In Post 12 I noted that Aristotle had explored the nature of human happiness and its relation to virtue. Racing forward some 2400 years, we find that some eminent psychologists are pursuing that question today, though in much more sophisticated and scientific ways.
I first heard about “positive psychology” in an issue of “Health Magazine” in the Summer of 2004. Peter Jaret reviewed a publication entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press) edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. I was especially impressed by the ten “essential traits of happiness” listed by Jaret. They were: Love of Learning; Creativity; Humility and Modesty; Humor; Persistence; Gratitude; Forgiveness; Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence; Spirituality; and Vitality. It sounded like a good formula to me and inspired me to read further.
In a later article from the May 5, 2008 “Health Magazine,” Jaret provided more context:
Instead of focusing on what goes on when people become anxious or depressed, a growing number of psychologists are saying it’s high time to look on the bright side. … “What are the traits that allow people to lead fulfilled lives? What are the strengths and virtues that contribute to happiness?” … [T]he book celebrates characteristics like love, prudence, creativity, and leadership. It’s intended to be a counterpart to the traditional text of psychiatric medicine, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with its gloomy chapters on troubling conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.
Analyzing the bright side was not as easy as you might think. Peterson and Seligman spent 3 years working with a team of experts to identify traits that are shared and valued across cultures. (Persistence just happened to end up on the list.) During that time, they pored over not only psychiatry journals but the works of philosophers and even classic religious texts.
Practicing another ideal on their list-humility-Peterson acknowledges that the classification system in Character Strengths and Virtues is a work in progress. “Our goal was to get the conversation started, to encourage people to begin to look at the strengths and virtues that contribute to emotional well-being,” the psychologist says.
The New York Times introduced us to another guru of happiness on April 22, 2008 when Claudia Dreifus interviewed Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, known on campus as “Professor Happiness.” Dr. Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness was a New York Times Paperback Best Seller, won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for science books, and has been translated into 30 languages. A few of his comments from the interview describe one element of happiness that should come as no surprise:
We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.
We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy — money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.
Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.
Oh, you can spend lots of money on experiences. People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No.
You couldn’t pay me $100,000 to miss a play date with my granddaughters.
And that’s not because I’m rich. That’s because I know that a hundred grand won’t make me as happy as nurturing my relationship with my granddaughters will.