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Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America


One of the things that I deeply respect is people who are willing to do the reading and research necessary to have a complete and balanced view of a topic. That’s what I found in Daniel Horowitz’ Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America. It’s no secret that Horowitz isn’t impressed with the movement towards creating a happier America just from the title; however, if you’re trying to map how our focus on happiness evolved, he’s done a great job.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

When the Declaration of Independence was drafted, the idea that people could aspire to happiness was a lofty idea. Most people lived lives that are more in line with the poem of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a plaque in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It describes “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s easy to grow up in America today and just expect that you should be happy. It’s too easy to believe that happiness is some inevitable birthright of those who have been born in America. However, it’s neither a birthright nor something that everyone believed was possible.

America is in an epidemic of depression. It is as large a health problem as any other. We continue to prescribe more and more antidepressants, yet we’re not stopping the tide of people struggling. (See Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health for more.) We firmly believe that one of the drivers of both burnout and depression is the gap between our expectations and our reality. If you expect that you should be happy in every moment, your life is bound to be disappointing. (See the resources on for more.)

Critical Thinking

The impetus for reading Happier? came from a note from Marty Seligman in the Friends of Positive Psychology list server. He was providing a draft response to a negative article that was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and was asking for feedback. I read his response and the original article. The original article referred to Happier? and another book that is critical of positive psychology, Bright-sided. I wanted to see if I could trace the line between my experience with positive psychology through these resources to the scathing article that I saw.

Instead of being defensive of positive psychology, I was curious. How did we get to such a disconnect between what I knew were the possibilities of positive psychology and the grim specter that was painted by the article? It turns out that it was distortion like the kind that makes a massive shadow on a wall.

The Need to Accentuate the Positive

While helping to support a program that took people who were in some way broken by life and returned them to normal functioning, I encountered a frustrated, exhausted leader who longed to be able to help people thrive instead of just survive. He had spent his career picking up people who had hit rock bottom. He was grateful for the impact he was having in the lives of others but at the same time longed to make people more what they had the potential to be.

This is another rendition of the same siren song that called Martin Seligman, then President of the American Psychological Association (APA), to encourage professionals to make whole health a priority. Instead of just responding to illness, he wanted to follow the same pattern set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1946, when it called for physicians and other providers to consider the health of people as more than just the absence of illness, defect, or deficiency.

Positive is different kind of territory than negative. In mathematics, it’s flipping the sign. However, in life, it’s something totally different. Positive psychology helps people be healthier as defined by joy and enduring happiness in their lives instead of the absence of pain and hurting. It’s easy to agree that this is something that we should all be striving for.

Collectively and Individually

Happiness studies tended towards the broad categories of social happiness, and positive psychology was more focused on individuals. More specifically, the positive psychology studies focused on hedonistic (pleasure-seeking) happiness and happiness driven by meaning and purpose. However, the distinction between the two is sort of like looking at both sides of a coin. Societies are made up of people, so happier people make a happier society.

In happiness studies, there’s a focus on what are perceived as the evils of the 21st century. Things like income inequality and whether it’s increasing or decreasing became important as it related to happiness. (See Capital in the Twenty-First Century for more on income inequality.) The short version is that our perception of finances is based on our peers, and the data about the long-term impact of income inequality isn’t fixed, it keeps changing. If we feel like we’re doing well relative to our peers – particularly our neighbors – we’ll feel good.

The degree to which people are connected in committed relationships crosses over between happiness and positive psychology. Committed intimate relationships are positively correlated with happiness, and, of course, the better relationships that we have, the better societies we have.

Positive Psychology

In all transparency, I believe in the power of positive psychology, particularly in the tendency to reduce victimization. (See Hostage at the Table for more about victimization.) I’ve read and reviewed Positive Psychotherapy: Clinician Manual, The Hope Circuit, Flourish, Positivity, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Flow, Finding Flow, and other books that would be defined by Horowitz as a part of the genre. I’ve even studied happiness directly by reading Stumbling on Happiness, The Happiness Hypothesis, Hardwiring Happiness, The Dalai Lama’s Big Book of Happiness, Happiness, and others.

While there are aspects of all of these that sometimes minimize the overall challenges with developing a positive mindset, the overall picture is a relatively complete one that drives the arc of humanity forward. (For understanding the impact of mindset, see Mindset. Brené Brown calls minimizing challenges “gold plating grit” in Rising Strong.)

Critics in Every Corner

In service of balance, Horowitz sometimes quotes extreme positions. For instance, he quoted a comment on Grit that said: “anyone who would tell a child that the only thing standing between him or her and world-class achievement is sufficient work ought to be jailed for child abuse.” The problem with this response is that it represents the kind of escalation that was addressed in The Coddling of the American Mind. Suddenly, the idea that you can take control of your circumstances and develop skills is wrong. The problem is that it’s not.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s book, Peak, reports on their study of top performers – and how they get there. It’s research that Malcolm Gladwell first spoke about in Outliers. If you’re willing to put in the work, there are very few things that are truly beyond what anyone – particularly a child –can accomplish. The challenge is that it’s rare that someone is willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary. (The Rise of Superman is a good survey of some of the amazing things that people can do because they worked at it.)

