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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness -- New York Magazine


Some Dark Thoughts on

More and more psychologists and researchers believe they know what
makes people happy. But the question is, does a New Yorker want to be
By Jennifer Senior

The smiley face, that symbol of empty-

headed cheerfulness, is a visage no New
Yorker (or happiness researcher, in
fact) could love. So, in the following
pages, several New York graphic
designers offer their own riffs on the

T hey say you can’t really assign a

number to happiness, but mine, it
turns out, is 2.88. That’s not as bad as it
sounds. I was being graded on a scale of 1 to 5. My score was below average for my
age, education level, gender, and occupation, sure, but at exactly the 50 percent
mark for my Zip Code. Liking my job probably helped, being an atheist did not, and
neither did my own brain chemistry, which, in spite of my best efforts to improve it,
remains more acidic than I’d like. Unhappy thoughts can find surprisingly little
resistance up there, as if they’ve found some wild river to run along, while
everything else piles up along the banks.

The test I took was something called the Authentic Happiness Inventory, and the
man who designed it, Chris Peterson, is one of the first people I meet at the Positive
Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Unlike many who study
happiness for a living, he seems to embody it, though he tells me that’s a recent
development. He offers me an impromptu tour of the place (walls of salmon and
plum and turquoise; tables piled high with complimentary granola bars), then
wanders toward his office, absently hugging an orange-juice bottle to his stomach as
he drifts, having graciously offered to check, at my request, which Zip Codes are the
happiest and the most miserable in his 350,000-person database. At the end of the
day, I check in with him.

The happiest, he reports, is Branson, Missouri’s.

“But please appreciate—and this is a formal disclaimer—that these are not

representative respondents,” he says. “These are just people who logged on to our
Website and took our happiness measure.” In other words, hundreds of mental
patients from Chicago could have decided to take the test, while only fifteen
Buddhists in Baja did the same, which would result in a very skewed perception of
the well-being of Chicagoans and Bajans. I ask how many people from Branson took

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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness -- New York Magazine

the test. “A small number,” he warns. “I think it was two or three. And the other
happiest Zip Codes are also represented by a very small number of respondents.
Nonetheless, I think the results are kind of interesting. Missoula, Montana. Rural
Minnesota. Rural Indiana. Rural Alabama. Savannah, Georgia. The Outer Banks. Is
there a theme here? There’s a theme here. It seems to run through the Bible Belt and
go straight up north. And if you want to know the absolutely most miserable Zip
Code—and this is based on a very large number of people—it seems to start with

That’s the prefix assigned to many of the office buildings in midtown Manhattan.
“Staten Island is also miserable,” he adds.

So what does this say about New York? I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe that if you make it there, you can make it anywhere,
but you won’t be happy doing it.”

This past spring, the Boston Globe reported that the single most popular course at
Harvard was about positive psychology, or the study of well-being. Its immense
appeal took everyone by surprise. Just one year before, the instructor, Tal
Ben-Shahar, offered the course for the first time, and although it was certainly a hit,
with 380 students enrolled, no one could have imagined that the following year the
number would have jumped to 855.

There’s a theme here, too. Back in the

mid-1840s, a Scot by the irresistible
name of Samuel Smiles was invited to
lecture before a class in “mutual
improvement” in the north of
England—a class, he later noted in a
book, that also began with two or three
young men but grew so large it took over
a former cholera hospital. That book is
“Smile Moiré” by Omnivore.
called Self-Help, published in 1859. It is
considered by many to be the first of its
genre. Today, it’s still in print, and has even come up in Ben-Shahar’s Harvard class.
He has tremendous respect for it.

"For many years,” says Ben-Shahar, “the people who were writing about happiness
were the self-help gurus. It had a bad rap. It was all ‘five easy steps,’ rather than
dignity and hard work. What I’m trying to do in my class is to regain respectability
for the concept of self-help. It’s a great thing, if you think about it literally. It’s what
this country was built on.”

The pursuit of happiness was indeed at the heart of America’s conception. But the
study of happiness—as a science, with random-assignment, placebo-controlled
testing—is a far more recent phenomenon. And right now, it’s booming. At least two
basic positive-psychology textbooks are being published this fall, one written by
Peterson, the other by a University of Kansas professor named Shane Lopez, whose
publisher estimates that roughly 150 colleges will be offering some kind of positive-
psychology course next year. Since 2000, the University of Erasmus at Rotterdam

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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness -- New York Magazine

has been publishing the Journal of Happiness Studies (whose editorial board is
represented in curious disproportion by Californians and Germans). At Barnes &
Noble, there are three excellent books about happiness now sitting on the shelves:
the divinely readable Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert,
about how hopeless we are at predicting our moods; The Happiness Hypothesis, by
University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt, about the ways that ancient
wisdom about flourishing intersects with the modern; and Happiness: A History, an
intellectually elegant work by historian Darrin McMahon, which is exactly as it
sounds, but darker.

Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard, ventures that the explosive interest in positive
psychology is, like so many cultural curiosities involving self-obsession, a boomer
phenomenon. “There’s a feeling of, ‘I’m not going off to some nursing home,’ ” she
says. (And she should know: During the seventies, she found that the more control
nursing-home patients had—over watering their plants, for example—the longer
they were apt to live.) And there are undoubtedly other factors at work. Universities,
for example, have become more sensitive today to the intense pressures on their
students (at Harvard, the chief of mental-health services recently came out with a
book called The College of the Overwhelmed). Economics has also started to take
the discipline of psychology seriously again—Malcolm Gladwell’s books are a sure
testimony to this—and the psychology of positivity and productivity were a perfect
fit for the ethos of the bubble years. (Recently, I’ve come to wonder whether positive
psychology isn’t also the perfect discipline for the era of George Bush, the decider,
the man who remains shinily optimistic no matter how many red lights are glowing
on his dashboard.)

But the happiness-studies boom may have an even simpler explanation: In 1998, an
enterprising, highly established, and press-savvy psychologist from the University of
Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman, convened a group of his peers in Mexico, hoping to
help shift the emphasis of psychology away from pathology and toward
functionality, resilience, and well-being. He coined the term positive psychology to
describe the scientific study of these things—the study of happiness, in short—and
because he was president of the American Psychological Association, he was able to
shore up prestige and grant money for its pursuit.

“What’s unique about Seligman is that he’s not only a great psychologist but a great
organizer, a leader,” says Ben-Shahar, who’s also got a book about happiness in the
After five minutes on the phone with Ben-Shahar, I can already sense that he’s a
warm, intelligent man and that the plants in his house grow faster than those in my
own. But convincing people that positive psychology is not merely the cryptoscience
of sunniness—or its featherbrained pursuit—is one of the most persistent challenges
he and some of his colleagues, particularly those closely associated with Seligman,
face. No longer should we think of ourselves as tin cans of sexual chaos, as echoing
caverns of repressed wishes and violent desires; rather, we should think of ourselves
as the shining sum of our strengths and virtues, forceful, masters of our fates. All
that nattering we’ve been doing in therapists’ armchairs, trying to know and exorcise
our darker selves—it’s been misguided. It’s our better selves we want to know.

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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness -- New York Magazine

Peterson, the inventor of the Authentic Happiness Inventory, is clearly aware of how
easily these ideas can be trivialized. The afternoon I visit him in Philadelphia, he
lingers in his doorway before saying good-bye, telling me he has one final request.

“Harvey Ball,” he says, “was a Massachusetts graphic designer who was

commissioned to do an ad for an insurance company. He was paid a whopping $45
for it. Neither he nor the company thought to trademark it. It belongs to the world.”

Interesting, I tell him, though I’m uncertain where this is going.

“He created the yellow smiley face,” he says. “Please don’t use it to illustrate your

T o wade into the literature on happiness is to wade into a world of control

groups and volunteers, questionnaires and ratings scales, cases of the
fortunate and cases of the medically extreme. From Seligman’s Authentic
Happiness, I learn about a perverse form of facial paralysis called Moebius
syndrome, which makes it impossible for its sufferers to smile; from Stumbling on
Happiness, I learn about something called alexithymia, whose literal meaning is
“absence of words to describe emotional states.” From many sources, too many to
count, I read about a survey of nuns, which showed that those who expressed faith
and optimism in their journals were apt to live far longer than those who didn’t. And
from Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, I come across the
most compelling, persuasive, and revolting study of them all: Two separate groups
of men, when given colonoscopies, reported less discomfort if the instrument sat in
place for a few seconds after the procedure, even though it prolonged the exam. The
reason is that the final moment involved less pain. Apparently, we define and
remember our experiences by their highs, lows, and how they end.

Other findings from the emerging field of happiness studies: Married people are
happier than those who are not, while people who believe in God are happier than
those who don’t. On the former point, Seligman’s book cites a 35,000-person poll
from the National Opinion Research Center, in which 40 percent of married
Americans described themselves as “very happy,” compared with just 24 percent of
unmarried Americans who said the same. (Of course, he allows, happy people may
be the ones who get married to begin with.) On the latter point, he cites a study
showing that the faithful are less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, or to kill
themselves. The act of worshipping builds community—itself another source of
happiness—and belief systems provide structure, meaning, and the promise of relief
from pain in this life.

Smarter people aren’t any happier, but those who drink in moderation are.
Attractive people are slightly happier than unattractive people. Men aren’t happier
than women, though women have more highs and more lows. Surprisingly, the
young are not happier than the elderly; in fact, it’s the other way round, with older
people reporting slightly higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer dark days.

Money doesn’t buy happiness—or even upgrade despair, as the playwright Richard
Greenberg once wrote—once our basic needs are met. In one well-known survey, Ed
Diener of the University of Illinois determined that those on the Forbes 100 list in
1995 were only slightly happier than the American public as a whole; in an even

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more famous study, in 1978, a group of researchers determined that 22 lottery

winners were no happier than a control group (leading one of the authors, Philip
Brickman, to coin the scarily precise phrase “hedonic treadmill,” the unending
hunger for the next acquisition).

As a general rule, human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of
us have natural hedonic “set points,” to which our bodies are likely to return, like
our weight. This is true whether our experiences are marvelous—like winning the
lottery—or shattering. Not only did Brickman and his colleagues look at lottery
winners but also at 29 people who’d recently become paraplegic or quadriplegic. It
turned out the victims of these accidents reported no more unhappy moments than
a control group. (This exceptionally counterintuitive finding, however, has not been
replicated in a published paper—and subsequent studies have certainly shown that
the loss of a spouse or a child can dramatically depress our happiness thermostats,
as can sustained unemployment.)

There’s surprisingly little in the happiness literature about raising children, which in
and of itself is odd. Odder still is that most of it suggests children don’t make parents
any happier. Gilbert wrote only three scant pages about this in Stumbling on
Happiness. But he says he’s been asked about it on his book tour more than almost
anything else. “It really violates our intuition,” he says. “Yet every bit of data says
children are an extreme source of negative affect, a mild source of negative affect, or
none at all. It’s hard to find a study where there’s one net positive.” (One possible
explanation, he says, is that children are sources of transcendent moments, and
those highs are what people remember.)

Paradoxes abound. Nebraskans think

that Californians are happier, but a
study done by the Princeton Nobel Prize
winner Daniel Kahneman suggests they
aren’t. One might expect the homeless of
Fresno to be happier than the
slum-dwellers of Calcutta, but another
study suggests they aren’t (probably
because Indians don’t live in social
“Misery Loves Company” by Open, N.Y.
isolation, as our homeless do). In a 2003
poll by the Roper organization, the
Danes, the Americans, and the Australians rated themselves the happiest
(Australian buoyancy, such an enduring mystery—they’re like an entire nation of
people who can’t relate to Chekhov). Other polls have found the Swiss happiest, and
the Canadians always do well (hardly a surprise to anyone who knows Canadians).
Compared with their purchasing power, Latin and South Americans are much
happier than one would imagine, and the Japanese are less so, though being happy
in Japan might not be a value per se. And every survey agrees on one point: That the
people of Eastern European nations—Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Latvia, Belarus,
and Bulgaria—consistently rank themselves the least happy, with Russia coming in
especially low. (This might explain my own desolate moods. You can take the girl
out of Vladivostok, but you can’t take Vladivostok out of the girl.) Yet people in the

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happiest countries are more likely to kill themselves.

And no matter where they live, human beings are terrible predictors of what will
make them happy. If Stumbling on Happiness tells us anything, it’s this.
“Imagination,” says Gilbert, “is the poor man’s wormhole.” Our imagination has an
odd knack for Photoshopping things in and airbrushing things out, which is why we
think that getting back together with our exes is a good idea; it also tends to mistake
our present feelings for future ones, which is why, when we decide to marry the right
person, we find it unthinkable we’ll ever be tempted to sleep with anyone else. At the
same time, we forget that our imagination has a miraculous ability to rationalize its
way out of grim situations—which is why we’re more likely to take a positive view of
things we did than things we didn’t (so go ahead and ask that woman to marry you),
more comfortable with decisions we can’t reverse than ones we can, and more apt to
make the best of a terrible situation than a merely annoying one.

Because our imaginations are limited, we can be disappointed by the things we covet
most. But it also means—and this is the gorgeous part—that we’re much more likely
to cope well with situations we never thought we’d be able to survive. Perhaps the
most profound study Gilbert cites is about the disabled, showing that those who are
permanently injured say they’d be willing to pay far less to undo their injuries than
able-bodied people say they’d pay to prevent them. It’s possible, as Gilbert notes,
that they may even find some silver lining in their experiences, as when the late
Christopher Reeve memorably said, “I didn’t appreciate others nearly as much as I
do now.”

