Happiness Revolution

Happiness Revolution Illustration

Illustration by Bill Cahalan. © Live Happy Media.

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.

From the premiere issue of Live Happy magazine.


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