by Dennis McCafferty, USA Weekend Magazine, ©March 9, 2003
As Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang told us, happiness could be a warm puppy, pizza with sausage, five different crayons — or anyone, or anything, that’s loved by you. And, although it’s true that many special moments are inspired by such happenstance, scientific research contends that people actually can condition themselves for genuine happiness, much as occasional joggers condition themselves for marathons. Truly happy people are able to, for example, recall special moments and use them as psychological tools to deal with adversity. And that’s just one of many skills they tap into to ensure a high level of satisfaction in their lives.
So why is this important? Because it’s clear that happiness is a key contributor to our overall personal health — it’s even been linked to longevity, scientific studies show.
With that in mind, USA WEEKEND Magazine hatched what we’ll call the Ultimate Happiness Challenge: Why not pair the world’s leading authority on happiness with America’s happiest person and see if our expert can make him even happier? Or, on a more scientific level: How can the leading expert apply his core principles to boost the happiness quotient for someone who’s already as happy as a person gets? With this exercise, we explore the happiest man’s state of contentedness and, as a result, discover ways we all can better cultivate happiness in our lives.
Our happiness authority is a clear choice: Martin E.P. Seligman, 60, the author of 20 books, including the new “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” (Free Press, $26). Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent his 40-year career researching the emotional and mental makeup of happy, optimistic people, as well as of those who are depressed and pessimistic.
Among the many theories he promotes: Those who are best at understanding their “signature strengths” — such as a sense of humor or the capacity to love — and learn how to use them every day, in all kinds of situations, often end up the happiest. (For more on Seligman and his new book, visit authentichappiness.org.)
As for our happiest person in America, J.P. “Gus” Godsey, 45, he’s a story in himself. (See “Our Search for Perfection”) On a recent sunny day in Virginia Beach, Va., we sat down with Godsey and Seligman to see how the happiest guy — and everyone else — can become even happier.
Principle #1: Everyone benefits
The concept: Authentically happy people negotiate life by stressing an “everybody wins” strategy, as opposed to focusing on threats or other negative possibilities.
Godsey: That’s true. Being a jerk never got me positive results. When I get bad service at a restaurant, I don’t like to make a scene. I try to get the manager and say, “Hey, I love this place and want to keep coming, but …” With that approach, you can even get a free meal when you come back.
Now, this usually works, but not always. I essentially shoulder the fund-raising load for many of my charitable pursuits; it really takes a lot of time and effort. My goal is to build up an endowment so we can help, say, homeless people forever just through the interest. But the donor giving me $5,000 is getting angry at me, saying he wants it spent right now to buy coats for people on the street. I try to tell him that this will make us feel good for now, but it has no lasting value. And, quite frankly, this kind of conversation can get testy.
Seligman: Abraham Lincoln was great at dealing with tense situations with a dose of humor. A good quip or a story can defuse a potentially unpleasant exchange. You may want to apply your great sense of humor — which is a terrific signature strength — in these conversations with donors. First, disarm them with your humor and diminish the danger of things getting testy, then proceed with the “everybody wins” approach to convince them that the funds should support the endowment. They will be more receptive if you put them in a good mood first. Authentically happy people often use one signature strength to set up the use of another.
Principle #2: Savoring success
The concept: Authentically happy people not only savor good moments and successes but also tap into those in the past to help them deal with problems in the present.
Godsey: That brings to mind something that happened when I went back to my hometown 10 years ago. I was with a buddy getting ready to have some pizza and beer, and a guy I grew up with approached me. This guy always wanted to fight me when we were kids. He says, “Gus, you’re still a jerk, and I can still beat you up.” Now, my pal is wondering what the heck is going to happen. But I just told the guy, “Hey, man, we haven’t seen each other in 20 years. These things don’t matter anymore. Remember how much you liked my older brother? He still asks about you and wonders how you’re doing.” He never liked me, but he really dug my brother. It immediately put him in a better disposition. He had been ready to fight, and we ended up shaking hands. My buddy was amazed.
Seligman: Wow! I’m impressed. There was really no better way to handle that situation. All I can do is encourage you to continue thinking of ways to recall positive moments from the past to deal with difficult situations in the present. In situations like this, authentically happy people take a moment to think about things that really went well. When people say they’re dreading a situation they think will be stressful, I tell them to recall three things that have gone well lately and — this is key here — why they happened, and write them down. If the situation is work-related, I tell them to do that before they go into the office that day. If people get their confidence up, their repertoire expands to deal with the situation.
