Review: “The Gospel of Happiness”

The small book The Gospel of Happiness is two big things: a landmark integration of Christian moral theology and social science, and a handy summary of positive psychology.

“Positive psychology” is a new movement in the discipline, spearheaded by former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, beginning circa 1998. Shifting the focus from human deficits like depression and anxiety, positive psych researchers seek empirical answers to questions about what makes people happier and otherwise better. It’s a social science close to self-help: practitioners design experiments to learn what fosters optimism, growth, accomplishment, well-being, and other human strengths.

Scholars have been noting the parallelism between positive psychology and Christian philosophy and theology for years; but this is, to my knowledge, the first popular book that integrates the two. For author Christopher Kaczor (a philosopher, not a psychologist, and an engaging popular writer), positive psychology and Christian virtue ethics parallel each other in the key moral way: they aim at the same good, happiness. They’re each working for the same goal and they define it in overlapping (if not identical) ways. So they can support each other, each validating each and each providing things the other lacks.

Christian ethics is, of course, concerned with humans becoming better; and “better” to the average Christian moral ethicist or Christian person bears a striking resemblance to “better” in the positive psychology sense. Kaczor begins Chapter 1 with a tentative endorsement of Martin Seligman’s definition of happiness, which Seligman uses interchangeably with “flourishing” and “well-being.” Happiness comprises five goods: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. (The handy acronym is PERMA.) For Kaczor, religious practice boosts each of these things; moreover, the achievement of each constitutes moral and spiritual growth or at least fosters it, if only by helping us avoid the opposite. Even positive emotion helps us follow the suffering Christ: “Since negative emotions are often occasions of doing wrong, our moral responsibilities include a concern for our emotional life.” When we feel bad, it’s easier to mess up; therefore we should try not to feel bad.

Moreover, according to Kaczor, positive psychology validates the Christian theological virtues: faith, hope and love.

 

Appendix: Empirically-Tested Tips on Improving Character/Becoming Happier

from The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology, by Christopher Kaczor

Note: This is merely a summary of Kaczor’s summary! I recommend consulting the book for more detailed information, including descriptions of the relevant empirical research and references to the studies themselves. 

1. Gratitude (pp. 91-114)

  • The “practice of gratitude” fosters the following things, among others:
    • More feelings of energy , alertness, enthusiasm
    • Greater ability to deal with stress
    • Feeling of closure from trauma
    • Boosted self-confidence
    • Stronger relationships
    • Better cardiac health
  • Pride is an obstacle to gratitude, so we improve gratitude by cultivating humility. We can strengthen our humility in the following ways (again, among others):
    • Acknowledging wrongdoing, assuming responsibility for failure, and apologizing to others
    • Noting and commenting on others’ strengths and accomplishments
    • Crediting others appropriately for our successes
    • Seeing success as making us responsible to do more for others
  • Techniques for improving gratitude
    • Three Blessings Exercise: At the end of every day, write down three good things that happened. Then write why they happened. Make this a regular habit. 
    • Fast periodically and appropriately, minding your physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Savor the food and drink you do enjoy during and after the fast.
    • Gratitude Letter: Think of someone who has helped you and write a detailed 250-word letter to that person. Send it if you can; or, even better, bring the letter to person and read it out loud.  
    • Gratitude Journal: Write in detail every day about the things for which one is grateful.

2. Forgiveness (pp. 115-132)

  • When you’ve been hurt, realize that the hurt may be due at least in part to how you perceive the situation. Practice the HEAL Method:
    • (H), Hope: Identify the goal and expectation that were not realized, whose frustration must be forgiven.
    • (E), Educate: Learn why things might have gone badly. Reflect on why other(s) may have wronged you and on similar injustices in history.
    • (A), Affirm: Recommit to the positive intention that inspired the hope that was frustrated. (See “H”)
    • (L), Long-Term Commitment: Resolve to continue acting on good hopes and expectations despite the present setback.
  • Alternatively, practice the REACH Method. This may be particularly helpful when forgiving a specific person:
    • (R), Recall the hurt: Identify the source of the pain.
    • (E), Empathize with the wrongdoer, by imagining what good (however misguided or corrupt) the agent who offended you sought. 
    • (A) Altruistic gift of forgiveness: Consciously decide to forgive, perhaps after meditating on others who have given you the same gift. 
    • (C), Commit to forgive: Concretize the decision by, for example, telling another as witness, writing a note, or symbolically marking the act. 
    • (H), Hold on to forgiveness despite negative emotions. Remind yourself that you’ve forgiven. 
  • Write a three-part letter to self:
    • (1) Describe your emotions (not their causes)
    • (2) Put your experience in context: remind yourself of others who have suffered in this way. 
    • (3) Write advice to yourself on handling the situation.

3.  Developing  Good Habits (e.g., Virtues) (pp. 133-145)

  • Developing awareness of your own thoughts and how others perceive you. Kaczor quotes, ‘Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.’
  • Monitor progress daily.
    • Write down the habit or virtue we are attempting to improve. 
    • As St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests, make a twice-daily appraisal of how well you are progressing in strengthening a quality or habit. Research indicates that morning and evening are effective times to do this. 
  • Attempt to improve just one habit at a time. 
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