The unlikely and amazing story of positive psychology
A young psychology student at Cal State, Ed Diener had grown up on a San Joaquin Valley farm and had been around farm workers all his life, and he thought it would be interesting to study happiness in migrant farm workers.
“Mr. Diener,” his professor sniffed, “you are not doing that research project—for two reasons. First, farm workers are not happy. And second, there is no way to measure happiness.”
Ed knew from firsthand experience that his professor was wrong on his first point. But just how do you scientifically measure the level of a person’s happiness?
Ed was convinced this was worth looking into. He abandoned the project and did his paper on the topic of conformity. (History does not record whether the professor appreciated the irony.)
When Happiness Was Out of Style
That was the mid-1960s. By the early 1980s, now a tenured psychology professor, Ed threw himself into research on happiness. In 1984 he published his Satisfaction with Life Scale, a scientific index that so reliably measures “subjective well-being”— happiness—that it is still widely used today. Into the ’90s, he accumulated evidence and published papers on subjective well-being. His students and colleagues dubbed him Dr. Happiness.
Still, the subject got little respect in scientific circles, and even as a tenured professor Ed was passed over for promotion by older professors, here calls, “because they thought what I was doing was so flaky.” He describes giving talks to economists in the early ’90s. “They just hated it,” he says, recalling times when he would barely get out a few sentences before being rudely cut off. “They were very aggressive in their colloquium,” is how the ever-affable Ed puts it.
Dr. Happiness was still swimming against a massive tide—but a sea change was coming.
A Chance Encounter
In the winter of 1997 a man was hiking the beaches of Hawaii with his family, when his daughter said she heard a yell for help. “Sure enough,” he recalls, “down in the surf was a snowy-haired man, being pounded against the lava walls, razor-sharp with barnacles, and then being tossed back out into the turbulence.”
He waded in and pulled the big man to safety, not realizing that he had just triggered a revolution.
The man he had rescued was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-high), a Hungarian-born psychologist. Mihaly, called Mike by friends and colleagues, had dedicated his career to the study of that state of total engagement he called flow.
Growing up in war-torn Europe had given Mike a profound experience of human suffering and human resilience—and that second side of the human coin intrigued him. What brings out our best and noblest traits? He wondered. Mike’s rescuer was Martin Seligman, one of the most eminent psychologists on the planet.
A self-confessed grouch, Marty might have seemed the least likely happiness revolutionary. He had built his career on the study of what he called learned helplessness. (His first book bore the cheery title Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death.)
Marty had long held little regard for the science-worthiness of something as “soft” as happiness, and he wasn’t personally all that big on it, either:
“The feelings of happiness, good cheer, ebullience, self-esteem and joy,” he later wrote, “all remained frothy for me.”
Power of Positive Emotion
But Marty also possessed an indefatigable curiosity along with an idealistic streak. He genuinely wanted to help make the world a better place. As Mike observed, “Marty sometimes wishes he had been a rabbi when he grew up.”
The two men clicked immediately and soon realized they shared a burning interest. Both felt that psychology had lost sight of its central reason for being, to better understand and foster “life worth living,” as Mike put it, “including such qualities as courage, generosity, creativity, joy and gratitude.”
Up to then psychology had focused on the study and treatment of human suffering, which Marty felt was “a vexation to the soul.” He agreed with Abraham Maslow, who a half-century earlier had written, “The study of crippled, stunted, immature and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.”
Marty and Mike wanted to forge an approach focused on what goes right in human nature. A positive psychology.
Birth of a Revolution
Marty had a specific platform in mind. He had just been elected president of the American Psychological Association, which at 160,000 members was the largest scientific organization in the world. William James, the 19th century “father of modern psychology,” had held that chair, as did Carol Rogers, Abraham Maslow and other giants. Every incoming APA president was expected to set the membership’s agenda for the coming year, and Marty wanted to do something big.
Talking deep into the Hawaiian night, the two men hatched a plan. Rather than trying to persuade their establishment colleagues to join them, they would focus on the classic tactic of revolutionaries: draw passionately committed new recruits from the ranks of the young. Over the following year they assembled a field of 50 candidates from among the most talented, promising students who were philosophically attuned to what they were up to and psychology’s most brilliant rising stars. From that 50 they winnowed a list of 18, whom they invited to a first-ever conference on positive psychology in Akumal, Mexico. All immediately accepted. Seldom (if ever) has a branch of science been planned so deliberately and precisely. Over the coming decade, these 18 would emerge as pioneers and prime movers in an explosive new field of psychology.