Principle #3: Social intelligence
The concept: Authentically happy people know which strengths to use and which to avoid with a particular person or situation.
Godsey: I had a real problem with this recently. I hurt a good friend’s feelings, and I didn’t mean to. He had done a report for his office and wanted me to take a look at it before submitting it. I thought the report had some problems, so, in attempting to cushion my thoughts, I tried to use a little humor. I left a message on his answering machine that he should not only not submit the report, he should burn every copy of it and start over. Well, the whole thing backfired. What I didn’t know was that this was a really sore spot for him. He had been going through a lot of grief with this report, and he was just seeking some reassurance. He got really angry. I apologized and asked for his forgiveness, but I don’t think we’re over the hump yet.
Seligman: Intriguing. Usually, you’re very strong in using your social intelligence. It’s a key signature strength for you. But you misplayed your hand this time because you weren’t aware of what your friend had been through. Usually humor works, but this time it didn’t. Signature strengths can be used like tools — but a fellow doesn’t pull out a hammer when he needs to drill a hole, does he? In this kind of situation, I often encourage people to use gratitude as a signature strength tool. I tell them to think of something helpful or kind that a friend did for them, and to stress that the next time they talk to the friend to repair the damage. So, Gus, consider telling him, “How could I possibly want to hurt you after all you did for me? I value our friendship far too much to want to hurt you in any way.” This is a good way to earn forgiveness and restore a relationship that brings happiness.
Principle #4: Opening doors
The concept: Authentically happy people find open doors when others close.
Godsey: This is my philosophy. In my first job out of college, I ran a nightclub in Myrtle Beach, S.C. I did really well and worked really hard. I got Mickey Mantle to come to the club to get people talking about it, to make it a hot spot. My roommate at the time was African American, and I wasn’t about to exclude minorities from coming to the club. Some of the owners didn’t like this, and I got fired. But one owner liked me and admired the stand I took. His dad ended up running for political office; that owner put in a good word for me, and I became his dad’s campaign manager.
Seligman: That’s terrific. You stood up for your values, suffered a defeat, disengaged from the situation and then found something better. Often something good comes out of something bad. People like you maintain an optimism that opens doors. In your case, you didn’t stay in bed, paralyzed by this career setback; you did something about it. Now that you’re a stockbroker, you know that Wall Street shuts doors and opens them — many times in a single day. The immediate reaction to a sharp drop in the Dow is one of panic. But that drop often leads to an opportunity to buy a stock that turns out to be a bargain. People who maintain this perspective often bounce back quickly from disappointments.
Principle #5: Couple strengths
The concept: Authentically happy people enhance their romantic relationships by joining both partners’ personal strengths.
Godsey: I’m usually good at this with my wife, but sometimes I’m not so good. I’m a big planner, and she’s really into beauty. This works great when we’re dealing with our gardening. I’m always coming up with the game plan — what kind of flowers and vegetables we’re going to plant, and what kind of pasta sauces and salsas I’m going to make with the tomatoes. She’s really good at displaying the flowers in remarkable arrangements that make the house look elegant. But I admit it isn’t always something we actually put any thought into. How else can we combine our strengths to make life more enjoyable?
Seligman: I always advise couples to combine their strengths when it comes to a big vacation they’re planning. Sometimes a vacation can put a couple at odds with each other: The husband might want a spring-training tour in Florida, while the wife would prefer a week of theater in New York. But instead of being at odds, couples can work together. In your case, you and your wife can combine your strengths to go to, say, Alaska, on a cruise for a week. You can use your planning strengths to find the best tour package and pick out the excursions, and you can use your capacity to love to make instant friends on the ship. Your wife can bring her strengths to the package by guiding you toward Alaska’s natural splendors.
Principle #6: Finding meaning
The concept: Authentically happy people leave a legacy.
Godsey: This is my passion, something I devote so much of my energies to. My charitable efforts are geared toward helping the needy, sheltering the homeless and improving literacy among at-risk kids. It’s important not only to make a difference now, but to leave a lasting endowment that will continue to help people long after I’m gone. My favorite quote is from William James — the big-time Harvard psychologist and philosopher — who said, “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” That’s the underlying spirit behind my thinking. Usually I can convince the donors that my strategy will do the most good for the longest time. When that sort of difference is made, it really brings me a great sense of happiness.
