The brain is half full

The brain is half full

The science behind positive psychology

Azeen Ghorayshi

As the story goes, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, a self-described pessimist, was weeding his garden when his five-year-old daughter Nikki began playfully shrieking and tossing weeds in the air. As Seligman scolded her harshly for being disruptive, his daughter spun around, looked Seligman in the eye, and said: “Daddy, stop being such a grouch!”

Seligman says that he took this as a wake-up call. Being a pessimist was something he could deal with, even something to be proud of in his academic circles, yet being called a grouch made him cringe. His research up to this point centered on the roots of depression, but the gardening incident made Seligman realize that he, and perhaps the field of psychology as a whole, had focused solely on negativity for too long. So, shortly after his appointment as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Seligman charted out a new approach for the field. Dubbed “positive psychology,” this branch of research would focus on human thriving over human pathology—studying function over dysfunction.

The movement quickly developed a following, including at UC Berkeley. At around the same time, an entirely separate journey brought two Cal alumni, Tom and Ruth Hornaday, back to their alma mater. The Hornadays had recently dealt with a tragic family loss, and came to Berkeley in 2001 with the idea of funding multidisciplinary research on social and emotional well-being. After speaking with several Berkeley professors already studying the positive psychology topics that they wanted to help promote, the Hornadays created the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC).

Housed within the UC Berkeley Child Study Center on the south side of campus, the GGSC offers undergraduate and graduate research fellowships, holds community lectures, and publishes the online Greater Good magazine to highlight current research in the field. With the belief that positive human traits are innate and strongly tied to individual thriving, the GGSC and its positive psychology peers hope to promote the elusive holy grail of personal achievement—true happiness.

Our better halves

Before the field of positive psychology could really get off the ground, it needed a manifesto of sorts—a clearly paved vision for its new focus on positive human behaviors. To create the common language and standardized protocols necessary for a rigorous scientific discipline, Seligman and his cohorts wrote the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) manual—equivalent in purpose, but opposite in focus, to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used to characterize psychological conditions for over 50 years. Psychology up to that point, said Seligman, had studied “only half of the landscape of the human condition,” and the CSV would thus serve as the DSM’s natural counterpart.

After observing domesticated Darwin family pets and wild animals like swans, chimpanzees, and wolves, Darwin carefully recorded animal responses such as purring, snarling, and tail-wagging.

The manual lays out the central tenets of the positive psychology field. The main idea is that virtues such as compassion, courage, and wisdom are as much a part of our human nature as selfishness, weakness, or ignorance. Therefore, just as psychological illnesses need to be identified, treated, and prevented, an academic study of human strengths is needed to help understand and therefore better cultivate good character. Perhaps most importantly, Seligman explains that tuning in to our collective positive natures will not only make us better people, it can also make us happier.

In keeping with the tenets of positive psychologists, the professors at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center strongly support the idea that humans are hard-wired to care, and in turn that caring creates happier individuals. One of their primary research focuses has therefore been on altruism, the sometimes puzzling phenomenon where people put the well-being of others—occasionally even strangers—before their own.

The question of whether or not truly “altruistic” altruism exists has divided social psychologists for years. On one side of this so-called “altruism question” is the idea that cooperation and kindness mask deeper, sometimes unconscious, self-interest. On the side of the GGSC and the positive psychologists is the belief that there is a truly evolved altruism woven into our emotional makeup. “One of the biggest challenges to the claim of sincere altruism is that what you’re seeing is really a strategic pursuit of prestige or reputational gain,” says sociology professor and GGSC affiliate Robb Willer. “Well, we wanted to show that not everyone is driven by that.”

To do this, Willer and GGSC co-founder Dacher Keltner teamed up at Keltner’s Social Interaction Laboratory to separate genuine altruism from its less virtuous counterparts based on a variety of measures. First, they separated the public and the private spheres of social interaction; in a measure of genuine altruism, individuals concerned with public opinion would presumably be more selfish when given the opportunity to act anonymously.

As a test of this model, a group of 94 undergraduate research participants were first given a written evaluation to determine their self-perceived generosity. They then acted as the subjects in a series of economic scenarios designed to test how likely they were to allocate a pool of resources—to be exchanged at the end of the experiment for real money—to another individual.  In the “private” condition, there was no third party viewing the transactions, and the subject was only identified by a letter. In the “public” condition, a third party was present to see how much, if any, of the resources the subject decided to share. But here was the catch: the third party could potentially return money to them as well, giving the subjects a reputational incentive to act more “prosocially” than they otherwise might.

What Keltner and Willer saw emerge was a “sincerely altruistic” group that sustained stably high levels of generosity regardless of the public or private conditions. In contrast, more “reputationally altruistic” people acted prosocially in the public condition, but their generosity dropped off significantly when given the opportunity to act unwatched.

Further testing showed that the “sincerely altruistic” group both placed less personal value on status and sustained their levels of generosity even after going through a classic experimental construct designed to disable their ability to pretend. “A lot of people think that we are not generally ‘good’ as a species—that we are bloody, violent and genocidal,” says Keltner. “These negative aspects have a clear evolutionary story, but we want to show that our prosocial side as a species is equally important in really thinking about who we are and how to cultivate mental health.”

This idea is key to both the positive psychologists’ and the GGSC’s approach; they do not disregard the weaknesses inherent in human nature. Rather, they argue that by working to better understand what can make us good, we can maybe make us better.

Alongside their goal of studying what makes an individual inherently “good” is their idea that virtue and happiness are heavily intertwined—a concept called eudaemonia that dates back to the ancient Greeks. Showing that there is such a thing as truly innate altruism is thus crucial to their idea that tapping in to our shared inner generosity can increase our personal well-being. Help others, they say, and you can help yourself.

An empathetic gene

Keltner is somewhat of a celebrity in the popular psychology world. He has shoulder-length silvery blonde hair and exudes the sort of calm eloquence one might expect from a surfer-turned-academic. His research is regularly featured in major media outlets like The New York Times, Nightline, CNN, and Oprah. And so it is no surprise that his undergraduate psychology course, “Human Happiness,” is one of the most popular classes at Berkeley.

In the class, Keltner often asks his students the following question: Where do our individual senses of morality come from? “They will usually give me one of several true, but only partially true, answers—from their parents, from their culture, from their religion, from the books that they read,” says Keltner. “But in the last fifteen years psychologists have really started to think about how morality is also rooted in evolution and genetics.” Raising the more specific question: Where is something like morality located inside of us?

In 1872, thirteen years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin attempted to find the evolutionary roots of what was until then thought to be a distinctly human characteristic—emotion. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin took a plethora of human feelings—such as anger, grief, shame, sympathy, and joy—and attempted to find their purposeful animal equivalents.

“Until that point, Western culture believed that our incredibly complex emotional capacity was associated with a feeling of the sacred, and therefore had to be God-given,” says Keltner. “What Darwin said is that these emotions are really as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as the other traits he had studied.”

Working with the idea that our emotional capabilities are coded somewhere within our genomes, Keltner teamed up with Sarina Rodrigues, a post-doctoral candidate in the GGSC’s research fellowship program. Rodrigues was interested in a hormone and neuromodulator called oxytocin—sometimes referred to as “the love hormone.”

Oxytocin exploded in popularity in the early 1990s for its well-established roles in emotional behaviors like parenting and pair-bond formation. In animals such as the female prairie vole, for example, oxytocin released during physical contact with a male has been strongly implicated in establishing the vole’s lifelong monogamy. In humans, the hormone was initially only known to have effects on pregnancy and labor, but in the past ten years increasing evidence has pointed to its involvement in complex emotional brain processes such as trust, generosity, and even love.

Oxytocin can act both as a hormone, traveling long distances through the bloodstream to carry out effects far from its origin in the brain, and as a neurotransmitter, binding in a lock-and-key fashion to small proteins called receptors on the surface of neurons to cause changes in firing. Since Keltner and Rodrigues were interested in empathy, they focused their project on oxytocin’s effect at the neuronal level, looking at the two known versions of the oxytocin receptor. Located on the third chromosome of the human genome, the two variants differ by only a single nucleotidea guanine (G) in one version is switched to an adenine (A) in the other. Although the difference seems trivial, it had previously been implicated in some interesting behavioral differences, so they decided to take a closer look. After genotyping a group of 192 participants to determine which of the two variants each person expressed, Rodrigues put the subjects through a battery of behavioral tests and self-reports to identify their potential differences in empathy.

Rodrigues and Keltner relied on the well-established fact that empathy is closely tied to an understanding of other people’s emotions—a capability often lacking in individuals with genetic disorders such as autism. Using a standardized empathy measure called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” participants were shown 36 black-and-white pictures of people’s eyes and then asked to choose the word that best described the subject’s apparent mood. They also tested all of the participants for their relative stress reactivity, in keeping with oxytocin’s known calming effects.

What they found was that subjects with the G variant consistently scored higher on the eye-reading task and lower on the stress test than subjects with the A variant. Although the differences were not always hugely significant, the results indicated that a single nucleotide difference in the genetic code could potentially be tied to something as complex as empathy. “I came into this research as a big skeptic,” said Rodrigues in a New York Times article about oxytocin published shortly after her paper came out, “but the results had me floored.”

Her findings, published in 2009, were added to the slew of recent papers regarding oxytocin’s role in many of the emotional processes that we most associate with being human. And yet, according to both Keltner and Rodrigues, the oxytocin study does not suggest that there are inherently empathetic or unempathetic people; a genetic correlate rarely indicates fixed, unchanging characteristics. Rather, they say, it’s just one element, and perhaps a strong jumping-off point, for something much more complex. For example, take a child’s height. “This is a trait that is 100% heritable, and it’s still very susceptible to environmental intervention—if you feed kids better, they grow taller,” says Philip Cowan, an executive faculty member of the GGSC who studies applied developmental psychology. “So you can’t even think about genetics without environmental context, and you certainly can’t think about environmental context without genetics.” Their goal is that with an increased understanding of how positive behaviors are rooted in our genes, we can work to better cultivate them environmentally.