Announcing a Manhattan Project
Meanwhile Marty began preparing his inaugural address for the APA’s annual convention that summer, an event that would bring together thousands of top psychologists from around the nation. It wasn’t hard to imagine reactions ranging from polite skepticism to rejection to outright hostility. After all, hadn’t Marty himself viewed the whole idea of happiness as “frothy”?
In August, as Marty took the podium, a hush fell over the crowd. Word had gotten around that something big was coming.
“Entering a new millennium,” he said, “we face a historical choice. We can continue to increase our material wealth while ignoring the human needs of people on the rest of the planet. Or we can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound, and show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities and to a just society.”
The creation of a new science of positive psychology, he added, could serve as a “Manhattan Project” for the social sciences: requiring substantial resources but holding unprecedented promise.
I have often been asked what was my reason, deep down, for running for president of APA. I will tell you now. I thought that in serving as president, I would discover my mission. And I did. That mission is to partake in launching a science and a profession whose aim is the building of what makes life most worth living.”
The “Manhattan Project” analogy may have been a little over the top, but it served its purpose. The auditorium rang with applause as the staid psychologists stood.
“People came up to me afterward with tears in their eyes,” recalls Marty, “and said, ‘This is why I became a psychologist!’”
Positive psychology was off and running.
Funding a Revolution
It takes cash to stage a revolution—especially in science. Happily, Marty also has gifts in this area, and in those early years his fund-raising skills brought in millions of research money from private foundations. Billionaire Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies helped establish the Positive Psychology Network, and billionaire physician turned-investor John Templeton funded the annual Templeton prizes, which at $100,000 a pop was the largest cash award ever given in psychology.
The young movement had also built a strategic advantage: the Akumal Eighteen and its elder statesmen—Marty and Mike, along with Marty’s mentor and APA CEO Ray Fowler, Gallup organization CEO Don Clifton and Ed—held positions as editors of key journals in their field.
“In 1981, when I started,” says Ed, “there were something like 100 published articles a year that even referred to well-being. In 1999 that number started to skyrocket.” Today it’s about 12,000 per year.
In January 2000 the APA devoted a special issue of its flagship journal, American Psychologist, to positive psychology, with Marty and Mike as guest editors. It was the movement’s birth announcement to the profession. By late the following year the U.S. News & World Report published a cover story, “Happiness Explained.”
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 … 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 sixty scientists involved, the movement is showing real results.”
The American Psychologist special issue reached 160,000 psychologists.
The U.S. News & World Report story went out to more than 2 million households. If the timing had been different, it might have been positive psychology’s shot heard round the world. But the impact was short-lived. The date on that issue’s cover? Sept. 3, 2001.
What Good Is Happiness?
Barbara Lee Fredrickson was making her way to a family funeral when she heard the news from lower Manhattan. “In a heartbeat,” she later reported, “my entire world no longer felt safe.”
A psychologist at University of Michigan and the first recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize, Barbara was one of the leading lights of positive psychology. Yet the events of 9/11 threw her into an emotional tailspin that she had a hard time shaking at first.
“I was plagued by doubt,” she wrote of those dark days. “I wondered, Who will care? I honestly felt that the science of positivity was no longer relevant in this new era of terrorism. For the first time, I questioned the relevance of my life’s work.”
Marty’s reflections were similar. “Since Sept. 11, 2001,” he wrote a few months later. “In times of trouble, does the understanding and alleviating of suffering trump the understanding and building of happiness?”
The U.S. News & World Report story was quickly forgotten, and it would be years before the media would show any significant interest in the movement. At the moment, nobody was interested in reading about subjective well-being.
In the long run, 9/11 and its aftermath had hardly any impact on the surge of new positive psychology research. But the questions highlighted one of the challenges: Can we justify pouring precious resources into studying what makes people feel good when there are so many pressing problems? To put it bluntly: What good is happiness?
