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Psychologists converge on Phila. to study happiness

Staying calm and contented in a stormy economy.

A group of well-known psychologists at a conference at the Philadelphia Sheraton: from left to right, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois; martin Seligman of UPenn; Michael Frese of the University of Giessen in Germany; and James Pawelski of UPenn. (April Saul / Inquirer)
A group of well-known psychologists at a conference at the Philadelphia Sheraton: from left to right, Ed Diener of the University of Illinois; martin Seligman of UPenn; Michael Frese of the University of Giessen in Germany; and James Pawelski of UPenn. (April Saul / Inquirer)Read more

After months of gloomy economic news, Philadelphia has been, at least for a few days, the worldwide epicenter of a certain kind of positive thinking.

About 1,500 people who make their living thinking about what makes us happier and more emotionally successful have converged on Philadelphia for the First World Congress on Positive Psychology. The event opened Thursday and concludes today.

As one of the speakers, Karen Reivich, a psychologist who codirects the Penn Resiliency Project, puts it, this meeting is for those who study "not just what ails people but what allows people to flourish."

Flourishing may be setting the bar pretty high, given how many of us are seeking new jobs or barely holding onto the old ones. But the psychologists have some advice they say can make it easier to weather recession-related turmoil.

The meeting is the largest gathering ever of positive psychologists, who are members of a relatively new field. It landed in Philadelphia - not exactly known for its positive attytood - because University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman is here. Seligman, who started out studying depression and "learned helplessness" but later gravitated toward optimism and well-being, is considered positive psychology's founder.

Philadelphia may not seem all that optimistic "at any given moment," he said, but it is the place where a new nation was formed and that was clearly the work of positive thinkers.

Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, said his retirement savings had taken a hit just as other people's did. Changes in fortune, he said, can shake what psychologists call positive emotions, the ones that feel good. But luckily, other factors that affect our sense of well-being do not have much to do with money: engagement in activities, finding meaning in life, and forming relationships with others.

These days, Seligman is thinking about those things and less about retirement funds.

It turns out that it is not precisely true that money does not buy happiness. Very poor people or countries are, in fact, less happy than those that are rich, said Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist who is president of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), the meeting's sponsor. However, to use an economics term, income has "marginal utility" when it comes to happiness; its effect on mood diminishes at higher levels.

Many who try to live on less money find they are soon just as happy as they were before, Diener said. "Obviously, our grandparents didn't make as much money as we did, and they were happy," he said.

There is good reason to cultivate positive emotions, he said. Evidence is mounting that good feelings improve health, relationships, and work performance. "Something that people don't know is that being generally happy is very good for you, not just because it feels good," Diener said, "but because it actually helps you function better."

On the other hand, work is an important contributor to well-being, the psychologists said, and losing a job is a big psychological blow. Michael Frese, who teaches at the University of Giessen in Germany and attended the Philadelphia conference, likes a fellow researcher's explanation: the "vitamin theory of work." The idea is that work provides structure and emotional experiences such as exercising control, socializing, and helping others that make people feel better about their lives. The amount they are paid is not a key factor, though low pay is likely to make people look for a different job, Frese said.

He studies how people's attitudes toward work help them thrive in their jobs or find new ones. He has found that people who take initiative in their jobs, shaping the work for themselves, can sometimes be seen as difficult employees but are also more successful and more likely to land on their feet if things go bad.

People who take personal initiative, he said, prepare "both for opportunities and potential problems" in the future. He has studied what happened to East Germans after unification, which led to widespread unemployment. "People who showed a high degree of initiative left companies more quickly while they were still intact," he said. "They migrated more."

Frese said a healthy way to cope with the kind of economic upheaval many Americans were experiencing now was to think of it as a learning experience. "What do you learn as a society so that it will not happen again," he said.

Reivich studies resilience, another key survival trait. She said she believed it, like optimism, could be taught and has developed programs for children that are now in use in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

"One of the things that resilient people do well is, they don't get stuck in habits of thinking," she said. They try to look at problems from all angles and focus on actions they can take to change their situation. She helps people learn how to combat a tendency to think all day about the worst things that could happen by arguing with their own "internal radio station" - the thoughts we all hear in our heads. It also helps to spend some time each day giving thanks for the good things in your life.

Never underestimate the value of relationships with others when times are tough. "The one-sentence version of resilience and happiness in general is, 'Other people matter,' " Reivich said.

One could make a case that overly exuberant optimism helped get us in this mess in the first place. James Pawelski, executive director of the IPPA and a senior scholar at Penn's Positive Psychology Center, bristled at the notion of a Pollyanna-ish optimism or "happiology."

It is psychologically valuable to look for a silver lining in painful circumstances, he said, but positive psychologists aim to make the world better, not ignore warning signs. The goal is what he called "realistic optimism."

For decades, psychologists and psychiatrists focused on alleviating the pain of people with mental illnesses and other psychological problems. Most still do. Frese said the world's current problems gave positive psychologists an opportunity to think about what this new discipline, spawned in the midst of an economic boom, could contribute when more people are worried about meeting basic needs.

"In terms of evolution, I think it's quite clear that the negative factors are the more important ones," he said. "You don't want to die. That's the first thing you have to take care of."