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Two Principles of Psychological Wealth, part 1

Sunday, February 28th, 2010
  • “I’d really be happy if I could just get that promotion.”
  • “I can’t wait for my vacation!”
  • “I wish I had just a little more money so I could make ends meet.”
  • “I’d be glad if I could lose 10 pounds.”
  • “I want those shoes!”
  • “I should move to California.”
  • “Thank God it’s Friday.”

When people think about what they want, it often has to do with improving their circumstances. People assume they’ll be happier if they could have a situation that includes things like the ones listed above.

I’m pretty sure Ed Diener ( “Dr. Happiness” ) has done more scientific research on happiness than anyone, and is considered by many the world’s foremost authority. Recently he wrote a book on the subject with his son, Robert Biswas-Diener ( “The Indiana Jones of Positive Psychology” ), who has also done some interesting research on happiness all over the world. If you want to be happier, it might make sense to listen to what they have to say.

The book is called Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.

Part 1 (of 4 parts), “Understanding True Wealth,” includes Chapter 2: “Two Principles of Psychological Wealth.” The excerpts below are from their discussion of the first principle.

Caveat Emptor: Bad Stuff Happens … Even to Princesses

Take a moment and recall the classic story of Cinderella. Remember how she was cruelly mistreated by her stepsisters and their wicked mother? Do you recall how they made her slave away at the daily household chores? Remember how the dress she labored so hard over was torn to shreds in a fit of jealousy, and her hopes of going to the royal ball lay in tatters? Of course, you probably best remember the happy ending of the fairy tale: Cinderella’s magical godmother arrives in the nick of time, whisks her away to the dance, and engineers a quick infatuation, with the result that the beloved protagonist marries the charming prince. But is that the end of the story, or just the beginning?

It is interesting to consider what happened to Cinderella next, after she was betrothed and took up residence in Charming Castle. For people who believe that happiness is a matter of favorable circumstances, the story of Cinderella turns out to be a slam dunk. With a Hollywood-handsome husband, a royal title, all the riches she could want, and soldiers to guard her from the paparazzi, how could our belle of the ball not be happy? But for folks who are inclined to think of happiness as a process, the matter of Cinderella’s emotional fate is far from clear. Did Cinderella’s husband treat her well, or was he a philanderer in later life? Did she find some meaningful pastime to keep her occupied on the palace grounds? Were her children spoiled brats? Did she harbor resentment about her upbringing, or try to get revenge on her stepsisters? Did she grow bored with royal balls and court intrigue, or did she organize a dance program for the poor kids in her kingdom? Happiness, as we have said, is a process, not a destination. Just as Cinderella’s life did not end with her royal wedding, your emotional bliss is not complete once you have obtained some important goal. Life goes on, and even those great circumstances you achieve will not ensure you lasting happiness. For one thing, bad things can happen even to beautiful young princesses. But even if Cinderella’s life encountered few bumps on the fairyland road, she might have grown bored with the wonderful circumstances surrounding her, and needed new aims and activities to add zest to her life.

In the end, Cinderella’s quality of life was probably dictated less by her favorable circumstances and more by how she construed them. Hardships are an inevitable part of life, and having psychological wealth does not mean there are never any risks or losses. Of course there are. Happiness is not the complete absence of tough times, because that would be unrealistic. But, as we shall see later in this chapter and later in this book, negative emotions have a place in psychological wealth, and subjective interpretation plays an important role in happiness.

-Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness, pp. 16-17
(Chapter 2: Two Principles of Psychological Wealth)

Cinderella seemed to end up with a lot of the things we want (and don’t we spend a lot of time trying to get them?): money, prestige, a good-looking romantic partner, security. She was “successful”; she had “arrived.” But research on happiness is showing that good circumstances (even those of storybook quality) don’t necessarily have a lot to do with how happy people are. Of course, goals are important, but happiness is more about the process than it is about where you end up.

The next section in the book, a kind of thought experiment, illustrates this nicely.