How to Positively Thrive
One of the earliest scientific answers came from Barbara. Her “broaden and build” theory (published in 1998) proposed that while negative emotions serve the evolutionary purpose of helping humans survive, positive emotions help us thrive.
While feelings of fear, shock and anger tend to focus our thoughts and actions, positive emotions—such as joy, interest, contentment or love—have the opposite effect. They open the mind’s focal lens wider (broaden), leading to greater discovery, learning, growth and development, allowing us to become more mentally resourceful, creative and socially integrated (build).
In essence, being happier makes you smarter.
According to a 2001 landmark study, it makes you live longer, too.
Nearly 700 nuns, ranging in age from 75 to 102 and hailing from seven congregations across the U.S., had been followed for about 15 years, when researchers discovered that an archive had preserved a set of brief autobiographical sketches the women had written back in the 1930s, when they took their original vows. The scientists studied the sisters’ language, charting linguistic evidence of their enthusiasm, optimism and joy (or lack of them) and then cross-referenced the results with the women’s life histories.
The results: At age 85, 90 percent of the most positive group were still alive, compared to only 34 percent of the least positive group. And by age 95 those numbers were 54 percent versus 11 percent. Knowing which nuns had written more positively about their lives in their twenties—some 70 years earlier—predicted which would live significantly longer.
Happy Means Healthy
Scores of studies soon followed, linking happiness to a wide range of tangible benefits, including less incidence of stroke, better resistance to colds and increased immune function, greater resilience to adversity and stronger intuition, less physical pain, lower cortisol levels and less stress and inflammation.
In 2005, Ed and two of his Akumal Eighteen colleagues—Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside and Laura King, a professor of psychology of the University of Missouri, Columbia—made an extensive survey of the literature, reviewing some 300 studies involving more than a quarter million people.
In their published metastudy, “The benefits of positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?” they reported compelling evidence that happier people are more likely to have:
• better health and longer life
• more fulfilling marriages and relationships
• higher incomes and more financial success
• better work performance and more professional success
• more altruism and social and community involvement
What’s more, they found happiness didn’t just correlate with these conditions, it preceded and predicted them consistently.
Can You Really Increase Your Happiness?
The growing evidence was unmistakable: increasing happiness is worth the effort. But the young movement faced a second, even bigger scientific hurdle: According to established scientific fact, happiness levels were pretty much established by our genes, and there wasn’t much we could do to change them.
The idea of a genetically determined “happiness set point” came from studies based on the Minnesota Twin Registry, a major body of psychological and demographic data yielded by studying dozens of sets of twins. One landmark 1966 paper, for example, captured its depressing conclusion in its title: “Happiness is a stochastic [i.e., random] phenomenon.” Every individual has a distinct personality tendency, said the study’s authors, including a mood profile, and that profile is largely inherited. Plainly put: happiness is a roll of the genetic dice.
Moreover, studies of lottery winners and paraplegic accident victims seemed to show that even when people experience extreme, unexpected fortune—good or bad—the resulting leap in happiness or despair tends to flatten out over time. In other words, we get used to it. If the change is bad (even awful), we learn to cope. If it’s good, no matter how good, we soon start taking it for granted.
This behavior pattern, called “hedonic adaptation,” had been accepted scientific canon for decades.
The authors of the “happiness is stochastic” study summed up this position in a wry note that became famous in scientific circles: “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.”
Now it was up to the positive psychologists to challenge that notion.
Akumal Members Tackle the Dogma
For Sonja Lyubomirsky, the happiness question piqued her interest at an early age. Upon emigrating from Russia, she immediately realized that people in America seemed happier. From then on, she became intrigued with the question of what makes some people happier than others.
In January 2001, Sonja suspected that people could increase their own happiness levels and empirical evidence could surely be discovered. So, just as she had done previously with Ed to the “Does happiness lead to success?” study, she along with two Akumal alums combed through data from existing studies as well as recent work and found a critical flaw in the happiness set point theory. It didn’t fit all the data. It fit about half.
In their paper, “Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change,” the three researchers described three prime factors that influence our individual level of happiness:
• our genetic makeup
• our external circumstances, such as location, surroundings, level of income and job
• our own behaviors
Genetics, they found, dictate about 50 percent of our happiness level (set point), and circumstances change that very little, or up to 10 percent (adaptation).
