The pursuit

Penn's Martin E.P. Seligman is author of "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being."
Penn's Martin E.P. Seligman is author of "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being."

Call it a project, a challenge, call it flourishing or thriving. We all want that warm fuzzy, always did. These days, happiness is a hot topic.

Posted: July 20, 2011

Here are some things that make Staci Herbert happy: running a 5K, her first, in Avon, N.J. Reading The Secret Garden with her book club. Trying to perfect the back-bend pose in yoga. And meeting weekly with longtime pal Patty Prevosti to compare notes, list resolutions, and cheerlead each other on their 2011 Happiness Challenge.

The Happiness Challenge wasn't Herbert's idea; the women signed up via a website, a companion to Gretchen Rubin's best-selling book The Happiness Project, which chronicles Rubin's yearlong quest to become happier. To date, nearly 11,000 people have taken Rubin's online invitation to amp up their own happiness, and there are spin-off "happiness projects" happening in 31 states.

Those aren't the only blips on the happiness meter. The subject of happiness - variously defined as flourishing, thriving, well-being, and resilience - is a hot topic in many fields, from psychology and health care to business, politics, and the arts.

The Second World Congress on Positive Psychology - the branch that studies "the science of thriving" - will meet in Philadelphia this weekend, with attendees able to choose from workshops including "The Happy Schools Program" and "Are Happy Teams Better Teams?"

This year also brought forth Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by positive psychology founder Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, and Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg. And last fall, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his government's plan to begin measuring national well-being.

Why the sudden spotlight on happiness? Why, at this fraught and fragile moment - with sea levels rising, the Arab world convulsing, and the U.S. unemployment rate sputtering along at 9 percent - should we care about what makes us feel warm and fuzzy?

"Maybe because a lot of things seem to be so bad," says Herbert, 40, of Belmar, N.J., "people have to look for some kind of meaning. Maybe the catastrophic events make people want something real."

Psychologists echo her armchair analysis. "All the economic crises and craziness are leading people to ask if money and materialism are all there is," says Christopher Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and speaker at the positive psychology conference.

While cultural definitions of happiness may differ - for instance, in China, the promise of long-term reward may boost happiness, while in the United States, we prize the more immediate payoff - the quest for well-being is universal, Peterson says. "We find in our surveys very minor differences across income or social class or race in terms of the emphasis people put on happiness. Everyone wants to be happy."

And while genetics certainly plays a role - most likely in determining each individual's "set-point" on the glum-to-gleeful scale - environment and attitude can shape how each of us responds to inevitable setbacks. Peterson says character traits of optimism, gratitude, zest, curiosity, and love contribute to people's overall life satisfaction, no matter what their ages, backgrounds, or income. "All these strengths can be nurtured and encouraged," he says. "There are lots of routes to happiness."

Thirteen years ago, Seligman rocked his profession - and jump-started the positive psychology movement - by suggesting to his colleagues that they spent too much time trying to relieve people's misery, and not enough time figuring out what gave them joy. Today, the lead vocalist of Authentic Happiness (the name of Seligman's website, as well as his 2002 book) is singing a slightly different tune.

It turns out, Seligman says, that people don't just strive to "feel good." They also seek positive relationships, meaning, accomplishment, and engagement, the feeling of being utterly absorbed in a task. Seligman now prefers the term "flourishing," hence the name of his latest book. "Happiness," he says, evokes the simplistic smiley-face icon and fails to capture the nuanced experience of well-being.

Seligman offers exercises in his book Flourish - for instance, writing a letter to someone who had a positive influence on your life, then making a "gratitude visit" to read that letter aloud. He also writes about larger-scale efforts to build resilience and well-being in schools, health-care settings, and the U.S. Army.

Even the corporate world is embracing the idea. Carol Kauffman, a psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and founded the Institute of Coaching there, teaches chief executive officers to "focus on what's going right" and to identify their "crucible stories" - that is, instances of turmoil or challenge that gave them strength or provided enduring life lessons.

Author Salzberg has taught meditation to businesspeople, chaplains, prisoners, parents, and government workers all over the world. Through learning concentration, mindfulness, and compassion, she says, people not only boost their own sense of well-being, but also have more energy to reach out to others. "I don't see happiness as self-preoccupied," she says. "It's the fuel that allows us to keep going, to have the energy to make this a better world."

When Prime Minister Cameron announced in November that his government would begin to measure quality of life, critics called the plan "candy floss - sweet but insubstantial." Cameron responded that "all of life can't be measured on a balance sheet." The country's Office for National Statistics is to release its first report next week.

At the moment, the United States has no plan to measure "gross national well-being." But happiness is coming soon to a museum near you. In spring, graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister will present "The Happy Show" at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art, an interactive exhibition for which he received a $250,000 grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

Sagmeister's show will include his own artistic meditations on happiness, including giant billboards, installations, brochures, and light-boxes illustrating "things I have learned in my life so far" - for instance, the maxim "Trying to look good limits my life."

Rubin, in her book and website, encourages people to make similar lists of "personal commandments" (hers include "lighten up" and "do it now") along with short-term and long-view resolutions.

That's how Herbert and Prevosti began. Each wrote a "bucket list"; Herbert's included visiting every major-league ballpark in America, taking horseback riding lessons, going to Paris, and becoming certified to teach yoga. Her theme word for the year was grow.

Halfway through 2011, is her happiness challenge having an effect? Herbert has reconnected with friends from elementary school, taken an art history course about the Louvre, and landed a new job at her sister's title agency. She's working on that back-bend pose.

"I definitely feel more engaged with people in general." Sometimes acquaintances roll their eyes when she tells them about her happiness project. "They think it's kind of dorky. But I don't really care. We think it's fun."

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