Mar 07

“Happier?”: Collective Quest Studied and Questioned

At the same time that our collective preoccupation with happiness has grown, though, our actual happiness has declined — research shows that Americans are noticeably unhappier than we were just a few decades ago. Cody Delistraty, The Cut, addressing Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?

In Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America (2017) historian/author Daniel Horowitz draws on various areas of knowledge to examine our country’s evolving preoccupation with seeking “subjective well-being” à la the positive psychology movement that “has vigorously fostered its development” (Psychology Today).

A significant conclusion of Horowitz, per Cody Delistraty, The Cut:

Horowitz takes a linear historical approach to the academic question of happiness, tracing the rise of ‘positive psychology’ over time — a rise, he notes, that parallels the growth of both inequality in the U.S. and the cultural emphasis on individuality. Happiness studies, he argues, seem to be a way of convincing people they’re happy — or could be happy — even as they’re being dealt increasingly bad hands in terms of things like income inequality, educational affordability, and access to health care.

Such things as meditation, yoga, and “the conflation of success and merit” are symbolic of Americans’ attempts to reach a state of perceived life satisfaction. Maybe these work for some, but as Delistraty remarks, “When the less-privileged person fails to achieve the happiness they desire, they’re told to blame themselves first and foremost, rather than the circumstances that have helped shape their life.”

Delistraty elaborates further on evolving concepts regarding life fulfillment:

…(A) significant shift has occurred: Positive psychology has begun to move away from defining happiness simply as a positive emotion, [Horowitz] writes, and toward the idea of eudaimonia, or the Aristotelian definition of happiness: well-being that comes from living a moral life.
Living a good, fulfilled, satisfying life is not the same as being happy. In fact, the quest for happiness, so deeply inscribed in the American psyche, can often do more harm than good, especially if your personal happiness comes at the expense of another’s. To make morality, rather than happiness, your central goal is to ultimately achieve a greater form of satisfaction.

As Horowitz recently told Jill Suttie, Greater Good:

I think it’s clear that hedonic pleasures—like back rubs or eating chocolate—don’t offer much in the long run. Though important to people for the moment, they are not important for them in the long term or in their more global sense of well-being. The movement away from—or in addition to—hedonic happiness, and toward a focus on meaning and purposefulness, is to be fully welcomed and embraced, because that shift helps scientists and people like me understand the importance of a much broader range of experience.

Oct 23

Positive Psychology: Chris Peterson’s “The Good Life”

How unfortunate for the field of positive psychology that many confuse it with the school of rah-rah positive thinking. They’re actually two distinctly different approaches.

One of the well-respected founders of positive psychology, Christopher Peterson, defined it in a blog post several years ago:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.  It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.

The list below, according to Peterson, are some of the things this area of study has discovered. Asterisks behind several of them indicate that I’ve made additional comments that follow.

• Most people are happy.
• Happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply along    for the happy ride. People who are satisfied with life eventually have even more reason to be satisfied, because happiness leads to desirable outcomes at school and work, to fulfilling social relationships, and even to good health and long life.
• Most people are resilient.
• Happiness, strengths of character, and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks.
• Crisis reveals character.
• Other people matter mightily if we want to understand what makes like most worth living.
• Religion matters.*
• And work matters as well if it engages the worker and provides meaning and purpose.
• Money makes an ever-diminishing contribution to well-being, but money can buy happiness if it is spent on other people.
• As a route to a satisfying life, eudaimonia trumps hedonism.**
• The ‘heart’ matters more than the ‘head.’ Schools explicitly teach critical thinking; they should also teach unconditional caring.
• Good days have common features: feeling autonomous, competent, and connected to others.
• The good life can be taught.***

*Not a reflection of Peterson’s personal beliefs, but an acknowledgment of the importance of religion to many.

**According to the Free Dictionary, eudaimonia is “a contented state of being happy and healthy and prosperous.” Hedonism, on the other hand, is the “(p)ursuit of or devotion to pleasure.”

***This is good news, he notes, though it’s necessary to put one’s newfound knowledge to use regularly in order to sustain progress.

Earlier this month Christopher Peterson passed away at the age of 62.

One of the major contributions he made to positive psychology was the study of character strengths. He encouraged people to take the VIA (Values in Action) Survey of Signature Strengths at You’ll find it there under “Questionnaires/Engagement.” If you don’t want to spend 20-40 minutes on this test, there’s also a “Brief Strengths Test.”

How can this help you? You’re more likely to attain contentment or happiness if you learn how to capitalize on your strengths that score the highest.

Peterson’s book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, co-authored with Martin Seligman, identifies 24 strengths that fall into six groups of virtues:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
    • creativity
    • curiosity
    • open-mindedness
    • love of learning
    • perspective and wisdom
  • Courage
    • bravery
    • persistence
    • integrity
    • vitality
  • Humanity
    • love
    • kindness
    • social intelligence
  • Justice
    • active citizenship / social responsibility / loyalty / teamwork
    • fairness
    • leadership
  • Temperance
    • forgiveness and mercy
    • humility and modesty
    • prudence
    • self-regulation and self control
  • Transcendence
    • appreciation of beauty and appreciation of excellence
    • gratitude
    • hope
    • humor and playfulness
    • spirituality, or a sense of purpose and coherence

Available on the Psychology Today website, Peterson’s blog was called “The Good Life: Positive Psychology and What Makes Life Worth Living.” Material culled from this column will be featured in his next book, Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology, expected to be released in early January.