That being said, the equation for life isn’t defined solely by the characteristics of the person. Kurt Lewin described behavior of a function of both person and environment – the same could be said of the accomplishments of a person. Their accomplishment, in an area or more globally, is the relationship between the person and their environment – including circumstances and luck. This is at the heart of the challenge that Horowitz raises with the movement towards positive psychology. (Interestingly, Paul Ekman, whom Horwitz mentions in the evolution of positive psychology, acknowledges the role of luck in his career in his book, Nonverbal Messages.)

Foundations of Morality

Jonathan Haidt’s work isn’t limited to The Happiness Hypothesis or The Coddling of the American Mind. In his book The Righteous Mind, he explains his research and work on the foundations of morality. He explains that it’s not that others are immoral but rather that the weight they place on the various foundations of morality are different. Horowitz’ message is that positive psychology places too much focus on a person’s ability to overcome their circumstances. The claim is that income inequality is morally wrong and is an unfair burden placed on many people.

I agree. It’s unfair. I also agree it’s a burden. It’s not that I disagree, because I don’t. However, I believe there are other factors – factors that are often called “internal locus of control” – that are a compensating factor. Let me slow down and first say that society is a complex system and obeys the rules of an interrelated system. (See Thinking in Systems for the basics of systems.) The system itself may be sufficiently complicated, complex, or even perceptively chaotic that it’s impossible to predict the outcomes. (See Cynefin for more about these labels and the different strategies for dealing with ideas in these spaces.) However, there are some factors that we do know are powerful forces that can help to shape the systems – and therefore the societies that we live in.

Feelings of “internal locus of control” is a powerful factor that is cited in Smarter Faster Better and is woven through Edward Deci’s work Why We Do What We Do and therefore indirectly in Daniel Pink’s Drive. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There acknowledges that some degree of control that people believe in may be false. However, whether the control is real or imagined is largely immaterial. Rick Hanson explains that the impact of an internal locus of control leads people to be more Resilient.


I need to pause and talk about one of the risks that occurs on both sides of the issue that Horowitz is covering. There’s a potential that one will believe the answers that work for them are the answers for everyone. There’s the risk that an agenda will be pushed forward with the idea that people are too stupid to make their own best choices. and therefore we should structure society in a way that moves them in the right direction. Nudge calls this “choice architecture.” In The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy Clark challenges this notion and wonders whether paternalism is good or bad. I conclude it’s both – and neither. Steven Reiss, who wrote Who Am I? and The Normal Personality, would call the idea that people believe their ideas are the right ideas for everyone “self hugging.”

On one side is the belief that we should address the structural issues to happiness, and on the other side is the idea that we should ignore the structural issues and just do what we can at an individual level. After all, the collective society is built on individuals. From my perspective, it’s not an “or” choice. It’s an “and” choice. We’ve got to learn how to be better at accepting other people regardless of what they believe. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for the importance of acceptance.) I believe that continued communication, conversation, and dialogue is necessary to move forward. (See Fault Lines for the importance of communication, and Dialogue for more on how to engage in productive dialogue.)

The Rise of Self-Esteem

Horowitz cites Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone as evidence that Americans have lost their connection to community and have become more focused on their own world. That’s certainly true. However, the more interesting question is what are the factors that are leading people to be more self-centered. In 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock first published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shared the regret that Dr. Spock had as he considered the outcomes of his advice. His encouragement towards unfettered individualists had led to a rise of children believing they needed to have self-esteem and that it was more important than character.

It’s not to say that people don’t need self-esteem – we all need some sense of ego. (See Change or Die for more.) However, we need to keep our self-esteem in check with our character, which many people believe has been on the decline for decades. In Leadership and Self-Deception, The Arbinger Institute walks through the challenges of self-esteem and its need to be fed in the absence of the character needed to stay out of dysfunctional states. (See Roy Baumeister’s work for more on the need for character – including Willpower.)

This Not That

At some level, Horowitz rediscovers the universal truths that we’ve learned over the past two centuries. We know that experiences and relationships are more important than stuff.

We need to seek satiation and help people accept what they have. The secret to happiness isn’t having what you want – it’s wanting what you have. (See The Paradox of Choice for more on satiation.)

We’ve learned that we need more generosity and less scarcity. (See Give and Take for generosity and Daring Greatly for limiting scarcity.)

Express gratitude – appreciate what you have – both to others and, if necessary, in the form of a written journal. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for appreciation and Flourish for generating gratitude.)

Participate in rituals to provide consistency and connection. (See Spiritual Evolution for a general appreciation for connection, The Relationship Cure for the personal power of rituals, and Stealing Fire for how rituals have been used to unite and motivate.)