Needing the Rigors of the Game

We sometimes ask our students whether they would accept the following pact with a genie. After floating out of his lamp, he offers to give you everything you desire, and as soon as the wish comes into your head, without the typical three-wish limit. The smirking genie says that anything you want will instantly come to you. You can’t wish for happiness, and you can’t wish that you will need to work for things to obtain them: no trickery of this type is allowed. Just solid old-school wishing for gold, castles, travel, beauty, friends, sports talent, intelligence, musical talent, good-looking dates, fast cars, and the like is permitted. Of course, most students wave their hands wildly, signaling that of course they would accept this great offer. Undoubtedly they are thinking of school loans, good grades, summers in Paris, and body fat. But – typically – as the class discussion proceeds, doubts begin to creep in. Maybe this all-wishes-granted deal, having everything and working for nothing, would become boring. Maybe you would adapt to all your blessings and they would no longer produce happiness. The discussion proceeds a bit further, and a few students begin to think the infinite-wishes deal might be hell on earth. Things would become boring, they reason, and life would lose its zest.

Students’ qualms about receiving everything without effort express our intuitive understanding that working for things we desire can be part of the pleasure of obtaining them. Just as climbing the mountain may be the major part of the fun, and simply being boosted to the top by a genie would be much less rewarding, much in life might be more meaningful and rewarding because of the efforts needed to obtain it. Not only will the eventual reward be more exciting, but the activities needed to gain the reward can themselves be very rewarding. The former justice of the United States Supreme Court Benjamin Cardozo expressed this well: “In the end the great truth will have been learned: that the quest is greater than what is sought, the effort finer than the prize (or, rather, that the effort is the prize), the victory cheap and hollow were it not for the rigor of the game.” The renowned justice went beyond saying that the goal-seeking activities enhance the final reward; he claimed that these activities are in fact the prize itself!

-Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness, pp. 17-18
(Chapter 2: Two Principles of Psychological Wealth)

You’ve probably heard the saying “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it was also popularized by Aerosmith. If you do a Google search for “journey, not a destination” you’ll get a lot of interesting variations – other things that are “…a journey, not a destination”:

    Popular book by top happiness researcher

  • Success
  • Excellence
  • Fitness
  • Leadership
  • Sustainability
  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
  • CRM (Customer Relationship Management)
  • Windows Vista Security

But the most popular variation that comes up in the first few pages of Google is:

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

This is also the essence of the first principle of Psychological Wealth.

Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) now accepting applications

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

I received the following email today (below), and thought people interested in positive psychology might want to know about it if they don’t already. I was involved in a professional development course led by Martin Seligman before the MAPP degree began, and I found him to be an outstandingly engaging speaker with a wealth of knowledge at his fingertips. James Pawelski has a gift of a rare degree of intelligence and practical insight. Students who are able to experience what this program has to offer are fortunate.

Martin Seligman discusses positive psychology with students
Master of Applied Positive Psychology
Dear Authentic Happiness Member:

We are happy to announce that the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania is now accepting applications for the 2010-2011 academic year.

We are looking for the next class to join the more than 190 students who have enrolled
in this extraordinary program in the five years since its inception and who are now applying positive psychology in education, medicine, law, business, psychotherapy, counseling, coaching, consulting, and elsewhere.  Some of our younger students are now enrolled in Ph.D., J.D., or M.D. programs to further their training before engaging in the practice of positive psychology.

Because MAPP is offered on an executive education model, most of our students continue to work full time during the year and commute to Philadelphia – from across the United States and as far away as Mexico, the UK, Sudan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand! – for the on-site classes.  While many students have already earned other master’s degrees or even Ph.D.’s, only a Bachelor’s degree is required for admission.

If you hold at least a Bachelor’s degree (or will complete one this spring), have an excellent academic record, and are interested in learning about positive psychology and its applications from leading researchers and practitioners in the field, we invite you to find out more about our program.  If you think the program may be a good fit for you, we encourage you to submit an application before the deadline of March 1, 2010.