The remaining 40 percent is determined by what we say, do and think. About 40 percent of our own level of happiness is entirely within our own control.
Sonja and her colleagues cited experiments, called “happiness interventions,” that showed simple daily activities could measurably increase positive well-being—and that those increases stayed in place even long after the experiments ended.
One such study showed that students who kept a daily tab of minor positive events in their lives for 10 weeks showed less illness, a more positive outlook and greater happiness than the groups who noted daily hassles or emotion-neutral events. Another study had a trial group perform five “acts of kindness” every week for six weeks and found the same general impact. A flood of similar studies showed similar results.
In an interview a few years before his death, David Lykken, the researcher who made the “as futile as trying to be taller” statement, said he regretted the remark. He added, “It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely—up or down.”
The Revolution Hits the Streets
In January 2005, Time magazine ran a cover story, “The Science of Happiness,” including the articles “Why Optimists Live Longer” and “Is Joy in Your Genes?” to “Does God Want Us to Be Happy?”
A constant flow of coverage followed, from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to CNN and the BBC. Popular books followed, from Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (2006) to The How of Happiness (2007) by Sonja to Barbara’s Positivity (2009).
In 2011, a New York author, Gretchen Rubin, published an instructional memoir about her project to take on a different strategy for greater happiness each month for a year. The Happiness Project shot to the top of the New York Times Nonfiction Best Sellers list and stayed for weeks.
Not long after the Time piece ran, the press picked up a story on a course in positive psychology offered at Harvard by a young associate professor named Tal Ben-Shahar. When he first offered the seminar in 2002, eight had signed up. Two years later, offered as a lecture course, 380 students enrolled. A few years later he offered it again—and this time 855 students made it Harvard’s largest course.
Be Happy in Your Work
The business community caught wind of the revolution. In 2010 The Business of Happiness, by billionaire serial entrepreneur Ted Leonsis, Happiness at Work, by influential Long Island University business professor Srikumar Rao, and The Happiness Advantage, by Harvard assistant psychology professor turned- business consultant Shawn Achor appeared. That year, when Zappos founder Tony Hsieh published his business memoir, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, it debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list and stayed for 27 consecutive weeks.
In 2012 the Harvard Business Review, the gold standard of academic business journalism, dedicated its January/February issue to a cover story, “The Value of Happiness: How Employee Well-Being Drives Profits.” Its lead editorial explained their decision:
“Happiness can have an impact at both the company and the country level. We’ve learned a lot about how to make people happy. We’d be stupid not to use that knowledge.”
Toward Gross National Happiness
With the help of Ed and Nobel Prizewinner Daniel Kahneman, Don Clifton’s Gallup organization developed increasingly powerful survey tools providing exhaustively comprehensive data. And in the past few years local and national governments around the world have been floating and in some cases implementing proposals to measure subjective well-being, along with economic measures like GNP and GDP, as yardsticks of their state of health.
Marty says, “I just reviewed a proposal for the National Academy of Science, in which a dozen of the most prestigious economists and psychologists in America propose to the government that they create the equivalent of a Bureau of Labor Statistics for well-being.”
Ed explains, “People pay attention to what is measured. In my mind, this is the biggest story in positive psychology.” The movement is not without critics.
“There are clinical psychologists who still regard me as the Darth Vader of psychology,” muses Marty. “I get hate letters every so often.” And there are those who deride positive psychology as a careless “happiology” campaign led by zealots and simplistic thinking. But these are in the minority.
Psychology Gets With the Program
“I Google positive psychology every day,” says Marty, “and I’d say the ratio these days is about 5:1, positive comments to negative. I recently saw a Google Ngram search [a search of words and phrases in Google’s library of digitized books] that showed references to the phrase positive psychology now outnumber references to cognitive neuroscience. Right now it’s probably the most popular movement in psychology.”
This new level of respect, he adds, offers a wide-open field for young researchers who aren’t likely to face the skepticism he did half a century ago.
Thankfully, Marty, Mike, Ed, Barbara, Sonja and many other positive psychologists did weather early trials and challenges. Their work has sparked conversations and initiatives around the world on happiness. People everywhere are benefiting from positive psychology—even if they don’t know about its amazing and unlikely beginning.