L ike most New Yorkers I know, I can’t imagine living in most other places in
the world. My troubles would surely be aggravated, rather than solved, by
relocating to Branson. But reading the literature of happiness studies, I can’t help
but wonder whether we aren’t all in the grip of some strange false consciousness.
From the point of view of the happiness literature, New Yorkers seem to have been
mysteriously seduced into a way of life that conspires, in almost every way, against
the most basic level of contentment.

The large points first: Most happiness researchers agree that being surrounded by
friends and family is one of the most crucial determinants of our well-being. Yet
New York, as surprisingly neighborly a city as it is, is still predicated on a certain
principle of atomization. Being married would help in this instance, obviously. But
New York City’s percentage of unmarried adults is nine points higher than the
national average, at 52 percent.

Then there’s the question of the hedonic treadmill, such a demonic little term, so
vivid, so apt. Isn’t that what New York, the city of 24-hour gyms, is? More charitably
put, one could say that New York is a city of aspirants, the destination people come
to to realize dreams. And of course we should feel indebted to the world’s dreamers
(and I thank each and every one, for creating jet travel, indoor plumbing, The
Simpsons), but there’s a line between heartfelt aspiration and a mindless state of
yearning. Darrin McMahon, the author of Happiness: A History, shrewdly points
out that the Big Apple is a perfect moniker for the city: “The apple is the cause of the
fall of human happiness,” he says. “It’s the symbol of that desire for something

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more. Even though paradise was paradise, they were still restless.”

Which is where the subtle thesis of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice comes
in. He argues, with terrible persuasiveness, that a superabundance of options is not
a blessing but a certain recipe for madness. Nowhere do people have more choices
than in New York. “New Yorkers should probably be the most unhappy people on
the planet,” says Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore. “On every block,
there’s a lifetime’s worth of opportunities. And if I’m right, either they won’t be able
to choose or they will choose, and they’ll be convinced they chose badly.”

Economists have a term for those who seek out the best options in life. They call
them maximizers. And maximizers, in practically every study one can find, are far
more miserable than people who are willing to make do (economists call these
people satisficers). “My suspicion,” says Schwartz, “is that all this choice creates
maximizers.” If that’s the case, New York doesn’t just attract ambitious neurotics; it
creates them. It also creates desires for things we don’t need—which, not
coincidentally, is the business of Madison Avenue—and, as a corollary, pointless
regrets, turning us all into a city of counterfactual historians, men and women who
obsessively imagine different and better outcomes for ourselves.

My favorite study in Schwartz’s book was about jam. One weekend, a Columbia
University researcher named Sheena Iyengar set out six different kinds in a
high-end gourmet store. She invited people to try them, promising them a dollar off
any jar they liked. The next weekend, she did the same, but laid out 24 different
kinds. More people tried the jam the weekend there were 24, but only 3 percent of
the samplers bought any. The weekend there were six jars, by contrast, 30 percent of
the samplers bought some.

As I read this, it was hard not to think of New York City dating life. Everyone comes
here for the jam. But no one buys it. Then I discover that Iyengar has examined
speed dating, too, and similarly found that women who sat at smaller tables of
potential mates were inclined to go on second dates 50 percent of the time, but if the
group got bigger, they followed up on only a third of the candidates (though the
men, curiously, remained content to follow up on 50 percent no matter how big the

Choice creates unhappiness, argues Barry Schwartz, so “New

Yorkers should probably be the unhappiest people on the
planet. On every block, there’s a lifetime of opportunities.”

Other subtler points: Although many economists agree that money doesn’t make
people happy, disparities in income make people miserable, according to most
happiness literature. Happiness, in other words, “is less a function of absolute
income than of comparative income,” as Gilbert puts it. “Now, if you live in
Hallelujah, Arkansas,” he continues, “the odds are good that most of the people you
know do something like you do and earn something like you earn and live in houses
something like yours. New York, on the other hand, is the most varied, most
heterogeneous place on earth. No matter how hard you try, you really can’t avoid
walking by restaurants where people drop your monthly rent on a bottle of wine and

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store windows where shoes sit like museum pieces on gold pedestals. You can’t help
but feel trumped. As it were.”

Yet most of us insist that New York is the only place we’d be happy, just as parents
insist their children are their greatest sources of joy. Maybe the same phenomenon
is at work: New York creates moments of transcendence, and that’s all that matters.
Or maybe the belief that New York is the best place on earth is what Gilbert calls a
super-replicator—a myth necessary to the flourishing of a culture, just as certain
genes are necessary to the flourishing of the species. Gilbert theorized that our
beliefs that money and children will make us happy are super-replicators—without
them, civilization wouldn’t survive. Modern civilization wouldn’t survive without its
large cities, either. (Take that, red states.)