For more information about our program, please visit our website at

In addition to general program information, the website contains a link to a recorded Virtual Information Session that features input from administrators, professors, and students of the MAPP program.

Please feel free to pass this message along to anyone else you know who might be interested in this program.

Whatever you choose to do in this New Year, we hope it will be one of authentic happiness for you and yours.


Marty Seligman
Positive Psychology Center
University of Pennsylvania

James Pawelski
Director of Education and Senior Scholar
Positive Psychology Center
University of Pennsylvania

Penn LPS logo

Positive Psychology online course

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

I’m sometimes asked about Positive Psychology courses – either online courses, or classes in a traditional classroom setting (like at the University of Pennsylvania). Recently someone asked me about whether there were any Positive Psychology classes at Penn (home of the Positive Psychology Center and the “Master of Applied Positive Psychology” graduate degree program) that were open to the general public. I wasn’t aware of any, other than the classes for those accepted into the MAPP degree program, so I called the Positive Psychology Center at Penn to ask.

I was told that there weren’t any available at that time, but was happy to go on a mailing list (something I should start for this blog) to hear about future programs. Well, I just learned that there will be another online course in Positive Psychology this summer, led again by professor Tal Ben-Shahar, whose class on Positive Psychology at Harvard went from 8 students the first year to being the most popular course on campus two years later.

This upcoming class is open-enrollment, and has no pre-requisites. It’s completely online, so anyone in the world with an Internet connection can participate. In fact, people from over 50 countries around the world have already done so. I was part of a similar online / conference call course several years ago, and it was interesting to have participants from all over the U.S. as well as from other countries, even in my own discussion section. I wrote about that course and other programs in a previous post on “Positive Psychology courses.”

Tal Ben-Shahar’s online Positive Psychology course information:

Name: “Foundations of Positive Psychology”

Dates: June 7 – August 27, 2010 (12 weeks)

Tuition cost: $895

School: College of Liberal and Professional Studies, University of Pennsylvania

Registration: Now open

The email I received says:

Examine the history and scientific underpinnings of this intriguing field and learn how its principles have been used to enhance work and home life. This course will blend the rigor of academia and the accessibility of self-help to guide people to lead more satisfying, more meaningful, happier lives.

And goes on…

This course allows you to:

  • Progress at your own pace or follow a weekly schedule.
  • Communicate with the instructor, course facilitators, and classmates via blogs and discussion forums.
  • Join live, interactive events.
  • Create your own social networks.

Exciting features include:

  • High quality streaming video lectures.
  • Twitter-like live discussions with fellow students.
  • Flexibility in the depth and breadth of content explored.
  • Expert researchers and practitioners for instructors and course facilitation

And here are a couple of testimonials from students who’ve taken this online course in the past:

“The course has exceeded my expectations by a long shot! Tal’s lectures are well organized and I especially appreciated the routine grounding of the material in research. I have learned very much about myself and the concepts of Positive Psychology. I genuinely feel the course has changed my life. It has inspired me to enroll in the MPOD program at Case Western this fall!”

-Kevin, Assistant Dean for Planning and Institutional Effectiveness
Doha, Qatar

“It’s one thing to hear of the claims made by Positive Psychology. It’s quite another to have a world renowned expert walk you through the rich research that backs up those claims. Tal connected rigorous science with useful, daily applications of Positive Psychology.”

-Director of Professional Development at an Experiential Educational Institution
Estes Park, Colorado, USA

(Read more testimonials.)

For more information, and for course and registration details, go to U Penn’s Liberal and Professional Studies web site.

Dr. Ben-Shahar has authored several very popular books and taught one of the most popular courses in Harvard University’s history, all on the topic of positive psychology. He consults and lectures around the world to executives in multinational corporations, the general public, and at-risk populations on topics of happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership.

Dr. Ben-Shahar is a favorite speaker, and writes in a clear style that is easy to read and apply. He is the author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment.