How many of us would say that we’re “happy”?  Do we have an inherent right to happiness?  What does the term mean?  Is it a worthy goal?

One of the newest areas of inquiry in psychology, often called “the science of happiness,” is Positive Psychology.  It emerged when a small group of researchers realized that the study of negative emotions — anger, depression, anxiety — was extensive, while studies of feelings such as contentment, joy, and optimism were very limited.  As a  counterbalance to the vast amount of research on the failings of human development and behavior and methods for treating psychological illnesses, positive psychology was born.  The field focuses on strengths, resilience, subjective wellbeing, pleasure, curiosity, courage, and the like.  In light of the enormous popularity of self-help and pop-psychology books, and the limited readership of scholarly journals, one of the aims of this field is to bring scientific research to the topics people are already reading about.

Studies have shown that beyond the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, people value meaning in their lives, having a sense of purpose and of being directly involved in what Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, termed, “meaning-making”.  We also value a sense of engagement, being actively involved with others and in our own lives.   Buddhism teaches us this through the process of “mindfulness”: noticing as much both around and within us as possible, living very consciously, and yet not attaching too strongly to emotions or letting them define us — only noticing them.

While we all want happiness, neither we nor our environment are designed for a constant experience of this state.  Life is much richer with the full spectrum of emotion, as Chinese Medicine, with its focus on balance, would also indicate.  In order to experience happiness at all, in terms of recognizing and understanding it, we must also have the experience of darker emotions.  “Happiness is a place to visit, not a place to live,” according to scholar Daniel Gilbert.

In my doctoral work, I studied adolescent resilience and the influence of community.  I interviewed a number of teenagers in a small seaside village, and representatives of town leadership as well, looking for the ways in which one’s community — beyond individual traits, family systems, and school environment — impacts upon one’s ability to overcome challenges  and thrive in the face of adversity.  It became apparent to me that not only does it “take a village to raise a child”, that oft-cited proverb of Nigerian Igbo culture [“Ora na azu nwa”]; the reverse is also true: it takes a “child”, seeing through the eyes of and even being led by the naive and idealistic curiosity and openness of youth, to contribute to the psychological growth of a community.

For more information on the field of positive psychology, here’s an especially good overview: http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/01/the-science-of-happiness.html

And for a two-hour presentation by Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, whose course on this topic has had the highest enrollment of any course in Harvard’s history: http://forum-network.org/lecture/positive-psychology-science-happiness

As my new friend Professor Gino Yu would say, it all comes down to this: “Right here, right now … it’s good to be alive.”

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