And maybe, too, there’s something to all this abundance, all this aspiring, all this
choice. For all its confusions, choice is also a source of hope, and for many of us,
hope is itself happiness, whether it’s predicated on truths or illusions. This isn’t the
sort of thing that gets borne out in surveys. But it’s the stuff of fantasies, novels—of
being human. As Julian Barnes asks in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Isn’t the most reliable
form of pleasure . . . the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into
fulfillment’s desolate attic?”

I almost became a professional philosopher,” Martin Seligman says. “I had a

fellowship to Oxford. I turned it down.” I’d read this about Seligman. He’s a
short man and former high-school outcast who looks a bit like Norman Mailer;
today, the day I meet him, he’s wearing a silky Versace shirt of powder blue.

“My education was Wittgensteinian,” he continues. I’d heard this about Seligman
too—how fascinated he was by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous depressive who
nevertheless told his landlady as he was dying, Tell them it’s been wonderful.
Seligman’s interested in many famous depressives—Lincoln, Oppenheimer. He
identifies himself as a depressive, too. “But in retrospect,” he continues, “I think
Wittgenstein suborned three generations of philosophy, including mine, by telling
us that what we wanted to do was puzzles and that somehow by solving puzzles,
problems would get solved. I spent 40 years struggling out of that mode.”

Seligman spent almost as long struggling out of the mode of traditional psychology.
Like most psychologists of his generation, he began his career looking not at
well-being but pathology. He co-authored the standard abnormal-psychology text
that’s used in colleges around the country (for the 101 course of the same name,
fondly called “Nuts and Sluts” when I was at school), and he did his most
revolutionary work on helplessness in dogs, discovering that those who received
electric shocks in a high-walled pen (from which they could not escape) probably
wouldn’t try to escape once they were moved to a low-walled pen, even though they
could. This phenomenon, which he called “learned helplessness,” earned him an
enduring place in the field. It was a heartbreaking, pathbreaking finding, one
suggesting how easy it is for living things to become prisoners of their own habits,
virtual shut-ins of their own minds.

But today, Seligman is not interested in dogs that lay helpless in their pens. He’s

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interested in the ones that tried to escape. “Lying awake at night,” he says in his
introduction to Authentic Happiness, written in 2002, “you probably ponder, as I
have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from
minus five to minus three.” Going from minus five to minus three was in fact the
goal of Freud, who famously declared that converting “hysterical misery into
common unhappiness” was the goal of psychoanalysis. (Woody Allen, similarly,
divides life into the miserable and the horrible.) “If you are such a person,” Seligman
continues, “you have probably found the field of psychology to be a puzzling

It is Seligman’s contention that psychology’s emphasis on pathology has

marginalized the study of well-being. But long before he invented the term positive
psychology, men and women were doing research on resilience and functionality.
“The indictment of psychology’s entire history in order to make an important place
for this movement is a travesty,” says Gilbert. “This movement has enough good
things to offer that it does not have to make the case that it is revolutionary.”

What’s even more complicated—and unnerving to many of Seligman’s peers—is that

Seligman not only studies happiness for a living but treats it as a goal, and is captain
of a cottage industry dedicated to its pursuit. His books Learned Optimism and
Authentic Happiness were best sellers, found on self-help racks and published in
twenty languages; until a year ago, he had a life-coaching concern, in which he
trained 1,000 people at a clip in positive-psychology techniques, by conference call
(and at $2,000 per head). One of his Websites,, charges
subscribers $9.95 per month for his materials, questionnaires, and forums. (“We are
so confident that this program will help you, we’ve developed a no-obligation,
limited-time offer to try Dr. Seligman’s powerful program for one month free,” the
Website assures.)

This is a highly unusual position for a tenured academic—to position oneself as both
impartial scientist and impassioned healer, to be the one both in the lab and out on
the streets, peddling the cure. It means Seligman hasn’t just started an academic
discipline but a movement, and movements, although useful in popularizing ideas,
also can trivialize them—and arguably collide with the aims of research.

“In any scientific endeavor,” concedes Seligman, “the big conflict is between what
the facts of the matter are and wanting your theory to be right. The only defense
against that is to tell the truth and to try to underpromise. And even if you
underpromise, people will still call you a guru, and I guess you live with that.”

