Project Happiness: How One Parent Inspired Optimism

Melissa Fay Greene’s adopted son was angry and depressed—until a science fair project they completed together turned his head around.

From Carried in Our Hearts
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine October 2013

project happiness

Courtesy of Melissa Fay Greene
Siblings Daniel, 14, Fisseha, 14, Helen, 12, and Jesse, 13, relax after their 2008 bar/bat mitzvahs.

And he bore grudges; he could nurture a small kernel of resentment for months. His bony shoulders seemed knotted with strife. He was an athletic boy, but his movements were jittery rather than lithe. From afar, you might have thought you were seeing a vexed middle-aged man in a hurry, the bony elbows pumping, the face slightly averted in preparation for bad news.

Then it was time for his first-ever science fair project in his first American middle school.

As the mother of nine, I’ve done more than my share of science projects. Not only have I wrestled home the tall three-paneled backboards and the stick-on letters, but I’ve been there beside the seedling that withered and the seedling that grew, the bread scrap that produced mold and the bread scrap that produced even more mold, the pea plant that listened to Mozart and the pea plant consigned to silence.

Our new son’s science project happened to be assigned when articles about positive psychology, the “science of happiness,” appeared in the news. For the past few decades, psychologists like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had been questioning the focus on mental illness and depression in their field. Why not study happiness, they asked, and strategize with people to increase their portion of it? I proposed the Science of Happiness to my grumpy son for his science project. OK, he shrugged. He knew nothing of Mozart and pea plants, anyway.

Together we researched and assembled the words for his paper. “There are things that people believe lead to happiness, but scientists say they do not lead to happiness,” he/we wrote. “The first is money. For poor people, money can increase happiness. For middle class and above, happiness does not increase with more money, not even from winning the lottery.”

Together we read that individuals have “set points” along a spectrum of contentment to dissatisfaction. While brilliant surprises (like winning a lottery) or tragedies (the death of a loved one, the loss of health, the amputation of limbs) reset a person’s mood for many months, in time the person drifts back to his or her set point. The good news is that with the right skills and practice, people can scroll their set points upward, higher on the happiness scale.

And together Daniel and I learned that the path to happiness is lined with friends, family, and experiences rather than with objects, even the most expensive luxuries. “If you are choosing between jewelry and a trip to the beach, start packing!” he/we wrote.

I didn’t know if my somber son had been born pessimistic or if the tragedies of his young life had shaped him. But I watched him absorb these studies with keen interest. “You can’t just decide to be happier one day and instantly become happier,” he wrote. “You have to practice. One exercise is named ‘three blessings.’ Every day, write down three things that went well, and you will feel less depressed three months later and six months later …

“In conclusion,” he wrote, “to become happier, a person should think of good things, have good friends, spend good time with his family, and be grateful for what he has.”

Next: “I want to be the person who helps other people to feel happy” »

Courtesy of Melissa Fay Greene

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