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20180819 – Happier


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The main idea of this book is to review the field of positive psychology as it developed after WWII, somewhat as reaction to its horrors. Started by to significant extent by Holocaust survivors who were trying to make some sense out of senseless tragedy, it developed into massive industry supporting typical American creed of Pursuit of Happiness with psychological, medical, and statistical research and expressed in nearly infinite number of self-help books. As everything American it expands all over the globe and impacts human behavior and decision making from individual level to all the way up to ruling governmental entities.



It starts with the anecdote about business owner who reduced his salary to $70,000 based on the psychological research claiming that more money does not make people happier. Author uses this to discuss role of psychology, especially positive psychology and happiness studies. He provides a brief overview of happiness discussion in history going all the way back to Aristotle and then moving all the way to contemporary time with its “positive thinking”, “Gross National Happiness”, and such. However, he points out that in our time massive research of happiness coincides with mass unhappiness caused by the great recession, stagnant wages, and political deadlock in USA and other developed countries. Then he brings in Positive psychology that provides highly contested and complex view on human happiness and its relation to material consumption and social environment. Author stresses that Positive Psychology became a powerful movement, which aims not only to help people with problems, but provide tools to regular people without any psychological problems to improve quality of their live through better understanding of what could make them happier.

  1. From Helplessness to Optimism: Martin Seligman and the Development of Positive Psychology

This chapter starts with reference to Seligman’s address in 1998 to American Psychological Association (155,000 members) when he called to use positive approach to strive for achieving human flourishing and preventing conflicts. One of the most important goals was to handle new situation when increased material affluence led to higher levels of depression and unhappiness. The emphasis should move away from mental illness to wellbeing of all individuals.

After discussing speech and overall new direction of psychology, author moves to review bio of Seligman and some other personalities who created foundational work for positive psychology and happiness studies. Paradoxically quite a few of them were Jewish and, one way or another, related to Holocaust either as survivors such as Victor Frankl or their children and other relatives. Interesting here also is somewhat negative attitude to self-esteem and other “humanistic” psychology movements, which often promoted “unwarranted self-esteem” undermining readiness to apply hard work necessary for achievement. Author, however, stresses connections between earlier humanistic psychology and positive psychology and continuation of its effort to understand people in order to improve their wellbeing.

  1. Misery and Pleasure in the Origins of Happiness Studies, 1945-1970

This is going to the beginning of positive psychology that occurred in years right after WWII and Holocaust. The interesting point here is that people think about happiness more when they are not happy, especially when their relatives and friends get killed and they find themselves in concentration camps as Victor Frankl. However initial background of positive psychology was in psychological treatment of WWII veterans and victims. Author also discusses here Norman Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. This movement started in 1952 and was based on the idea that whatever real problems exist in the world; the individual thinking could manage perception and direct action in more productive way than just lamenting uncontrollable events. The next step in this direction was Victor Frankl’s “Search for Meaning”. Here idea was that positive thinking and ability to preserve some internal intellectual freedom and dignity increased chances of survival in concentration camps and eventually allowed person to grow. Frankl also practiced as a therapist, moving away from Freud and concentration on the past to concentration on life’s meaning and future. The next figure author discusses – John Bowlby was member of British elite who suffered corresponding adversities: being sent to boarding school, separation from wife, and other unhappy events, which influenced his work on separation and social isolation. He developed attachment theory especially for small children, which pointed out need for social interaction. The next is Aaron Beck and his work on depression and recovery through cognitive behavioral therapy. This method was based on attempts to help patient to overcome “misconstruction of reality” and develop realistic goals for improvement and handling of life events. Next part of this review is Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of motivation, especially his idea of self-actualization. One of more important points is Maslow’s insistence on analysis of psychology of healthy people in search of understanding what makes them healthy. He also expanded it to societal impact suggesting that self-actualized people are not interested in hate and violence making society better for everybody. The next figure – James Olds had more technical approach – he was searching for pleasure centers in the brain. He found it in rats and proved that direct electric stimulation of the brain could cause all-consuming pleasure. Another researcher Frank Berger moved to chemical stimulation developing drug Miltown to prevent depression and increase happiness.

The next part of review for this period includes discussion of happiness studies that were conducted in USA and other countries. The final part refers to Alan Watts and related move to Asian religions in search of ancient wisdom that would provide road to happiness.

