and despairing, she had just moved back in with her parents
to get her bearings. Then she ran into an old friend, Ray Shaw.
As they spent time together in the following weeks, happiness
"stole up" on her. "Suddenly I was just smiling
and didn't even realize itit was just such a subtle turn,"
she says. Now, four years after their marriage, the defense contractor,
inventor, and stay-at-home mom doubts she could be happier. "My
husband didn't replace any of the things that were missing,"
she says. "He just kind of gave me the sanctuary to go and
find them myself."
Part of seeking positive emotions is being open to them in everyday
life. Mindfully approaching sources of good feelings can be more
lasting than seeking instant gratification. Distinctions can disappear.
"Overeating ice cream and shopping get lumped in with spending
time with your family or pursuing an interesting activity,"
says Fredrickson. People may choose shortcuts with little meaning
over activities with positive consequences. A more nuanced appreciation
of good feelings"experiential wisdom," Fredrickson
calls itmay help people benefit more from positive emotions.
So think: Is ice cream really going to make me feel better for
longer than the time it takes to eat it?
Some emotions simply aren't that hard to feel, if you take the
time. Take gratitude. Robert Emmons of the University of California-Davis
found that people who wrote down five things for which they were
grateful in weekly or daily journals were not only more joyful;
they were healthier, less stressed, more optimistic, and more
likely to help others. You don't have to write things down to
be grateful for them, of course, though it helps to make them
concrete. During difficult times, "I just tend to focus on
the things I'm grateful for and the parts of life that are good,"
says Sean David Griffiths, 38, a project officer at the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And gratitude could
help ward off mindless materialism, says Emmons. "When you
don't appreciate stuff is when you get rid of it and get something
Researchers are also finding more positive emotions than once
were thought to exist. Anyone who has witnessed a touching good
deed will recognize the heartwarming tingling in the chest that
follows. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia
dubbed this uplifting emotion "elevation," and finds
that it makes people want to be kind. Such emotions break down
mental barriers and help people see the world in new ways. Even
mild feelings of elevation can change minds. Haidt found that
students who watched a documentary about Mother Teresa were more
interested in activities like volunteer work. (In contrast, the
subjects who watched clips of America's Funniest Home Videos were
interested in self-focused activities like watching TV and eating.)
The feeling of hope is one reason spirituality may correlate with
well-being. Hope fosters optimism, and faith is, by definition,
hope for the future. And the churchgoing form of faith can be
a built-in social support network. This is not to say that atheists
can't be happy, but it helps explain why so many do find happiness
in faith, and why researchers continue to find connections between
faith, optimism, and physical health.
Teaching positive. Nurturing optimism is a key way to help hope
and happiness flourish. Optimism predisposes people toward positive
emotions, whereas pessimism is a petri dish for depression. Over
20 years ago, Seligman and his colleagues developed a method to
teach optimism by helping people recognize and dispute inaccurate
thoughts. Called "learned optimism" (and outlined in
the book of the same name), they found it could inoculate against
depression as well. Teaching optimistic thinking styles to middle
schoolers lowered the occurrence of depression as the children
aged. Even optimistic children grew happier. "These are sticky
skills," says Karen Reivich, codirector of the Penn Resiliency
Project. "Once you start using them, you feel better, and
you keep using them."
The skills of learned optimism are based on findings that pessimists
blame themselves for problems, figure they will last forever,
and let them invade every corner of their lives. Good events are
freak occurrences. Optimists look for outside causes of bad events
and assume they will be fleetingbut take credit for good
events and bet they'll keep happening. (Because optimism tends
to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, they often do.) By learning
new ways to explain events, pessimists can become more optimistic
and more resilient, leaving them better equipped to appreciate
the good and cope with the bad. Today, these skills are taught
in Pennsylvania schools by teachers trained through Adaptiv Learning
Systems, which also offers a more grown-up version to the corporate
One of the most positive states of all is easy enough to come
byif you're willing to concentrate. Dubbed "flow"
by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, director of the Quality
of Life Research Center in Claremont, Calif., it's the single-minded
focus of athletes and artists, scientists and writers, or anyone
doing anything that poses a challenge and demands full attention.
People in flow are too busy to think about happiness, but afterward
they think of the experience as incredibly positive. And it's
followed by well-earned contentment.
People find flow in myriad waysany hobbyist or athlete can
tell you that. "The secret to my happiness isn't a secret
at all," says 19-year-old Jason Vincens, a sophomore at the
University of Illinois. "I found something I love and I'm
doing it." He has been wrestling competitively since sixth
grade. When he wrestles, he doesn't worry about anything else.
Afterward, he doesn't have the energy. But you don't have to take
up tennis or the violin to find flow: A discussion with good friends
can do the trick.
The paradox of flow is that many people have it, but don't appreciate
it. Csikszentmihalyi is endlessly puzzled that adults and teenagers
feel more creative and excited while working but would rather
be doing something else. "I think it's basically a set of
assumptions for many people, that work is something that we do
simply for our paycheck," he says. So rather than enjoy it,
people tend to rush home and watch TV, which rarely provides much
pleasure. It's the same principle that causes people to put off
activities they enjoy, but which require effort, such as swimming
With age, serenity. Wait around if you must, as some research
suggests that people grow happier with age. You don't have the
high highs of youth, but neither do you have the low lows. Older
people often pursue goals less out of guilt or social pressure
and more for their own satisfaction. Also, age often brings wisdom,
which adds depth to happiness. You could think of happiness growing
out, rather than up.
And yet the stereotype that happy people are shallow persists.
"Me being a chronically happy person doesn't mean that I
haven't had some real down spells," says Lars Thorn, 24,
who works in marketing in Manchester, Vt. During a difficult breakup,
he told a friend he was feeling terrible. "And she said,
'Oh, no you're notyou're Lars!' " he recalls. "I
was perceived as being a cardboard cutout of a person with no
real emotion." But new research suggests happy people may
be more realistic than unhappy folks. Psychologist Lisa Aspinwall
of the University of Utah finds that optimists are more open to
negative information about themselves than pessimists. Positive
mood gives them the resources to process bad news. Optimists are
also more likely to accept what they cannot change and move on,
says Aspinwall. Indeed, she says, they have an intuitive grasp
of the Serenity Prayer, which asks for the wisdom to know the
difference between what one can and cannot change.
There's no disputing that positive psychology's findings echo
the exhortations of ancient wisdom, and let's face itOprah.
Be grateful and kind and true to yourself. Find meaning in life.
Seek silver linings. But then, what did you expectbe mean
to children and animals?
So are people just not listening to their grandmothers and gurus?
Psychologist Laura King of the University of Missouri has found
that people at least say they know these things and consistently
rate meaning and happiness above money. But in a study with colleague
Christie Scollon, she found that people were all for meaning,
yet most said they didn't want to work for it. Other evidence
echoes her findings: People say one thing but do another. "One
of the problems," says King, "might be that people don't
understand that lives of happiness and meaning probably involve
some hard work."
Will people work to learn happiness? Positive psychologists think
that if they can tease out the best in people, happiness will
follow. To Seligman, happiness is "the emotion that arises
when we do something that stems from our strengths and virtues."
And those, anyone can cultivate. "There's no set point for
honesty," he says. The idea that happiness is the sum of
what's best in people may sound suspiciously simple, but it's
a whole lot easier than finding that happy man's shirt.
2001 U.S.News & World Report Inc.