Friday, March 24, 2006

Culture, Adaptation, and Happiness: Adventures in Positive Psychology

How and where do we find authentic happiness? Are the tools for finding happiness really universal? Or at least “transportable across cultures?”

Happiness, Seligman explains, is found on the three roads of pleasure, flow, and meaning. On our journey through life, we find respectively, routes to sensory gratifications, engagement of character strengths, and encounters with the transcendent.

While Seligman and other positive psychologists illuminate significant general processes that lead to wider, deeper, and longer experiences of human happiness on those paths, I find myself wondering about the cultural differences in the contents of those processes.

From my new perspective south of the equator, it seems evident to me that our families and cultures collaborate to direct our inherent nature towards particular targets. Certain preferences are purely personal, of course, while others are cultural markers. For example, we know in simple culinary pleasures, culture plays a powerful role. Not many of us would knowingly eat a bull penis (a Chinese aphrodisiac) or a caterpillar (a Congo protein staple), while Hindus and vegetarians eschew the U.S. signature dish, the Big Mac. The tendency to “lose oneself” in certain activities--such as operas or bullfights, as well as the propensity to find meaning in others--be it ancestor worship or astrophysics, surely has cultural roots.

What happens when individuals “expose” themselves to new cultures? How can we use Positive Psychology to enhance the positive experiences and minimize the negative? Understanding how to promote happy encounters with “the Other” might go a long way toward promoting acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism on a national or international basis.

Meanwhile, for me, studying Positive Psychology via the Authentic Happiness Coaching program has furthered my very personal quest as an immigrant to Argentina.

This six-month joint exploration of happiness gave me (a California native and recent quarter-century survivor of New England and upstate New York), a most welcome and perhaps necessary opportunity to contemplate the generality or transportability of character strengths in finding pleasure, engagement, and meaning in a distinctly different culture.

While there are practical, narrower questions of relevance to other travelers and emigrants who hope to find happiness on distant shores, the larger issues of culture and happiness loom are no less intriguing. Here is what I hope to answer in my future work:

For the traveler: Does it make sense to pack a Positive Psychology toolkit in your carry-on bag for our next visit to a foreign land? What would it contain? How would it work? Are there particular strengths or exercises that would prove valuable?

For the immmigrant: How relevant are insights from Positive Psychology in facilitating and understanding the process of a successful, happy adaptation? How can Positive Psychology coaching assist in such a major transition? How can an individual's personal strengths be leveraged to promote success and joy after such a major move?

In general: Finally, How does the experience of the tourist or traveler illuminate the more general processes of finding pleasure, engagement, and meaning in a particular culture? In other words, what might we take back home with us? What might we share with others? How might this lead to greater tolerance in a multicultural community?

--to be continued---

Note: This is part of an essay written at the conclusion of the very last Authentic Happiness Coaching training offered by Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, former President of the American Psychological Association, and distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, I undertook formal training as a coach and am incorporating Positive Psychology into my work with general clients as well as expatriates, graduate students, persons in career transitions, and others seeking more happines. . .wherever their road may lead them!