Author concludes that for the period before 1970 the main thrust was to overcome misery of tragedies of war and find way to achieve mental stability and comfort either via positive thinking, meaning of life, and/or anything else available: electrical / chemical stimulation, Asian religions, or whatever else would work. The most important here is that it signified shift from overcoming misery to obtaining happiness.

  1. Crisis of Confidence? 1970-1983: Providing the Groundwork for the Study of Positive Happiness

This period included growth in happiness research with contemporary decrease in happiness and optimism in the Western world due to economy, Vietnam, and other negative events. It also included new approaches based on rejection of purely materialistic approach, such as “Hedonic Treadmill”. It featured Brickman and Campbell with their Adaptation theory, which denigrating value of achievement because it would never deliver on expected levels of happiness and therefore had no real benefit. Moreover, it was linked to idea of diminishing resources that pointed to counterproductive nature of material improvements. Author then discusses Paul Ekman’s research on evolution of emotions and facial expressions. This demonstrated power of positive emotion transmitted via expressions. The next point is Robert Trivers and his “Reciprocal Altruism” as source of happiness. Moving on it is Edward O. Wilson and his “Sociobiology”, demonstrating Evolutionary processes behind human behavior and conditions. Alisa Iven and Paula Levin then continued it in study “Effect of Feeling good on Helping”. Philip Kunz researched issue of communications for helping in his experiment with Christmas cards. Another classical research was by Richard Easterlin who demonstrated that difference in levels of happiness between rich and poor are small and concluded that money has little impact on happiness. Yet another approach to happiness was demonstrated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who researched condition of deep emersion into productive task and found what he defined as flow – condition of happiness from the process of achievement. Another study by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff demonstrated stability of individual levels of happiness by looking at condition of lucky winner of lottery and unlucky individuals who suddenly become paraplegics. In both cases in a few months after big change people return to pre-existing levels of happiness, albeit it was not completely so for incident victims.

The next area of research in these years was about decision making under risk. It was done my Kahneman and Tversky who demonstrated that these decisions were far from purely rational as it was assumed by economic profession. Together with Thaler’s research on consumer choice it practically started behavior economics.

Author also discusses growing number of surveys conducted in these years and their methodology. These surveys generally found decreasing link between material and psychological wellbeing.

Yet another direction was search for better leaving via relaxation and use of Asian religious thought to handle life’s events. Author describes work of promoter of this approach – Herbert Benson.

Somewhat different, but in the same line was an attempt by Timothy Leary to use chemicals such as LSD in search of happiness, which was kind of continuation of popularity of Miltown in 1950s and Valium in 1960s. All this led to extensive research on operation of these drugs and their influence on brain and author provides a sketch of results of this research.

Finally, author discusses popularization of psychological research and increasing search for happiness and dissatisfaction with existing situation that grew in American society. In conclusion of the chapter author refer to other works in psychology not directed at happiness and wellbeing such as Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences, Goleman on Consciousness and Awareness, and some other. Interesting also is reference to Nozick’s “Experience Machine” in which he suggested that humans need more than experiences, they also need real, tangible results for their activities.

  1. Morning in America, 1984-1998: Assembling Key Elements in the Study of Happiness and Positivity

This part describes period of change from Reagan through Clinton and renewed optimism in America. Author considers this period as turning point in history of happiness studies because of its acceptation by Library of Congress as a separate subfield of psychology.  It was also period when thousands of studies were published in this area and field expanded a lot. One of important new areas of research was about the problem of endogeneity – difficulties of separating causation and correlation. Author stresses importance of article by Ed Diener: “Subjective well-being” and discusses it in detail. Especially important was search for link between happiness, age, work environment, family, and social relations.

The second part of the chapter is about brain research that received a big push in late 1980s. It involved experiments with Alzheimer patients, but also famous research with Buddhist monks and meditation. He also discusses careers of Ryff and Peter Kramer who promoted a better life through chemistry of Prozac that he used extensively in his clinical practice.

The next researcher author discusses is Kabat-Zinn who founded the Stress reduction and relaxation program based on meditation, which spawned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs that promoted idea of close link and unity of mind-body with stress on inner life and somewhat neglect of external circumstances. Author also discusses a few longitudinal studies tracing the same people over long periods of time and Cutler’s work on it with help of Dalai Lama, resulting in bestseller “The Art of Happiness”.

