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The lowdown on upbeat

A university is so serious about what lights us up that it's starting a doctoral program on the mechanism of merriment.

March 15, 2007|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Giving new meaning to the nickname Dr. Feelgood, Claremont Graduate University is establishing what it says is 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 PhD 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 have long channeled 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 ("Mike" to his friends). He is one of the pioneers in positive psychology and a leader of the doctoral program.

Csikszentmihalyi, whose 18 books include the 1990 bestseller "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," calls the study of human pathologies essential but adds that "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.

One emphasis in the program will be the "experience sampling method" techniques developed by Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced CHICK-sent-me-high-ee).

Such studies can involve tracking hundreds of people over a week and paging them at random times to ask how they are feeling. Are they happy? Creative? Energetic?

Researchers then correlate those feelings with what the people are doing, the settings they are in and who they are with, among other things.

Robert A. Emmons, a UC Davis psychology professor who launched the Journal of Positive Psychology last year, said the Claremont program would fill a gap in academia and build credibility for a research field that began taking shape in the 1990s.

"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.

And for the positive psychologists, that's a happy thought.

stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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