Mind Over Matters

By Matt Windsor

11aIn 1859, Samuel Smiles (really) published Self-Help, the world’s first self-help book. Ever since, the genre he created has enjoyed great sales and terrible reviews. And every generation is convinced that it has taken its navel-gazing a step farther than the last. But positive psychologists say the recent surge in happiness literature is a symptom of a society in distress.

“Over the last 100 years, there has been a higher incidence of depression in each successive generation,” says psychologist Gitendra Uswatte, Ph.D., who has taught upper-level seminars on positive psychology at UAB for four years—and adapted his material for a course in the undergraduate University Honors Program this spring. His interest in the field came through the writings of Martin Seligman.

“In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman explains the present rise in depression as the ‘waxing of the self and the waning of the common,’” Uswatte says. “In our society there is more emphasis put on individual success, so when an individual fails, it is felt personally and deeply. And at the same time, there is a de-emphasis of the elements that tie us together: religion, nation, community, and even family.”

Anxiety, depression, and other frailties of the human mind have been the stock in trade of psychologists and counselors for decades. Positive psychology looks on a brighter side, focusing on kindness, hope, forgiveness, and gratitude—“all those things that help humans flourish and lead fulfilling lives,” says Uswatte.

Glad You Asked

I was surprised to find myself happy on the day that my mother died. I think that I was relieved that she no longer suffered—and that I had survived what I assumed would be the worst day of my life.
Xolti Morgan
medical student

Positive psychologists are using the empirical methods of scientific research to transform philosophical questions into a new, quantitative science of happiness. By isolating the root causes of contentment, they hope to distill a cure for society’s depressive tendencies. But while some researchers are testing high-tech ways to measure happiness, such as analyzing the body’s biochemical responses to changes in mood, the most common—and effective—research tool is still the humble questionnaire. In other words, if you want to know what makes people happy, just ask.

According to Erik Angner, Ph.D., many of the answers coming in are comforting, while others are downright disturbing. As an economist and philosopher of science, Angner has both of his disciplinary hands in the happiness pot. Next year, he will teach an Honors Program course called The Philosophy, Psychology, and Economics of Happiness. He has teamed up with physicians in the UAB School of Medicine for an ongoing study to assess the connection between happiness and health status in populations across Alabama. He is also delving into the prehistory of positive psychology; at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in August, he presented a paper on almost a century of happiness studies in the United States.

“To a certain extent, positive psychology validates the common wisdom,” Angner says. “The research seems to confirm that money doesn’t make you happy—unless you’re poor, in which case it does. Being religious is positively correlated with being happy, and having a large social network boosts happiness ratings. But having kids apparently does not; it’s a fairly reliable way to get less happy.” That makes a certain amount of sense, considering the effect of sleep deprivation, for example, on emotional states. “If you ask people what makes them happiest, many of them will say it’s their kids. But then if you ask them to keep track of what they do all day and how happy they were at different times, the answers change. When people rate the time they spend with their kids, on average the scores are lower than when they’re watching TV—which is sad.”

Finding the Golden Mean

Group studies have found that the happiest people are not those who report frequent, intense positive emotion, says Uswatte, but those who report a moderate, regular, and persistent level of happiness. That has led researchers to conclude that discovering satisfaction with life, rather than ecstasy, is the key to happiness.

Yet life satisfaction is not correlated as strongly with health or wealth as we might expect. “One really surprising result of this research is that people adapt very quickly to changing circumstances,” says Angner. In fact, studies have shown that lottery winners and paralyzed victims of traffic accidents return from those psychological highs and lows rather quickly. In less than a year, they are close to their original levels of happiness. And that raises an intriguing question that may shape the future of positive psychology: Are people born with a fixed base level of happiness, or is it possible to change—to learn how to be happier?

“Certainly there are some individuals who are higher in these abilities than others,” says Uswatte. Positive psychologists often use a simple formula to represent what they see as the interaction between genetics, circumstances, and willpower in determining a person’s happiness: H = S + C + V (happiness equals set genetic level plus current life events plus—and this is the important part—factors under voluntary control). “Just as for any other trait, most folks are average, and then there are some paragons and some idiots,” Uswatte says. “The good news is that these are characteristics that can be practiced and enhanced.”

Thanks a Lot

In 2005 my husband and I visited the California wine country. The day we arrived in Sonoma’s town square just happened to be the day of the annual zucchini race. This is a tradition in which local residents send elaborately decorated zucchini, complete with glued-on wheels, down a steep racing track. It was such a happy night. We ate hazelnut crepes and watched flying zucchini. You just can’t get better than that.
Erin Street
Comprehensive Cancer Center
community affairs director

Uswatte’s research is focused on finding practical, scientifically verified interventions to help people develop interpersonal character strengths such as gratitude, kindness, and forgiveness. He has demonstrated the positive effect of gratitude on the health of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and on the interaction between patients and caregivers. “In our study of veterans, we found that those who had high levels of gratitude reported greater levels of satisfaction with life, greater positive emotion, and greater engagement in rewarding social activity.”

Uswatte is currently in the early stages of a study in local middle schools to see if levels of aggressive behavior can be reduced by “growing kindness”—teaching students how to regulate their emotions and fostering a deep sense of connectedness to others. “If children feel connected to the other kids they’re playing with, they’re more likely to respond in ways that are kind,” Uswatte says. “Also, children who are able to control their own emotions are likely to behave in prosocial ways. So we’re looking at ways to strengthen the connections among children and help them regulate their emotions.”

Strange as it may seem, the British are leading the way in happiness education. In response to record cases of severe depression and suicide, the United Kingdom has appointed a “happiness czar.” With his approval, teachers are using cognitive behavioral techniques to boost self-esteem and confront negative patterns of thinking in secondary students. There have already been efforts to start similar programs in the United States. According to one textbook publisher, more than 150 universities will offer classes in positive psychology this fall. And who could argue against a discipline that just wants people to get along—with themselves most of all?

“If you think that making more money will always make you happier, then you might be basing your fundamental choices in life on a misconception,” Angner says. “Some people want to work a lot in order to make enough money to buy a big house in the suburbs. But then when it happens, they lose their old social support network, their kids have to move schools, and they end up with a long commute that they hate. It might actually be a better idea to spend a little less time at work and more time with family and friends.”

So the key to happiness is to work less and therefore make less money? Strange words from a man whose Web site shows him posing in front of the tomb of the original economist, Adam Smith. Or maybe not. “There’s a wonderful passage in Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments where he talks about people who gather trinkets and baubles, and he recognizes that people who pursue all of this stuff don’t get happy,” Angner says. “But then—and this is one of the three passages in his writings in which he talks about a guiding ‘invisible hand’—he says that as a side effect of their misguided pursuit of happiness, these people are actually promoting the common good. Because the wealth they generate gets spread out eventually to everyone else.”