The following part of the chapter returns to behavior economics and discusses it in conjunction with Hedonistic Psychology. One interesting part of this discussion came from Kahneman’s research demonstrating difference between current and later perception of well-being and that duration of condition did not matter that much – discomfort for period of time with improvement at the end was perceived as better event than period of comfort followed at the end by deterioration.

After that author moves to Festinger and comparative evaluation of one’s status in all relevant areas to define own happiness. Yet another approach came from David Lykken and Auke Tellegen was about genetics. Their research on twins claimed to demonstrate that about 50% of happiness level came from genetics.

There is also interesting discussion on international comparison, which demonstrated variance in understanding of happiness between collectivistic and individualistic societies. Overall research demonstrated dependency of happiness levels in different countries on their culture.

  1. Drawing (and Crossing) the Line: Academic and Popular Renditions of Subjective Well Being, 1984-1998

This period of “morning in America” preceded final formation of positive psychology and included move to popularization of this research by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi and author reviews their books in details. There were also multiple books on happiness with strong push into self-help format.

  1. Building a Positively Happy World View

This is about events and discussions after Seligman’s presidential address in 1998 that established Positive Psychology as clearly defined field of research. It starts with description of reaction in mass media – articles in Time and such. It also refers to Jeffrey Kluger’s essay about American pursuit of Happiness and Happiness of Pursuit mainly about relation between consumption and happiness. Then author moves to discuss development of professional infrastructure for positive psychology: university programs, training classes, textbooks, and such. Author allocates lots of attention to Martin Seligman’s work during this period. He also discusses “How to” literature, such as work of Sonja Lyubomirsky who provided kind of formula for happiness (50/40/10 – genetics / intentional activity / circumstances), and quite a few of other books on the happiness topic published in early XXI century. Author also identified the key 3 issues around which all discussion is mainly conducted: Money, Measurement, and Meaning of Happiness.

  1. The Future Is Here: Positive Psychology Comes of Age

Here author reviews the key findings and directions of research related to different parameters of happiness: Character, Gratitude and Altruism, Resilience, and Spirituality and Religion, Author also discusses the latest scientific tools used in happiness research. Part of this is international research and he provide an interesting statistical graph:

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There is also interesting discussion here on political ideology and positive psychology noting that it is somewhat related to neoliberalism that he defines as self-government by individual rather than by group or government. At the end author discusses in details critic of positive psychology which grew exponencially with the growth of its popularity.

  1. The Business of Happiness

This is about business of promoting positive psychology and overall happiness. Whether it is TED talks or “Happy Corporate Life” or Oprah. Author also discusses penetration of these ideas in schools, mass media, and all kinds of Happiness coaching. As any other mass movement, positive psychology has philanthropic support in form of foundations, government organizations, and Academic entrepreneurship.

Coda: The Happiest Place on Earth

This starts with description of author’s attendance of the Fourth World Congress of Positive Psychology in 2015. It included 1,200 participants from 48 countries. After that author discusses how big become this movement and how much happiness it created at least for people who making living from positive psychology. Author ends on very interesting note that out of some 800 people present at presentations on positive psychology influence on culture only some 20 were conservatives. Others were mainly center left and they did standing ovation to the speech of Csikszentmihalyi about need to increase push for equality, social justice, and environment.


The pursuit of happiness in last 70 years moved away from simple strive to be well fed, have decent shelter, and maintain positive social connections with other people; to much more sophisticated strive to achieve psychological satisfaction with one’s life in which these simple things are taken for granted. This naturally caused serious research in what it means to be happy and the whole industry of advisory services to help people in this. I think eventually the biggest discovery still ahead of us and it will be discovery of simple fact that happiness is deeply, individual condition that occurs even for the same individual differently in different moments of time and space in this individual’s life. As such no statistical and/or psychological help could work consistently because of this dynamic character of the state of happiness. The most that could be done is to assure that all individuals have resources to do whatever makes them happy, agency to be able to use this resources the way they want to do it, and protect them from external violent interference in their live by other individuals who are in control of whatever the powers are in society.


1 Comment

  1. Great book review! I feel much more informed about what the content of the book and why it may be of interest to me, especially with my interest in positive psychology. I write about several topics pertaining to positive psychology and its applications in my own blog posts of which you may be interested. Feel free to check it out sometime, and I welcome any contributions that you may have to the content. Great post, and I hope that you are doing well!

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