What Happened to Happiness?

Happiness and DepressionAccording to a wide-ranging international study, depression is the most disabling disease in the world:

  1. Nearly twenty percent of U.S. citizens experience some form of depression during their lifetime. Americans are taking so many antidepressants that, according to the New York Times, the water supplies of major U.S. cities are now contaminated with traces of these drugs.
  2. The problem is not limited to adults. The American Psychological Association reports that “as many as 9% of children will experience a major depressive episode by the time they are 14 years old, and 20% will experience a major depressive episode before graduating from high school.”
  3. Statistics show that children who have suffered from depression are more vulnerable to depression as adults. That’s the bad news. Now for the good news.

The New Science of Happiness

Traditionally psychologists have focused their attentions on what makes depressed people depressed. Yet recently a small group of scientists has turned the question on its head. Now they are asking: “What makes happy people happy?” This Copernican shift in perspective has given rise to the new “science of happiness” During the last two decades, numerous studies by positive psychologists such as Ed Diener and Martin Seligman have tried to place the study of human well-being on a scientific foundation. Many of these studies have focused on small groups of “very happy people” and analyzed their lifestyles and personalities through questionnaires and interviews. They found that, to a certain extent, the happiness that people can intentionally generate through their thoughts and actions can compete with genetically acquired gloominess.

Positive Psychology

Seligman’s bottom line is that happiness has three dimensions that can be cultivated:

  1. “The pleasant life” is realized if we learn to savor and appreciate such basic pleasures as companionship, the natural environment and our bodily needs.
  2. We can remain pleasantly stuck at this stage or we can go on to experience “the good life,” which is achieved by discovering our unique virtues and strengths and employing them creatively to enhance our lives.
  3. The final stage is “the meaningful life,” in which we find a deep sense of fulfillment by mobilizing our unique strengths for a purpose much greater than ourselves.

The genius of Seligman’s theory is that it reconciles two conflicting views of human happiness – the individualistic approach, which emphasizes that we should take care of ourselves and nurture our own strengths, and the altruistic approach, which tends to downplay individuality and emphasizes self-sacrifice.

New Science and Ancient Wisdom

The debate between the positive psychologists and their critics, who claim that the new science is based on wishful thinking, is far from over. This is hardly a surprise if one thinks of the contrasts between them. Positive psychology is more proactive and preventive, whereas traditional psychology is more problem-oriented.

Yet within the science of happiness some major areas of consensus are emerging. Many of the new studies are confirming what great philosophical and spiritual thinkers from Confucius to Aristotle taught us long ago. In spite of powerful genetic and environmental influences, a sizable chunk of our mental well-being depends on our actions and attitudes. Secondly, by cultivating certain strengths and virtues, we are not escaping from the causes of depression. On the contrary, this strategy seems to generate a resilience that protects us from it. So now, a new science, which in fascinating ways is confirming ancient insights from East and West, is opening the door to an unprecedented opportunity. We can now analyze the growing mountain of studies on “subjective well-being” or happiness, and separate the science from the hype. You may have noticed that there is a lot of hype about happiness. Next, we need to show how the results can be applied to the real world. Not least, we need to translate the scientific jargon into proper English. As the writers of computer manuals used to say, “easy is difficult.” Academics are very good at digging up profound truths and burying them again with equal success. Finally, we need to integrate this new-found wisdom with existing curricula, both in high schools and universities.

Teaching Happiness

footprints in the sandThis would seem to be an urgent task. As those who have experienced it well know, depression is a very real form of suffering. Thanks to a new and rapidly advancing field of knowledge, we can begin to take preventive measures. In a society that spends more than $25 billion a year on psychopharmaceuticals (that’s $85 a person) and untold billions dealing with family dysfunction, shouldn’t education on mental well-being take priority?



1. WHO report,  Mental and Behavioral Disorders, 28.

2. NYT, Drugs Are in the Water. Does It Matter?

3. American Psychological Association, School-Based Program Teaches Skills That Stave Off Depression, October, 2003.

4. M.E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 249.