So can happiness be taught? Literature based on twin studies seems to suggest that
roughly 50 percent of our affect is determined by genetics. If you’re like me, a
pessimist, that seems like a depressing lot. Optimists, of course, would argue that 50
percent is a lot of room to play with, and that through a combination of acts of will
and shifts in fortune, our happiness levels can change substantially. (In fact,
happiness researchers frequently use the equation H = S + C + V, or happiness
equals our genetic set point plus our circumstances plus what we voluntarily
change—a tad too reminiscent, for my taste, of a certain “Far Side” cartoon:
“Einstein discovers time actually is money.”)

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Seligman is most interested in V. And

because he’s a self-identified depressive,
or perhaps because he’s a philosopher,
his idea of happiness is much more
comprehensive than positive emotion.
By engaging and cultivating our
strengths, he says, and by deploying our
virtues, we can lead a fulfilling,
meaningful life—a notion not unlike
“Cubik’s Rube” by Stephen Doyle.
Aristotle’s, who defined happiness as
“an activity of the soul that expresses
virtue.” He makes the critical distinction between pleasures, which make us feel
good, and gratifications, which, oddly, may not involve positive emotions at all, but
rather the blunting of them. Eating a Mars Bar is a pleasure; doing something that
engages or enhances our strengths is a gratification, whether it’s swimming,
welding, or listening to a friend in need. Optimally, when we’re in a state of high
gratification, we’re experiencing what Seligman’s colleague, Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”), calls flow—a state of total
absorption, when time seems to stop and the self deserts us completely.

When Seligman taught his course on positive psychology at the University of

Pennsylvania, he had his students isolate their “signature strengths,” using a test
again devised by Peterson, and figure out creative ways to use them daily. He also
had his students keep gratitude journals, so that they could keep a nightly record of
the people and the experiences they were thankful for. The highlight of the semester,
he says, was “gratitude night,” an evening when his students read aloud a long letter
to one of the people who meant most to them.

Seligman is a big believer in these techniques. He himself writes gratitude notes and
counts his blessings in the evening.

“I’m addicted to it,” he says.

I n the last paragraph of The English Patient, Hana, the protagonist, stands alone
in her house and, because her hair flies in her eyes, accidentally knocks a glass
from the cupboard. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Kip, the man she loves,
catches a fork an inch off the ground, similarly brushed off the dinner table by his
daughter. Some of us are Hanas. Some of us are Kips. My friend Sarah is a Kip.
When the two of us went to Guatemala together, I couldn’t get over the karma she
brought along—never in my life have I traveled with so few wrinkles, so few glitches.
I left her side for only 40 minutes that trip. In those 40 minutes, I was harassed by a
policeman and shat on by a pigeon.

I am a Hana. I’m convinced that if I didn’t work for my luck, I wouldn’t have any at
all, and would instead be borne backward on a conveyor belt, the sort who always
watched her candy bars get stuck in the vending machine and got Canadian pennies
for change. It is entirely irrational, this feeling, one that flies in the face of every
objective data point in my life. Yet I’ve felt this way for as long as I can remember.
How small we are when our minds develop minds of their own.

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I went to see Carol Kauffman because I was curious about the techniques of positive
psychology, curious whether a person like her could make a person like me feel less
like a person like Hana. Kauffman is a positive-psychology coach who has an office
in Arlington, Massachusetts, near Harvard, where she works as an assistant clinical
professor at McLean Hospital. She has clients all over the world, from L.A. to São
Paolo, many of whom she consults by phone (“High-level people often don’t have
time to drive”).

My first consultation with Kauffman was on the phone. She assured me that her
approach was eclectic and admitted outright I might not be the best candidate for
this kind of thing. So she proposed, as a modest goal, that we aim only to find ways
that “would put one or two more positive moments in your day.” Her goal, she said,
was to reverse my focus every once in a while, to “find pockets where you did things
right, where you might have actually been using a strength.”

It was a lovely idea and, as it turns out, a bit ambitious. In our next phone
conversation, she asked what I’d done right since we spoke. A long, sitcomlike
silence followed. I’m sorry? I couldn’t think of a thing, including paying a
long-overdue cable bill—and the next thing I knew, I was silently checking the
television to see if it was working. It wasn’t. Shit.

I don’t want to trivialize Kauffman’s skills or my commitment to this quixotic

enterprise. When I met her for our third session, it was in her Arlington office—an
office not unlike a shrink’s, with an Oriental rug and Indian artifacts—and I quite
liked her style, though I winced when she used the word empower for the third or
fourth time (“I’m a positive-psychology nag,” she explained). We didn’t discuss my
parents, my boyfriend, or any of the usual psychoanalytic staples. What we
discussed, instead, was how to plan on making my days a bit nicer—something a
person like me actually has to plan. She occasionally stopped me mid-sentence to
show how my mind worked. A good deal of the hour, in fact, became a discussion
about the bum habits of my mind, and how to stop it from always circling back to the
blacker things, like a tongue running obsessively over a sore tooth.

