How Smiles Were Packaged and Sold by Carol Tavris

How Smiles Were Packaged and Sold by Carol Tavris

How Smiles Were Packaged and Sold by Carol Tavris


(Book reviews of the books “Happier?” by Daniel Horowitz and “The Hope Circuit” by martin E. P. Seligman)

Happiness, we have a problem. What are you, exactly? People usually can describe feelings of sorrow, rage and anxiety in degrees from mild to incapacitating, and they do very well describing the ecstasy of finding love and dancing the tango.

But happiness? Is happiness watered-down ecstasy? Is it the absence of unhappiness—a constant homeostatic state that might dip briefly into despond or rise into delight and then right itself back into calm? Is it an intermittent experience, consisting of bursts of insight that make us say, “Hey! I’m really happy right now!”?

Is it a summary assessment of how things are going (“all in all, I’m happy”) or is happiness – or – unhappiness – all in the details? (“I’m not happy about my deadbeat brother Morty and my job.”)

… Yet the failure to nab it [happiness] in our psychological nets is a major reason the happiness-pursuit industry  has thrived for centuries. If people maintain wrong-headed definitions and expectations of happiness, after all, they won’t know it when it curls up on their laps asking to be petted.

And if people can’t know happiness even when they feel it, the market for helping them do so will keep growing.

In the mid-19th century, a clock-maker named Phineas Quimby  began preaching a “mind healing” approach that, he claimed, would enable people to eradicate self-doubt, anxiety, shyness and other contributions to unhappiness.

Quimby played a key role in the “New Thought” movement, a forerunner of modern cognitive-behavior therapy. “Mind cures” were neither original with Quimby  nor uniquely American, given that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus told us 2,000 years ago that “men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” For that matter, philosophers and religious leaders had been teaching, for even longer, that “things themselves” do not bring happiness either.

Fast forward to 1952 and Norman Vincent Peale’s postwar tonic “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which is the point at which historian  Daniel Horowitz picks up the story of happiness’ packaging and marketing and of “positive thinking” as a way to get it.

(The title of Mr. Horowitz’s book – “Happier?” – is commendable for the question mark, suggesting a book that asks more questions about this elusive condition than it answers.)

The author begins with the origins of the modern positive psychology movement in the postwar writings and therapeutic approaches of Viktor Frankl (an existential psychiatrist who survived  the Nazi death camps), Aaron Beck (a pioneer of modern cognitive-behavior therapy) and, most of all, psychologist  Abraham Maslow.

In the 1960s, Maslow, along with Carl Rogers and Rollo May, argued that it was time to counteract the then-dominant schools of psychoanalysis and behaviorism with a humanistic approach.

[Maslow asked], …”You are asking how tall can people grow, what can a human being become?”

That question came to underlie, invisibly, the modern positive-psychology movement, officially launched by Martin E. P. Seligman when he became president  of the American Psychological Association in 1998.

As Mr. Horowitz details, Mr. Seligman raised millions to give the movement its name and visibility, notably through religiously inspired donors…

…. Over the next two decades, positive psychology begat studies and journals and conferences and TED talks, generating an amalgam of substantive research on important topics along with New Agey self-improvement advice.

Mr. Horowitz chronicles how positive psychology became a cultural movement, albeit one that mostly attracted affluent white people.

… Mr. Horowitz observes that researchers in the positive-psychology business have not paid much attention to race, class, availability of health care or other conditions of people’s  lives that might affect how positive or hopeful they feel.

And then there is the pesky if prevalent problem of oversimplification and hype. “Despite or perhaps because of its popularity,” Mr. Horowitz writes, “virtually every finding of positive psychology under consideration remains contest, by both insiders and outsiders . . . Major conclusions have been challenged, modified, or even abandoned. Even what happiness means has been up for grabs.”

See Also: 

What Harvard’s Grant Study Reveals about Happiness and Life by Dan Slater

 The Secrets of Resilience by M. Jay

How People Learn to Become Resilient by Maria Konnikova

Become More Resilient by Learning to Take Joy Seriously by Brad Stulberg

Being Positive, Associating With Positive People Can Increase Your Chances of Success by K. Elkins

Recovering from Failure – articles by various authors

You’re Not Failing Enough, by Diane Paddison

How To Overcome Self-Criticism and Lack of Motivation by Bryn Mooth

Why the Best Success Stories Often Begin With Failureby Amy Crawford

Why the Fear of Rejection Overrides One’s Ability to Ask for What They Want or Need

How to Stop Caring About What Other People Think – Don’t Let A Little Criticism Hold You Back, by Simran Takhar

After 27 Rejections, Dr. Seuss Almost Burned His First Unpublished Book – But He Hung In There and Went on to Become a Best-Selling Author

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