Ideas | Daniel Horowitz

In the worst human traumas, psychologists found the roots of happiness

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All around us are reminders of how important happiness is in people’s lives: in TED talks, in the practice of meditation, in the annual World Happiness Report, and in advice on how to embrace positivity. Though the concept has been addressed at least since Aristotle explored the meaning of “eudaimonia” (commonly translated as human happiness or welfare), the study of the nature of happiness — known as positive psychology — did not emerge as an academic field until the 1990s. Today, positive psychology informs everything from marketing to sports management to the most popular class at Yale, a course nicknamed “Happiness 101.”

Ironically, positive psychology was born in misery and war — long before the current version, with its emphasis on scientific study of positive human functioning and resilience, emerged with self-consciousness and institutional heft in the 1990s.

Positive psychology involves a complex mixture of Eastern religions, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics, and more. But above all, it represents a shift among psychologists from mental illness to mental health; from anxiety and depression to subjective well-being.


Among the field’s most influential findings was the notion that people benefitted from severely stressful experiences. More than anyone else, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl provided the evidence for and the philosophy of what was first known as post-traumatic growth.

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Starting in September 1942, Frankl spent two and a half years in Nazi concentration camps. Soon after his liberation, he began work on a book, published in German in 1946, with a title that translated as “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” In 1959, it was published in the United States and eventually titled “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Having returned to Vienna after the war, Frankl responded to the horrible events he had experienced by asserting that the most horrendous circumstances provided the seedbed of well-being.

If Frankl experienced loss under extreme conditions, John Bowlby did so through the lens of a privileged man who faced a series of less dramatic disruptions than Frankl. As a child, Bowlby rarely saw his parents, which spurred him to a lifetime focused on the importance of personal connections. In his 1951 report, “Maternal Care and Mental Health,” based on a study of millions of children left homeless as a result of World War II, he developed attachment theory. Extended and elaborated on by others, attachment theory underscored the significance of social connections more generally to human happiness.

The momentous traumas that World War II veterans experienced also shaped the work of Aaron Beck, the author of an influential book on depression and a founder of cognitive behavioral therapy. In some of his first published papers, he reported on how soldiers reacted to accidentally killing their buddies. Beck developed ways of measuring and treating a host of mental illnesses that originated in such traumatic experiences. Central to cognitive behavioral therapy was teaching patients how to posit alternative explanations, develop realistic goals, learn to see reactions objectively, and practice “neutralizing ‘automatic thoughts.’” If not happiness, a word Beck did not deploy, then at least a less depressive and more realistic approach to the world resulted.

Another key figure is Abraham Maslow, whose optimistic, humanistic psychology emerged from personal and social adversity. The son of a miserably unhappy mother, as a youth he encountered anti-Semitism, and as a young professional came to know many of the émigré psychologists the Nazis had driven into exile. These experiences impelled Maslow to develop a holistic and positive theory of motivation, one that celebrated how individual humans might aspire to self-realization.


If Frankl, Bowlby, and Maslow articulated one approach to happiness, neuroscientists offered another. A key discovery became publicly known in 1956 when James Olds published “Pleasure Centers in the Brain.” Writing in Scientific American, Olds announced that his findings, from experiments in which stimulating the brains of rats led them to pursue pleasure, contradicted the notion that brain stimulation meant punishment. He expressed hope that future studies might locate nerve cells whose stimulation by electrodes or drugs could satisfy other basic drives, such as the quest for hunger and sex.

In the 1950s, scientists discovered that not only electrical stimulation but also pills could make people happy. During the 1950s, some prescription drugs, known as “happy pills,” made it possible to produce, if not bliss, then at least lower levels of anxiety. Perhaps “the elixir of happiness has been found,” wrote an observer in a Canadian medical journal in 1958.

Miltown was the first in a series of moderately powerful tranquilizers that promised relief from social, medical, and psychological misery. The story of its development reveals how Frank Berger, a research scientist who fled Nazi-occupied Prague and was imprisoned as a homeless man in London, became a bacteriologist in a government laboratory. In 1950 he and an associate synthesized a compound commercially known as Miltown, which turned vicious monkeys into calm, friendly, and alert ones. After a slow start, it became the nation’s first blockbuster psychotropic drug.

The counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s bequeathed new kinds of studies on happiness, new experimentation with drugs, an interest in Eastern religions, the practice of meditation, a commitment to humanistic psychology, and a belief that experiences, especially intense ones, provided more pleasure than commercial goods. Before the 1960s, these elements had come together in the life and writings of Alan Watts, a central figure in Americans’ romance with turning to Asian religions for solutions and inspirations they felt their own world did not provide.

Watts’ commitment to Zen Buddhism and Taoism stood in unresolved tension with a life that was far from peaceful and harmonious. Seeking transcendence, he abused alcohol to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Though he espoused simplicity, he had to support a wife, ex-wives, and seven children. Achieving happiness, he wrote in 1961, involved reconnecting what modern life disconnected — not only man with nature but also “the individual” with “the unknown Self, the unconscious, inner universe.”


Though many building blocks of positive psychology originated in misery, there is one important exception: Norman Vincent Peale’s enormously influential “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Published in 1952, it became the most widely-read precursor of positive psychology (though positive psychology’s practitioners would try to keep their distance from the book). Peale offered a reassuring message in which the exercise of a therapeutic, Protestant version of mind control promised peace, happiness, and well-being. His vision was highly individualistic, though at moments he offered examples of the benefit of helping others on a one-on-one basis.

In his 1998 address as president of the American Psychological Association, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin P. Seligman announced the launching of positive psychology, although by then most of the components of this scientific field were already in place. Positive psychologists would draw on what came before, often in ways their predecessors could not have anticipated and would not have approved of. Nonetheless, what emerged eventually was a powerful field, grounded in science and transformative in the lives of millions of people.

Daniel Horowitz, a professor emeritus of American studies at Smith College, is author of “Happier? The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America” (Oxford University Press, 2018). This piece is adapted from Zócalo Public Square.