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Friday, January 5, 2007

Modern Persuits of Eudaimonia

Just as Socrates, Epictetus, and the like thought greatly about 'the good life', today the field of Positive Psychology is the study of what allows a person to have a fulfilling and happy life. It is an offshoot of the Humanistic Psychology of the 60s and 70s. It began in part as a response to the realization that psychology was always used to address illness, but never toward wellness. Positive Psychology attempts to gather hard scientific data on the consequences of our choices when it comes to behaviors.

Sounding not too dissimilar from Marcus Aurelius' list, the "Character Strengths and Virtues" manual lists six core virtues: Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence (for the naturalists among us, that last one speaks to the appreciation of beauty and excellence, rather than transcendence to a supernatural state).

The Positive Psychology Center lists, in their FAQ, several interesting facts psychologists have determined:

  1. Wealth is only weakly related to happiness both within and across nations, particularly when income is above the poverty level (Diener & Diener, 1996).
  2. Activities that make people happy in small doses – such as shopping, good food and making money – do not lead to fulfillment in the long term, indicating that these have quickly diminishing returns (Myers, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
  3. Engaging in an experience that produces ‘flow’ is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully engaged in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and sense of time is distorted (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
  4. People who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health, optimism, progress toward goals, well-being, and help others more (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000).
  5. Trying to maximize happiness can lead to unhappiness (Schwartz et al., 2002).
  6. People who witness others perform good deeds experience an emotion called ‘elevation’ and this motivates them to perform their own good deeds (Haidt, 2000).
  7. Optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness (Taylor et al., 2000).
  8. People who are optimistic or happy have better performance in work, school and sports, are less depressed, have fewer physical health problems, and have better relationships with other people. Further, optimism can be measured and it can be learned (Seligman, 1991; Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005).
  9. People who report more positive emotions in young adulthood live longer and healthier lives (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001).
  10. Physicians experiencing positive emotion tend to make more accurate diagnoses (Isen, 1993).
  11. Healthy human development can take place under conditions of even great adversity due to a process of resilience that is common and completely ordinary (Masten, 2001).
  12. There are benefits associated with disclosive writing. Individuals who write about traumatic events are physically healthier than control groups that do not. Individuals who write about the perceived benefits of traumatic events achieve the same physical health benefits as those who write only about the trauma (King & Miner, 2000). Individuals who write about their life goals and their best imagined future achieve similar physical health benefits to those who write only about traumatic events. Further, writing about life goals is significantly less distressing than writing about trauma, and is associated with enhanced well-being (King, 2001).
  13. People are unable to predict how long they will be happy or sad following an important event (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg & Wheatley, 1998; Wilson, Meyers, & Gilbert, 2001). These researchers found that people typically overestimate how long they will be sad following a bad event, such as a romantic breakup, yet fail to learn from repeated experiences that their predictions are wrong.


  1. Good post Daniel. I think each one of us who are able to move beyond the search for food and shelter should be concerned about a happy and fulfilling life. We should expect happiness and then make it happen.

  2. Thanks Jim - agreed :)