Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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 icon

They 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 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 101.”

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.

“Smile Moiré” by Omnivore.

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 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 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.

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 story.”

To 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 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.)

“Misery Loves Company” by Open, N.Y.

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 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 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.”

Like 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 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 sample).

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 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 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 disappointment.”

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.”

“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.”

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?

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 particularly guilty about . . .

“Happy Now?” by Chip Kidd.Photo: Jason Fulford

“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 regrets as a father involve bad-mouthing 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.

Philip 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 pessimists.”

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 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 talk.

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 fundamentalism.”

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 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

Happiness: A User’s Manual

Twenty strategies adapted from the scientific research and applied to New York living.

Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness