Sunday, December 30, 2007
Three good things, possibly more, happened to 6-year-old Fiona McLaughlin one fall day, and at dinner that night she took a deep breath and recounted them. The first was "right now," which often tops her list. Then there was going to school and making a color wheel there in the morning.
Her younger sister, Molly, who is 4, went next. "When you cuddle with me at night," she said, looking at her mother. "Right now and having homework."
It's not that bad things failed to happen. They did. Fiona's favorite friend was sick and didn't go to school. Molly, who actually didn't have homework but was attempting to do her sister's, said no one wanted to play with her when she got to school. But each night at their suburban Piedmont home, the girls are asked to stop and recall positive aspects of the day. The scene at dinner did not just fall into place. All of it - the well-set table, cloth napkins, candlelight, pointed questions about the best parts of the day - is a ritual rooted in the growing field of positive psychology, the scientific study of well-being. Kids tumble into the world with their own set of inherited traits and tendencies, researchers in the field say, but positive emotions can be nurtured.
"I'm not Pollyanna. I don't want them to focus on only good things, but there are habits that foster positive emotions," said Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, who practices daily "gratitude interventions" with her family. She is a founder of a new project at the center called Half Full, aimed at teaching parents the "social science of raising happy kids." "The crazy idea," she said, "is that these things are skills."
On most nights she and her husband Michael McLaughlin, an executive at a food-manufacturing firm, and their two girls hold hands before dinner and take turns voicing something for which they're grateful. Before bed, the girls recite what's known as "three good things." On this particular night, Carter had a PTA meeting that required her to miss the bedtime ritual, so she altered it to include the gratitude exercises at dinner so I could watch them.
It was tempting to look for faults. Could harried parents, particularly if they're single and work full time, duplicate this cozy scenario? Could something that looks this simple actually produce kids who are likely to be happy?
Only the passage of time will reveal whether the interventions work in the long run. Research on gratitude exercises in very young children is limited, but studies of adults and teens have shown that various small interventions can have a measurable influence on happiness. Psychologists have looked at the effects of gratitude journals, letters and other practices and compared them with placebo exercises. One study conducted via the Internet a few years ago showed that when adults did two exercises for a week - naming three good things and identifying and using personal strengths in a concrete way - they were happier and had less depressive symptoms for six months than did those given placebo interventions. Other studies have shown that gratitude exercises can lead to more regular and lower heart rhythms and better sleep.
For about 50 percent of people who report they are happier than others, genetics is the primary reason, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a UC Riverside psychologist whose research on what works to boost and sustain happiness has been funded by the National Institutes of Health. Circumstances such as marriage, level of health and income are a determining factor for 10 percent. That leaves 40 percent who can be affected by "intentional strategies" or interventions, including acts of kindness, exercise, concentrating on the present and gratitude, she says. She has found, not surprisingly, that not all strategies are suitable for all people.
"Myself, when I started doing gratitude interventions, I tried to count my blessings," she said. "I just couldn't do it. It seemed kind of corny to me. That might be true for others also."
Psychologists used to focus solely on the roots of why the mind falters - from mood disorders, anxiety and depression to major psychotic illness and other dysfunction - and how to relieve suffering. But in the past decade an increasing number of psychologists and social scientists have been investigating what contributes to emotional good health in individuals and collectively in institutions and societies.
"We believe that a complete science and a complete practice of psychology should include an understanding of suffering and happiness, as well as their interaction, and validated interventions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness - two separate endeavors," wrote some of the nation's most prominent positive psychologists in a review of progress in the field published two years ago in the American Psychologist.
The push to study what makes life worth living was inaugurated almost a decade ago by Martin Seligman, author of the books "Authentic Happiness" and "Learned Optimism" and director of University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. As newly chosen head of the American Psychological Association, he thought the group should move in a new direction, studying the traits and characteristics of people who thrive.
The notion was not historically new. Examination of what brings satisfaction and fulfillment to humans has been around since ancient Greece. But designing studies that rely on controlled experiments and measures of happiness was a different concept. It meant defining a state of mind that most people think of as both transient and subjective. Seligman, who found the term happiness "scientifically unwieldy," decided to include three components - experiencing positive emotions, being engaged in life and leading a meaningful life. Seligman and colleagues came up with a handbook of character, strengths and virtues (referred to as CSV) to identify positive states of mind as a parallel to psychiatry's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard tool for diagnosing mental illness. Other psychologists devised happiness indexes and surveys to measure positive emotions.
As the field has grown, psychologists have looked at how to apply their research. They want to know not just what makes people happy but also how to get the knowledge where it's needed. Some found a ready target right on campus. More than 100 colleges and universities now offer classes in positive psychology, some of them teaching students not just the foundations but also how to apply the research to themselves and their immediate worlds. More than 800 students a term have been flocking to Harvard University lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar's positive psychology class, making it the most popular class on campus. Lyubomirsky, author of a new book "The How of Happiness," teaches a seminar in the psychology of happiness and virtue. Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychology professor and co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, last year taught a course in benevolence, and next year plans a class that he will simply call Happiness.
"I've been studying this since my first day of graduate school," said Lyubomirsky, who remembers discussing the science of happiness with her adviser at Stanford. "At the time it was considered unscientific - soft and fuzzy - but now it's really hot."
There are critics who say that it is all those. Following on the heels of the self-improvement and self-esteem movements (the latter of which is now criticized as sparking an epidemic of narcissism and out-of-control praise), positive psychology might just be another fad, they say. It probably won't hurt anyone, but will it help in significant ways?
"I've been doing experiments with how and why these interventions work," said Lyubomirsky, whose work centers now on studying how to sustain happiness. In her book she lists a dozen kinds of strategies. "A lot of these things are obvious," she said, "but as scientists we need to test them empirically."
As a child, Carter was not particularly cheerful. She remembers crying every day until she was in second grade.
"I was the sensitive child, the worrier, the crier," she said, sitting in her office at the Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary center devoted to scientific research on positive emotions. "I do run happy, but I am prone to anxiety, or I have been."
What happened, she said, is that somehow she learned the skills to be happy. There were no formal gratitude interventions, just life experiences. Kids teased her in elementary school, which taught her to be empathetic in junior high school. "Those early difficult experiences fostered a resilience that has served me well since," she writes in the blog portion of Half Full, where she talks about the importance of embracing failure. She also attributes her skills partly to her parents ("My father is one of the happiest people I know," she says) and going to the Thatcher School, a boarding school in Southern California where she felt the emphasis was on what makes a complete and fulfilled person instead of solely on achievement. "My personal experience is why I believe it can be done," she said. "I was a perfectionist overachiever."
As a young woman, she navigated through a competitive world, graduating from Dartmouth College and then working in brand management and marketing at the Quaker Oats Co. in Chicago, where she came up with strategies to promote products like Cap'n Crunch cereal.
"I always knew I'd go to graduate school," she said. "Sociology is the study of trends. Marketing is similar. You have to understand what people need. I always hoped I'd market not consumer products but ideas for the greater good."
She attended graduate school in sociology at UC Berkeley, where her doctoral dissertation looked at whether money buys happiness for children. She found that income mattered a lot, up to a certain point. After basic needs were met, money was not a big factor. "With kids, money buys everything that matters," she said. "Good schools, time with parents, social connections, good child care." Money was important in creating the conditions for happiness, but was not itself the source.
An Associated Press and MTV poll conducted last summer echoed this, finding that young people 12 to 24 said spending time with family and friends ranked the highest in making them happy. Very few mentioned money as a factor in happiness, although many middle-class kids said they felt stressed out and pressured.
Carter's project at the Greater Good Science Center was spurred partly by the concern of parents who knew about her research and would come to her with questions about how to make their kids confident and happy in the midst of so much materialism and entitlement. Like a pediatrician who goes to parties and finds herself besieged with questions about childhood illnesses, Carter found herself constantly answering inquiries about the science of happiness. "Everywhere I'd go people would say, 'Tell me about the research. What about the gratitude thing?' " she said.
She had particularly long and meaty conversations with another parent who had children the same age. Most days the two stood around outside the kindergarten class, Room 15, and talked for a half hour while they waited to pick up their children.
"She had really interesting studies at her fingertips," said Kelly Corrigan, a journalist whose column, Grain of Salt, appears in Bay Area papers. "Her work was bleeding into my columns. We talked about starting a blog. We thought we'd call it Outside Room 15."
Corrigan would ask global questions like, "Are all kids going to be unappreciative brats?" recalled Carter. "I thought how there is all this research on gratitude and it can be taught. "
Corrigan, whose memoir "The Middle Place," about her relationship with her father as both battled cancer, will soon be published by Hyperion, already was working on a TV project. She envisioned the research on the science of happiness in video segments. "I thought people would want to watch it," she said, "but I didn't have time to do it. Christine is the type when you say something in a conversation she comes bounding in a week later and says, 'I found funding.' "
Carter received a grant for a pilot program from the Herb Alpert Foundation, found a director and technical help and enlisted Corrigan to help.
"It's very different than what most researchers will do," Carter said. "Most aren't willing to make the leaps I make. It's a step away from research. What I do is practical application."
On the Web site, she and Corrigan appear in a series of short pieces, which can be viewed or read. The two sit across from each other and discuss topics ranging from how to make dinnertime a ritual to how to teach gratitude and look for the positive in mistakes. The tone is conversational, each bite-size session interspersed with anecdotes and research.
I'm a little uncomfortable in this role," said Corrigan. "Giving tips to parents implies that you've got the parenting thing licked, and that's not true. But this is really for curious parents, anyone who loves the details of a study."
Some of the discussions draw heavily on the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University who has studied what she calls fixed and growth mindsets. According to Dweck, students who are praised for intelligence develop a fixed mind-set, an attitude that they are bright and should therefore be able to do everything well. Students who are taught that their brains are like a muscle, that they can learn if they work hard, are more able to retain optimism and confidence when they face obstacles, Dweck found.
"I have a lot of research showing that even at a young age, almost all kids are optimistic, but when they make mistakes or are criticized, 30 to 40 percent lose it," she said. "They become very pessimistic and self-doubting. We believe very strongly that it's not just whether they are lively and optimistic when nothing is going on but whether they can withstand setbacks."
In a study in progress at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford, Dweck and one of her graduate students are looking at whether young kids will attempt harder tasks after a simple intervention that teaches them that they can exercise their brain like any other muscle. Her graduate student, Allison Master, wrote a storybook about a bird that learns to do tasks the hard way. One group of children hears that story. Children in another group listen to a story about the importance of helping others. Both groups are then asked to choose between hard and easy puzzles. Dweck and her student will watch to see which students choose the harder challenge and which group handles it with more confidence and optimism.
Dweck, the author of "Mindset: the New Psychology of Success," also delivers her message to Stanford students in an undergraduate psychology seminar. She assigns essays on various aspects of mind-set and the transition to college, relationships and study habits. "Students here need this message," she said. "No matter how brilliant you are, the transition is a struggle. Students are really helped if they are taught that everyone is struggling. They have to learn how to do college, to know that it's about hard work, not innate brilliance."
Similarly, the Half Full series recommends that parents of young children explore how they define success and failure. She suggests that they go around the table at night and ask kids to tell about a mistake they made that day and what they learned from it.
It also advises practicing gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal or a list of things family members are thankful for, or by writing gratitude letters. Kids should also be encouraged to savor good experiences.
One of Carter's strongest beliefs is that families should have dinner together. The advice, although not new, is a source of frustration to many parents who agree in theory but find it all but impossible to accomplish and then resent feeling guilty about it. To some it sounds better than it is lived. Anyone with kids knows about the chaos, whining, rejection of food groups, moodiness and whimsy that can accompany meal times.
Corrigan talks in one of the Half Full blogs about having trouble getting everyone together at dinner in her own home. Her husband is often home late and she ends up waiting on the kids, but not usually eating with them. Carter said she should be sitting down and eating with them because meals are a time to slow down, talk as a family and share a simple but basic need - food.
Studies have shown the benefits, Carter points out. And it can be a simple ritual with uncomplicated or take-out dishes, she said. The night I visited, Fiona and Molly helped make grilled sandwiches, with sides of pickles. "Lots of condiments," said their father, as he arrived home at 5:30, as he does each night for dinner. Michael McLaughlin said he grew up in a close family that ate dinner in front of the television most nights. It was a kind of a '50s scene, where his mother did the bulk of housework and his father came home later. He had a good relationship with his parents, but he wants to be more of an active participant, he said.
That means leaving work earlier and sometimes working after his kids are in bed. His daughters join as part of the cooking team most nights. When I arrived they were standing on footstools, Molly doling out pickles and Fiona brushing melted butter on bread and arranging cheese and meat. While their mother grilled the sandwiches and cooked broccoli, they set the table with their father. Then they sat and held hands.
"Dear God, thank you for this wonderful family and my sister and for my dog and cat. Amen," said Molly, leading the family in saying grace.
Corrigan said she is not religious and at first had trouble saying grace. Now she said she feels it's just about gratitude.
"I have all this gratitude and I don't know what to do with it," said Corrigan, who thinks she's an optimist by temperament while Carter "achieved" it. "I don't know who to thank. Sometimes we say grace over breakfast. 'Here we are, another healthy day in beautiful, sunny California, eating another great meal.' One thing that stuck for me is that it has these implications for orienting you toward optimism and gratitude. I was made a lot more grateful because I had a year with late-stage cancer and I beat it. I never get over another day of 'Yeah, no chemo, another day just combing my long hair.' "
After saying grace, the family talks about the day, although they realize that might change when the kids are older and simply want to say "nothing" when asked what they did at school. The night I joined them they talked about the forthcoming holidays, a planned trip to visit friends in Chico and about a conference with Fiona's teacher. "She said you're fun to have in class because you try so hard," said her father (he had learned the mind-set research on "effort praise" as opposed to "ability praise"). Neither girl ate very much, and at one point Molly started giggling, put her napkin on her head, then almost fell asleep at the table.
After dinner, Molly drew while Fiona showed me her homework. She has chosen to learn Mandarin at school and takes an after-school class in knitting. It's impossible to say whether her enthusiasm will last or where exactly it comes from. Genetics? Intervention? If the research is right, it's a combination.