Proof Positive

By Jane Meredith Adams

Moods are tricky and often in need of an upgrade, which is why I'm about to spend 30 days test-driving a method for cultivating more happiness in my life. Allow me to confess to skepticism about whether happiness can be reliably and speedily induced. For years in therapy, I've slogged toward a little bit happy, a lot happy, and maybe someday soon, insanely happy. As far as I can tell, there's no such thing as a shortcut.

But here I go. What I'm going to test is a preliminary theory developed by Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Fredrickson, who is both serious and friendly, has spent 15 years mapping the benefits of feeling good, and figuring out how to feel this way more often.

I'm all in favor of good moods, so when I meet with Fredrickson at the local Starbucks in Ann Arbor, I'm hanging on her every word. Based on studies of college students, she believes that if people spend time every day finding positive meaning in what happens to them, they will become happier and more emotionally resilient. "Positive meaning leads to resilience, which leads to more positive meaning and positive emotions, and so on," says Fredrickson. "It's an upward spiral." And the payoff is huge: You raise test scores, improve problem solving, strengthen connections with others, and broaden your sense of possibility, according to studies by Fredrickson and others. Positive emotions even help people to see each other as individuals instead of members of a particular race. Typically, Caucasian research subjects do poorly on face-recognition tests of African-Americans or Asians, says Fredrickson. "It's 'They all look the same to me,'" she says. But in one study, Caucasians were nudged into a positive mood by watching an upbeat video, and face-recognition scores zoomed, she says.

I'm ready.

Day 1: On the plane home, I get off to a rough start by reading a memoir by a woman who was raped. Dismal feelings swamp me. I see no positive meaning here, or in lots of terrible situations—child abuse and depression, to name but two. When I call to find out what Fredrickson suggests for people who go through horrific events like rape, she notes that some trauma survivors draw strength from finding purpose in their experience. "The goal is not to get rid of trauma or difficult negative emotions," she says, "but to bring positive meaning into the mix." And what if you're suffering from depression? "We're not studying people who are depressed," she says. "This is for normal, everyday ups and downs."

Day 7: A stellar day for finding the positive spin. My computer has died and the hard drive has vanished—a major, major problem. I'm freaked until I call Steve and his son, Jessie, my ace computer repair guys. Calmly, Steve makes a plan. He'll try to retrieve data from my computer and help me buy a new one. I put my dead laptop in my bicycle basket and ride to his office. As I pedal, positive meaning comes right at me: I am lucky indeed to have such kind, smart people helping me.

Day 12: My brand-new computer is humming along. Jessie, with near-magical powers, has retrieved everything off the previous hard drive. I'm so filled with gratitude for Steve and Jessie that I'm actually baking them cookies, a personal first in the millennium. Fredrickson would approve. Doing good deeds, she says, is a reliable way to get happier.

Day 18: Positive spiral? I don't think so. It's Thanksgiving, and I wake up feeling disconnected and tense. Fredrickson says that you can jump-start positive spirals by doing things you like to do, such as yoga, or by distracting yourself. I go to a funny movie with my kids and sweetheart. I laugh. After it's over, glum city again. I could go to films for days on end and still be stuck with these holiday feelings. What I'd really like to do, I tell Fredrickson, is talk to my therapist. She says that realizing this is, in fact, finding positive meaning. "You know what it takes to get you out of that sort of funk," she says. "That can be a source of pride." Geesh, this woman never quits.

Day 30: It's the end of my test run. Despite my skepticism, I actually think Fredrickson is onto something here. In just a month, I've made a stab at training my mind to watch for moments of kindness and grace. The idea is emotional balance. Sometimes I can't achieve it, but it's always worth a try.

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