Thinkers dig for root of happiness

Giving new meaning to the nickname Dr. Feelgood, Claremont Graduate University is establishing the world’s first psychology doctoral program focusing largely on an age-old question: What makes people happy?

This is no New Age enterprise. The Ph.D. program in the emerging field of positive psychology marks an advance for serious research into human happiness and related quality-of-life concerns. It’s an arena drawing the attention of psychologists, as well as neuroscientists, economists and even political scientists.

Although the desire to live a better life is fundamental for ordinary folks – think pursuit of happiness – researchers long have devoted their energies elsewhere.

“Most research on human behavior has focused on what goes wrong in human affairs: aggression, mental disease, failure and so on,” said Claremont professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is one of the pioneers in positive psychology and a leader of the doctoral program.

Csikszentmihalyi, whose 18 books include the 1990 best-seller “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” calls the study of human pathologies essential but adds, “We don’t know enough about what makes life worth living, what gives people hope and energy and enjoyment.”

He and his partner in running the new program, psychologist Jeanne Nakamura, emphasize that their work is not aimed at a “self-help” audience. And they note that when the first few students begin the program this fall, their first year of study will be dominated by rigorous work in research methods and statistics.

Robert A. Emmons, a University of California, Davis, psychology professor who last year launched the Journal of Positive Psychology, said the Claremont program would fill a needed gap in academia.

“Everyone has talked about happiness from the beginning of time,” Emmons said. But now psychology is adding to a field previously the domain of philosophers, theologians and poets.


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