It occurred to me later that what we were doing was quite literally the opposite of
psychoanalysis. Instead of encouraging patients to reenact their habits through
transference, she was crudely modeling a new way to think and behave. She
acknowledged, again, that I was a hard case. “But anything you practice sets up a
memory trail,” she said, “whether it’s a golf swing or a piano piece.”

I spent the day feeling great. It didn’t last, of course. It may just be a matter of
practicing my golf swing—I have no idea how I’d feel if I spent a year chatting with
her on the phone, trying to change my thinking habits. Three sessions is hardly
enough to tell. My sense is that it’s a crapshoot, an art more than a science—like any
talking cure.

When I came home the next day, I found an e-mail from Ben-Shahar, the teacher of
the Harvard course. I’d written him first, mentioning I’d ordered Samuel Smiles’s
book, Self-Help, now an Oxford Classic. His reply was brief, and it was perhaps the
only time in my life I’ve laughed at the use of an emoticon: You’ll enjoy Smiles :)

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Like every religion, movement, and interesting idea, positive psychology has its own
creation myth. One day, says Seligman, his daughter Nikki took him to task for
scolding her while he was working in his garden, when it was clear she’d done little
to annoy him. She reminded him that she’d given up whining on her 5th birthday,
and it was the hardest thing she’d ever done; he, on the other hand, remained a
grouch. That was the day, Seligman says, that he realized two things: First, he had to
change, and second, raising children didn’t just mean correcting their failings but
isolating and nurturing their strengths.

“It seems to me,” says Adam Phillips, that “anyone who could
maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the world, is
living in a delusion.”

It makes sense that a man like Seligman would come to this conclusion. He has
tremendous faith in the power of human agency. During our interview, he describes
himself as a “launcher of ships” and an “intellectual entrepreneur.” He knows lots of
people, moves around in high places; in the course of our conversation, he refers to
Jeffrey Epstein, a money manager and close friend of Bill Clinton’s, as “Jeffrey,” and
talks about going swimming with Michael Crichton. His desk at work has two
computer screens to maximize his efficiency, and at home, he has four. When we get
to the subject of Methodism, he waxes rhapsodic: “I think what Methodism did is
take this terrifically important premise, which is that we can participate in our own
grace. That we can do things to be better people.”

But is change something that can come about by a simple act of will? Agency
requires start-up energy, something depressives aren’t necessarily going to have if
they’ve spent their time rattling around a bell jar. I mention this to him.

“I have to fight to get up in the morning, too.”

I ask when he wakes up.

“Between six and nine. If I could, I’d stay in bed until nine, but usually I’m up at six
or six-thirty.”

Seligman’s an interesting standard-bearer for his cause. He’s thoroughly engaged

with the world, a huge success, and an extremely generous and creative
conversationalist. But managing anger seems like a key part of managing
depression, and so does maintaining a healthy sense of proportion about one’s own
needs. At some point, I ask whether his kids from his first marriage feel robbed,
because he had his epiphany about changing his own behavior during his second
marriage. Did he ever write them notes of apology or explanation? Something along
the lines of his gratitude letter?

There are about eight seconds of silence. “No, we’ve never really talked about it.
Huh. That’s a good idea. There’s no reason not to . . . ”

Well, there’s no reason to do it, either, I say, if it’s not something you feel

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particularly guilty about . . .

“Well, my first wife and I made this

agreement that we would not
bad-mouth each other, which she
violated from day one, but I never did.
And a real conversation with my kids
about it would involve some
bad-mouthing of her.”

Why would a conversation about your

“Happy Now?” by Chip Kidd. regrets as a father involve bad-mouthing
(Photo: Jason Fulford)
your ex-wife?

“I don’t have regrets,” he says. “I would choose to do the same thing. That was the
time of my life in which I needed to do my work, the foundation, and I would do it
again. And it just happened they were victims of that. No, it’d be a conversation
much more about what the marriage and the child-rearing was like and how we felt
about each other.”

Even if you don’t have regrets, you can feel bad, I say.

“Yes. I feel bad. But I would do it the same way. I was married to my work, and I
should have been married to my work.”

A launcher of ships.

P hilip Brickman, the man who did the famous lottery study, was also a
launcher of ships—or at least a launcher of careers, a mentor to many. In his
work, he focused a lot on happiness and what it took to achieve it. He was creative,
collegial, a nurturer; his obituary mentions that one of his favorite topics of
discussion was what constituted “the perfect day.” On May 13, 1982, when he was 38
years old, he climbed to the roof of the tallest building in Ann Arbor and jumped.
His colleagues were stunned. There’s an untold distance between knowing
happiness and knowing about it. And sometimes, to our blinking incomprehension,
that distance can only be measured in the space between this life and the next.

