What is Positive Psychology?

An interview with New York University Professor Daniel Lerner

Positive Psychologist and New York University Professor Daniel Lerner is set to bring his insight to Tulsa this month. Drawing from his “Science of Happiness” course at NYU, Lerner will speak at Holland Hall (5666 E. 81st St.) on January 5 at 7:30 p.m. The talk – titled “Greatness, Goodness, and Grit: How to Realize Your Potential and Succeed in Work and in Life” – is free and open to the public.

Daniel Lerner

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lerner about not only his research, but also the experiences that led him to this his theories on happiness.

Q: How would you define happiness?

Lerner: Happiness is an interesting concept. Everyone wants it. It’s this idea that things are going well and that we get to enjoy things. It’s positive emotions – it could be communicated through smiling, laughing, jumping for joy. But it can also be seen through a sense of calm, transcendence, love – there are different ways we feel good. It’s essential to our life’s well-being, but it’s also just one element. Say you have an ice cream cone or a new car, for instance, but no one to share those things with. It’s hard to be thriving in life without a greater meaning behind having those things.

Q: How would you define positive psychology?

Lerner: It’s the psychology of what makes life worth living. From the 1880s up until World War II, we would have a ton of studies on both sides – both mental illness and those who were thriving. Then in WWII, we discovered PTSD, and funding shifted to more trauma-focused psychology – you’ll see that if you look at psychology from 1960 to 2000. I’m not knocking it, by the way. We’ve gotten really good at treating depression and anxiety, but we’ve kind of lost that emphasis on positivity and well-being. Think about it like this: “Brandon, I want to get healthier.” You’d say, “Well, you’ll probably want to stop eating Twinkies and Coke.” It’s about moving beyond the zero into the positive zone.

Q: What are some ways in which people can raise their levels of positive emotion?

Lerner: There are some exercises we make part of our routine, one of which being a gratitude journal. In this journal, they’ll – over the course of 30 days – write down three things they are grateful for before they go to bed. Through this, we’re rewiring the way our brain works. Throughout this process, they’ll come to realize that it’s not actually three things but more like 30 things each day. They start taking notice of all these things, and it changes the way they look at the world. “Oh, someone held the door open for me” or “That barista at Starbucks smiled at me!”

We’ve found that exercise, too, is tremendously helpful when it comes to raising positive emotions. Part of that stems from the knowledge that this is something that’s in your hands – something that you can do yourself.

Here’s one big caveat, though: Throughout my class, about 80 percent of the assignments are these exercises, and not all of them will work for my students. For you, it might be the journal, but someone else may find that exercise is more effective. You have to find yours!

All of them are scientifically sound, though. We have something we call PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement), and it’s important to have a drop in every bucket. There are countless celebrities who have achieved so much, but are they happy people? You don’t need to be overflowing in every bucket – that’s almost impossible – but it’s this matrix of well-being that shows where they might be lacking.

Q: How do you help people identify their strengths?

Lerner: There’s a character assessment I have students take at viacharacter.org. It covers about 24 strengths, ranging from bravery, love, humility, and kindness. I have this three-word process I borrowed from a colleague: aware, explore, apply. For instance, we find that in the case of West Point Cadets, their strength is often love. At first they think “Oh, no, you have the wrong guy!” But then you start to ask them questions such as “Why do you jump on a grenade?” They’ll then say, “Because I love the soldier next to me. Oh, I guess you’re right.”

What does your strength look like for you? What is humor to you? Is it just constant pratfalls, or is it subtle jokes at work? It’s valuable, too, to look at exemplars of your strength. When you identify with them, you can see yourself and find ways to use your strength more consistently.

Q: What do you talk about in your happiness class?

Lerner: Alongside Alan Schlecter – my best friend – I talk about 27 different topics. This is our eighth year teaching together, and he’s an adolescent psychiatrist. If he wasn’t a psychiatrist, he’d be a comedian, which is all to say that we have a ton of fun. Our class is about promoting well-being, but you need to address both sides. Happiness is just one facet.

One class session is centered on positive emotions, while another’s focus is neuro-plasticity. When we discuss optimism and pessimism, we address whether there’s a place for the latter. Finally, how do you take everything we’ve taught you and apply that?

Q: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Lerner: Pretty much everything I’ve done in life has been about helping other people. I used to be an agent for aspiring classical musicians. Throughout that decade, I saw people who were happy on stage but not off-stage, as well as people who were happy both on and off. I wanted to know what was going on there, so I went back to school.

Now I get to work with these vibrant, young minds and help them lead more fulfilling lives. I get a thousand students a year at NYU, and when they leave with the tools to lead better lives, that’s just the best feeling. I’m so blessed to be given the chance to do that.


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