What 25 years of research reveal about the cognitive skills of happiness and finding life’s greater purpose.
By Maria Popova
“The illiterate of the 21st century,”Alvin Toffler famously said, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Our outlook on the world and our daily choices of disposition and behavior are in many ways learned patterns to which Toffler’s insight applies with all the greater urgency — the capacity to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” emotional behaviors and psychological patterns is, indeed, a form of existential literacy.
Seligman begins by identifying the three types of happiness of which our favorite psychology grab-bag term is composed:
‘Happiness’ is a scientifically unwieldy notion, but there are three different forms of it if you can pursue. For the ‘Pleasant Life,’ you aim to have as much positive emotion as possible and learn the skills to amplify positive emotion. For the ‘Engaged Life,’ you identify your highest strengths and talents and recraft your life to use them as much as you can in work, love, friendship, parenting, and leisure. For the ‘Meaningful Life,’ you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.
He then defines optimism and pessimism, pointing out the challenge to self-identify as either, and offers a heartening, heavily researched reassurance:
The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.
I have seen that, in tests of hundreds of thousands of people, a surprisingly large number will be found to be deep-dyed pessimists and another large portion will have serious, debilitating tendencies towards pessimism. I have learned that it is not always easy to know if you are a pessimist, and that far more people than realize it are living in this shadow.
A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent. I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes…but by learning a new set of cognitive skills. Far from being the creations of boosters or of the popular media, these skills were discovered in the laboratories and clinics of leading psychologists and psychiatrists and then rigorously validated.
Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.
Teaching children learned optimism before puberty, but late enough in childhood so that they are metacognitive (capable of thinking about thinking), is a fruitful strategy. When the immunized children use these skills to cope with the first rejections of puberty, they get better and better at using these skills. Our analysis shows that the change from pessimism to optimism is at least partly responsible for the prevention of depressive symptoms.
Ultimately, Seligman points to optimism not only as a means to individual well-being, but also as a powerful aid in finding your purpose and contributing to the world:
Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.
What the love of honey has to do with ancient wisdom, our capacity for hope, and the future of technology.
By Maria Popova
Every once in a while, we all get burned out. Sometimes, charred. And while a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism may help us get by, it’s in those times that we need nothing more than to embrace life’s promise of positivity with open arms. Here are seven wonderful books that help do just that with an arsenal ranging from the light visceral stimulation of optimistic design to the serious neuroscience findings about our proclivity for the positive.
THE LITTLE PRINCE
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, one of our must–read children’s books with philosophy for grown-ups, is among the most poetic and hopeful reflections on human existence ever penned. Lyrical, charmingly written and beautifully illustrated, it sweeps you into a whirlwind of childhood imagination to peel away at the deepest truths about the world and our place in it.
Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Published in 1943, translated into 180 languages since and adapted to just about every medium, Exupéry’s famous novella is one of the best-selling books of all time. More importantly, it’s one of the most important handbooks to being a thoughtful, introspective and, yes, hopeful human being.
As you read this book, you will see that there is an epidemic of depression among young adults and among children in the United States today. [Depression] is not just about mental suffering; it is also about lowered productivity and worsened physical health. If this epidemic continues, I believe America’s place in the world will be in jeopardy. America will lose its economic place to less pessimistic nations than ours, and this pessimism will sap out our will to bring about social justice in our own country.” ~ Martin Seligman, 1990
From a fascinating background on the study and psychology of optimism to hands-on tests you (and your child) can do at home to tangible metrics for your progress, the book is a powerful blueprint for reforming your deepest pessimistic tendencies, whether you consider them mild, moderate or profoundly severe.
EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK
In a world brimming with cynicism, it’s a rare and wonderful occasion to find an oasis of sincerity and optimism. That’s exactly what you’ll find in Everything Is Going To Be OK — a delightful pocket-sized anthology of positive artwork from a diverse lineup of independent and emerging artists, designers and illustrators, including Brain Pickings favorites Marian Bantjes, Marc Johns and Mike Perry. The project is an invitation to look at existential truisms with new eyes in a context of honesty and simplicity, delivered through such outstanding graphic design that the medium itself becomes part of the charm of the message.
The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances.
Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picturelike qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attack, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.
In this book, I argue that humans do not hold a positivity bias on account of having read too many self-help books. Rather, optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organ, the brain.” ~Tali Sharot
AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE
After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today’s culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.
From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.
This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson
When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing — an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold, also part of our 2011 Summer Reading List, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of the simple joys available to us, should we choose to turn a deaf ear to our chronic cynicism.
Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.” ~ Eric Smith
More than a universally beloved children’s classic, Winnie-the-Pooh is also of the mostessential children’s books brimming with wisdom for adults. In 1982, Benjamin Hoff synthesized that wisdom with a spin, drawing an allegorical parallel between A. A. Milne’s classic and the Eastern philosophy of Taoism. The Tao of Pooh uses Pooh and his friends to explain the basic principles of Taoism: compassion, moderation and humility. Simple, delightful and wonderfully written, it remains a timeless invitation to a life of quiet happiness, even amidst the relentlessly demanding reality and superficial preoccupations of Western culture.
‘What’s this you’re writing?’ asked Pooh, climbing onto the writing table
‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied.
The how of Pooh?’ asked Pooh, smudging one of the words I had just written.
‘The Tao of Pooh,’ I replied, poking his paw away with my pencil.
‘It seems more like the ow! of Pooh,’ said Pooh, rubbing his paw.
‘Well, it’s not,’ I replied huffily.
‘What’s it about?’ asked Pooh, leaning forward and smearing another word.
‘It’s about how to stay happy and calm under all circumstances,’ I yelled.
‘Have you read it?’ asked Pooh.
Hoff followed up with The Te of Piglet ten years later, a companion book exploring the Chinese concept of Te, often translated as ‘virtue,’ ‘integrity’ or ‘inner power.’
“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.
Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.
Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.
In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?
A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:
The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
In another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:
I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)
“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”
Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:
You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.
It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.
In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:
Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.
To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:
What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.
But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.
Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:
Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.
In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:
If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.
“Last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)
In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”
Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.
Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.
No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.
One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.
That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:
Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.
I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.
It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”
SPELL TO BE SAID AGAINST HATRED by Jane Hirshfield
Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.