“There’s no credible evidence that dispositional optimism is changeable,” says Julie

Norem, a Wellesley professor and author of The Positive Power of Negative
Thinking. Norem is one of the more outspoken critics of the positive-psychology
movement. “And the research shows that it’s dispositional optimism that makes
your life better,” she continues. “So if it’s not clear you can change this kind of
disposition, it’s not especially useful to tell people about it.”

Norem is a researcher. One of her most interesting studies involved giving anagrams
to solve to both optimists and pessimists, first listening to Mozart, then listening to a
dirge. The pessimists did better when they were listening to the dirge. “I’ve come to
think of them as the French,” she says. She has also given them a name: “defensive

Another very vivid critic of the positive-psychology movement is Barbara Held,

author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching.She’s more of a culture critic. She detects a

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certain high-handed moralism in Seligman’s work—a presumption that happiness is

itself virtuous. “Can Seligman’s claim that virtuous action produces well-being be
tested scientifically?” she asked during a 2003 positive-psychology conference, at
which both she and Norem were asked to speak. Unlike Harvey Ball, who forgot to
trademark the yellow smiley face, Held trademarked the yellow smiley face with a
slash running through it. She made Seligman wear a T-shirt with it throughout her

Until extremely recently, happiness wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable
right. Instead, it was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a
virtuous, and often self-denying, life. As McMahon points out in Happiness: A
History, the words for happiness in both ancient Greek—eudaimonia—and every
Indo-European language include, at the root, a cognate for “luck.” In English, it’s
happ, or chance—as in happenstance, haphazard, perhaps. The implication is that
being happy means being lucky. And luck is not something we can entirely will.

“Happiness is fine as a side effect,” says Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst
and lay philosopher whose latest work, Going Sane, examines functionality and
well-being, but from a much more literary and ruminative perspective. “It’s
something you may or may not acquire, in terms of luck. But I think it’s a cruel
demand. It may even be a covert form of sadism. Everyone feels themselves prone to
feelings and desires and thoughts that disturb them. And we’re being persuaded that
by acts of choice, we can dispense with these thoughts. It’s a version of

Unlike Seligman, Phillips declares happiness “the most conformist of moral aims.”
“For me,” he continues, “there’s a simple test here. Read a really good book on
positive psychology, and read a great European novel. And the difference is evident
in one thing—the complexity and subtlety of the moral and emotional life of the
characters in the European novel are incomparable. Read a positive-psychology
book, and what would a happy person look like? He’d look like a Moonie. He’d be
empty of idiosyncrasy and the difficult passions.

“It seems to me that if you were to take a rather stringent line here,” concludes
Phillips, “then anyone who could maintain a state of happiness, given the state of the
world, is living in a delusion.”

Funny he should mention this: One of the most interesting bits of American
research to surface—repeatedly—in books about happiness is a study that shows
depressives are far more likely to be realists, while happy people are more likely to
walk around in a mild state of delusion. The study itself was fairly simple: A group of
undergraduates was given varying degrees of control over turning on a green light.
Some members of the group had perfect control; others had none—the light went on
and off of its own accord. The depressives accurately predicted, in each instance,
whether they were in control of the situation or not. The nondepressives, on the
other hand, thought they had control about 35 percent of the time over the situation
in which they were, in fact, 100 percent helpless.

To me, this study more or less explains our current president—sunny and optimistic

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and full of faith, certainly, but not quite able to see the world as it is. After I read it, I
couldn’t help but think that a different man, a slightly more pessimistic man, may
have been less inclined to believe that Iraq could be conquered, subdued, and rebuilt
as a flourishing democracy with just 150,000 troops.

I mention this to Seligman. He declines to discuss Bush specifically, but says that he
and his colleagues have analyzed political speeches before and discovered that
although more optimistic candidates are likely to win presidential elections, it was
the presidents who gave the most pessimistic inaugural speeches who went down in
history as being great. “You have to be optimistic enough to get voters to vote for
you,” he says, “but you have to be pessimistic enough to do serious, great stuff.”

At this moment, it doesn’t occur to me to stop Seligman and ask him to further
explain this observation. But later, as I listen to our discussion on tape, the
implication seems clear: Even the director of the Positive Psychology Center
associates pessimism with seriousness and greatness. He sounds as divided about
the question as his critics. It’s a conundrum, certainly. A psychoanalyst might even
call him conflicted.

Next: A User's Manual to Happiness by Ben Mathis-Lilley

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