Rejection of Negativity

Horowitz appropriately criticizes some of the vaulted leaders of happiness for their explicit rejection of sadness or negative news. Their solution was to eliminate the challenges and negatives, thereby biasing the overall mood in a positive direction. However, rejection of negativity at a personal level is destructive, as it leads to disassociating parts of the psyche. (See Emotion and Adaptation for more.) By and large, my experience has been that people who are focused on positive psychology and helping people be happier are more focused on encouraging responsibility for happiness, adjusting expectations, and developing skills. If people are recommending that one should not speak about their negative thoughts, they may do well to review the kinds of problems that it causes. (See Solve Employee Problems Before They Start and Dialogue.)

Hedonistic Treadmill

We live in a consumer economy, where marketers are focused on getting you to long for, want, and crave the next new thing. This has been the case for decades. Vance Packard’s book The Hidden Persuaders is a classic book about how marketers are trying to get you to buy their wares using the latest psychological research, a bag of tricks, and the desire to part you from your money. As a result, we’ve collectively climbed on the hedonistic. We seek pleasures every day to save us from the need to do the inner work it takes to develop our gratitude and our character.

We believe that we deserve to be happy, and we believe that if we just get the next new thing, we’ll be happy. If I just get that next raise, I’ll be happy. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for this fallacy.) We think the next new phone or the new car or the new house will solve our problems. However, research consistently shows that we’re absolutely lousy at predicting what will – or will not – make us happy. We think that the new hobby will continue to help us find fulfillment. It may do that for a few weeks, but in the long term, it becomes the next set of equipment parked in our closet unused. It leaves us longing for a solution to the constant yearning in our souls for this elusive happiness that we believe we deserve.

The Happy Pill is Easy

Americans are a drugged society. We consume two-thirds of the supply of anti-depressants on the planet. As we became more affluent, we plunged deeper into despair against the invisible villain, depression. Acedia & Me makes it clear that some form of depression has been with us for centuries. However, now that we have selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), we can – we believe – address depression. However, as Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Harmful to Your Mental Health explains, the effects aren’t persistent – and aren’t nearly as large as many would like to have you believe.

The problem is that people see their physician and expect that we’ll get something to make them better – even if the solution can’t be found in a pill. Prescribing a solution is easy for the provider and for the patient. No work involved. It’s the same reason why we’ve got antibiotic-resistant bacteria now. We’ve overprescribed antibiotics, and patients haven’t taken them as prescribed. But physicians feel the push to appear to be doing something. (See Better and Mistreated for more.)

Set to Happy

There’s agreement that there are three key factors to your happiness:

  • Genetics – Your genetics influence the degree to which you’ll be happy.
  • Environment / Circumstances – Your objective environment can increase or inhibit your happiness.
  • Perspective / Attitude – The way you perceive your situation can shape your happiness.

Horowitz basically argues that those who push happiness want to minimize the impact of genetics and environment and claim that people can be happy regardless of their genetics or circumstances. Here, he’s got a solid argument. People have pushed too far with their claims of the power of positive psychology; however, simultaneously, the argument overreaches.

There is substantial power in managing our perceptions. Two people can be in the same objective circumstances with one being quite happy and the other miserable. (See 12 Rules for Life and Loneliness for more.)

You’re Not Responsible for their Happiness

One of the loose ends to the conversation is whether you’re responsible for your own happiness or whether others are. If you accept responsibility for your own happiness, then others should, too. Problems arise when you are concerned about someone who is not able or willing to take responsibility for their own happiness.

Responsibility carries a weight. What if it’s more than the other person can bear? In our work on Extinguish Burnout, we’re quite clear that you don’t control others. (Also see Compelled to Control.) While we believe in personal accountability, we also recognize that you can’t be responsible for things that you cannot control. You can only be responsive to them.

Money Can Buy Happiness

The saying goes that money can’t buy happiness. I used to say, “but it will give you a hell of a deal on a long-term lease.” It’s funny, but it’s true. Having resources – including money – does make you happier. The Easterlin Paradox says that, at some point, money stops adding happiness, but there are many that refute that finding.

More than the individual level of money being a part of happiness, it’s big business. People have made fortunes on helping others find happiness – whether their customers were successful or not. We can’t forget about the fact that there’s a lot of money that hangs in the balance with positive psychology and happiness efforts.

Martin Seligman

Perhaps the most well-known leader for positive psychology – known as its father – is Martin Seligman. Marty, as he prefers to be called, continues to move the ideas of positive psychology and happiness in general through many projects and approaches, including his work at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Horowitz clearly has an issue with Seligman’s recognition. He points to works from which Marty derived his ideas and others who have made valuable – and less recognized – contributions.

Here, I’m not quite sure what the axe is that Horowitz wants to grind. My interactions and experience of Marty has always been positive, professional, and generous. The constant frustration with Marty’s prominence in the space is perhaps the biggest weakness of the book.

All that being said, I expect that you will find some useful pieces in the book. Maybe you can be Happier?