Posted 19 February 2009 - 06:02 AM
Welcome to the happiness frenzy, now peaking at a Barnes & Noble near you: Last year 4,000 books were published on happiness, while a mere 50 books on the topic were released in 2000. The most popular class at Harvard University is about positive psychology, and at least 100 other universities offer similar courses. Happiness workshops for the post-collegiate set abound, and each day "life coaches" promising bliss to potential clients hang out their shingles.
In the late 1990s, psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania exhorted colleagues to scrutinize optimal moods with the same intensity with which they had for so long studied pathologies: We'd never learn about full human functioning unless we knew as much about mental wellness as we do about mental illness. A new generation of psychologists built up a respectable body of research on positive character traits and Happiness-boosting practices. At the same time, developments in neuroscience provided new clues to what makes us happy and what that looks like in the brain. Not to be outdone, behavioral economists piled on research subverting the classical premise that people always make rational choices that increase their well-being. We're lousy at predicting what makes us happy, they found.
It wasn't enough that an array of academic strands came together, sparking a slew of insights into the sunny side of life. Self-appointed experts jumped on the Happiness bandwagon. A shallow sea of yellow smiley faces, self-help gurus, and purveyors of kitchen-table wisdom have strip-mined the science, extracted a lot of fool's gold, and stormed the marketplace with guarantees to annihilate your worry, stress, anguish, dejection, and even ennui. Once and for all! All it takes is a little gratitude. Or maybe a lot.
But all is not necessarily well. According to some measures, as a nation we've grown sadder and more anxious during the same years that the Happiness movement has flourished; perhaps that's why w