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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness


“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.”

“Cubik’s Rube” by Stephen Doyle.  

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.”)

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 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.

In 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.

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.”


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