Seligman: I can’t say anything that can improve that kind of situation. Many people wake up every morning with a gnawing fear that they’re fidgeting until they die, that they’ll never establish a legacy. You are a blessed, happy person, Gus. But you’ve created many of your blessings on your own, and you’ll keep doing so in the future. That’s what authentically happy people do.
“It’s important to leave a lasting endowment that will continue to help people long after I’m gone,” says Gus Godsey, left, with psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman.
Our search for perfection
So how, exactly, did we find the most happy fella, anyway?
It was a combination of science, sleuthing and surveys. Then came a battery of tests and subjective analysis — the latter of which can be clinically described as the “Does He Have It?” criteria.
First, to find the happiest person, we had to find the best place to live. So we connected with Bert Sperling, the leading authority on the best places in America. He has crunched the data since 1985 and runs Portland, Ore.-based Sperling’s BestPlaces (www.bestplaces.net). After inputting statistics for thousands of towns nationwide that track quality-of-life issues such as public safety, affordability of homes, healthy environment, income and education, Sperling found that the city of Virginia Beach, Va., was the hands-down winner.
Next, we had to find the happiest person there. We knew it had to be a guy: Even though women have been shown to have higher emotional highs, they also have lower lows. Men maintain a more consistent blend of happiness. We scouted out dozens of men in Virginia Beach who, by all accounts, were the happiest guys in town.
We then gathered all kinds of factoids that research institutions — both academic and consumer — say lead to a high level of personal satisfaction. We compiled those factors into a survey and had our top 20 candidates mark those that related to their lives.
Our happiest guy, J.P. “Gus” Godsey, connected here perfectly: He’s a married dad who’s healthy. He has a good, dependable job as a stockbroker with Ferris, Baker, Watts Inc. and has no extraordinary financial concerns. He’s active in his community and incredibly social. He digs the Green Bay Packers, Dell computers, Coca-Cola and Craftsman tools, all of which score high in fan/consumer satisfaction surveys, according to the market research firm Harris Interactive. His nearly 2,300-square-foot house features virtually all of the items that highly satisfied homeowners have, according to the National Association of Home Builders, a Washington-based industry association: an eat-in kitchen, 9-foot ceilings, a deck and an office.
As for the “Does He Have It?” factor, the gregarious Godsey was a no-brainer choice: He comes off as 10 gallons of happiness in a 5-gallon bag, happy in that big, genuine Southern way.
But we weren’t finished yet. We had him take four tests on psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman’s Web site, authentichappiness.org. (You can take them, too; register at the site and take the Fordyce, PANAS, General Happiness and Life Satisfaction tests.) Naturally, Godsey aced them. Finally, he took Seligman’s Values in Action Signature Strengths test, which tracks the human makeup that directly correlates to happiness. His overall score ranked at the very top among the 70,000 people worldwide who have taken the test.
With that, we knew we had found our happiest guy.
Our resident medical expert’s take on happiness
By Tedd Mitchell, M.D.
In the preceding story, you met an expert on happiness. Although I certainly don’t claim to be one, I do have some observations and opinions from my life experiences and clinical background. (Have you ever met a doctor who doesn’t have an opinion on something related to medicine?) Here’s what I’ve learned about happiness:
Others can’t define it for you. Advice from parents and peers can be helpful, but it’s up to you to choose what will make you happy. Making serious choices based solely on what others think usually leads to regret. Choosing whether to enter a family business, whom to marry, what career to pick and where to live are decisions you must make for yourself. I see many patients who appear to be successful but actually are miserable. It’s your life, so make your choices accordingly.
You can’t buy it. Our popular culture bombards us with images of what many think should make us happy. Get rich! Get skinny! Get popular! Unfortunately, people who buy into this way of thinking are setting themselves up for disappointment. Some of the unhappiest patients I see have their pictures all over the society page in the paper.
It isn’t a spectator sport. I often write about developing habits for fitness, and I believe the same is true for happiness. Developing daily habits that involve enjoyable work and meaningful connections to others leads to a sense of self-worth. Happiness is a natural byproduct that’s acquired gradually; it’s not something you achieve by artificial means at the end of your life. Make every day count.
I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t for my patients — and for me. The bottom line is that no one can give you happiness; you have to find it on your own. And although that’s not always easy, it’s what makes life worth living.
Image by Katherine Lambert for USA WEEKEND