A nurturing nature

“We know there are empathetic and prosocial children, and as a scientist you want to figure out the physiological underpinnings of that profile,” says Keltner. “But also, and this is where the GGSC comes in a lot, how do you make kids moreempathetic?” Much of this branch of research has to do with “positive interventions”—positive psychology’s preventative, prosocial counterpart to classical psychology’s interventions implemented when antisocial behaviors reach a breaking point.

Cowan, who has worked for 40 years with his wife Carolyn on family systems and child development, focuses primarily on positive interventions in the earliest stages of life—the prenatal and early childhood periods. In a longitudinal study published in 2011, the Cowans showed that of 100 two-parent couples raising their first child, those who attended regular couples’ therapy before their child’s first year of kindergarten were able to sustain a much more stable family system for ten years after the sessions were complete. Furthermore, the children of parents who underwent therapy showed increased academic and social competence compared to the no-therapy controls.

“The goal is to get in very early and focus on the systems of family relationship, not just an ideal of ‘good parenting.’ You have to look at all of the relationships in the system,” says Cowan.

And this is where the real impact of the GGSC lies—highlighting the ways in which new research can concretely improve people’s lives. Though Cowan looks at the application of principles out in the field, a lot of potentially applicable psychology research never makes it too far out of the lab. When the Hornadays established the GGSC, they were looking to establish a pipeline from the social science labs directly to the people it could benefit. This pipeline has largely come in the form of the GGSC’s popular online magazine, Greater Good.

“There was a growing body of evidence supporting a different way of viewing our human nature,” says Jason Marsh, editor-in-chief of the magazine. “We saw that there was a great need for a publication with the mission of featuring this research and putting it into terms that are more accessible to the general public.”

The magazine provides in-depth articles, guest columns from researchers, and even a popular parenting blog called “Raising Happiness.” From slightly more tongue-in-cheek quizzes such as “Is she flirting with you?” (an emotional intelligence quiz), to a Father’s Day article explaining how to get dads more involved in child-rearing (written by Cowan and his wife), the magazine’s content ranges from light and playful to serious and contemplative. It also advertises their community seminar series, started in 2009, where people in the science, education, and public policy communities speak on topics ranging from increasing altruism in kids to sustaining thriving romantic relationships.

“The study of human behavior is what we’re all always talking about anyway—it’s what people talk about in bars, what people gossip about in barbershops,” says Willer. “But Greater Good’s focus on the cutting-edge research about this stuff is what makes it much more rigorous than your typical scientific public outreach project.”

The market of happiness

But what about Martin Seligman’s new campaign for positivity? Shortly after his official launch of positive psychology in 1998, something strange started happening—the American public got hooked. In 2000, less than 250 books were published on happiness, most in the way of self-help manuals. In 2010, over 2,300 books were published on the topic.

Browse the self-help aisle of your nearest bookstore and you will inevitably find the following titles: Happiness: The Science Behind Your SmileWhat Happy People Know: How the New Science of Happiness Can Change Your Life for the Better, and The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Now, with websites and smartphone applications devoted to a continuously more personalized view of user experience, people can even track their own happiness in real-time and correlate it with where they are located and what they are doing. We want to know exactly what this happiness thing is and how to get more of it.

So it happened that the positive psychology movement came with its own particular form of backlash—a popular marketplace promising “scientific” understanding of happiness in exchange for money, money, and more money. Seligman, as the figurehead of the field that spawned a cultural movement, received a fair amount of criticism. In 2004, he published his own bestseller, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. But, many critics argued, how could such a young field of scientific research already have the answer to such an age-old, elusive question?

The problem, critics said, stemmed from two things: first, happiness is difficult to objectively measure, and second, by focusing so heavily on “happiness,” Seligman was missing the point of a more broadly fulfilling life, and perhaps selling out to the lucrative popular marketplace of happiness.

The core of the measurement issue is that if happiness is necessarily subjective, then self-reports are unavoidable. “In psychology, we like to be able to use more concrete measures than just self-reports,” says Willer. “Ideally, we would like to have behavioral or physiological signatures for happiness, but that is very difficult to do—and that is a challenge for the field. That said, I think these are healthy criticisms that positive psychologists are really working hard to listen and respond to.”

On the point of the over-pursuit of happiness, however, Seligman himself seems to have backtracked slightly in recent years. His new book, Flourish, even lengthily derides the so-called “happiology” that many critics would argue he helped to create, saying that he never meant for positive psychology to be construed as a prescription for a pleasant life. “Happiness is a diffuse term,” says Keltner. “By solely asking, ‘Am I happy?’ we miss out on the many nuances of a meaningful life.”

Nevertheless, positive psychology as a field is thriving. Classes like Keltner’s are now taught on over 200 college campuses nationwide, and a steadily increasing number of psychologists are turning to “positive” research topics. Regardless of whether the secret to a happy life will ever be definitively understood, institutions like the GGSC see their roles as solid—connecting people to the research that defines their lives. “Happiness is very important,” says Marsh. “But it’s only one part of the puzzle. We’ve got a lot to figure out along the way.”