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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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 :)

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?