Cracking the secret of smiles

Alan Waterman, professor of psychology, gave the first Faculty Senate Colloquium for Faculty Research and Creative Activity to a standing room-only audience in the New Library auditorium last Wednesday.

Waterman focused his lecture, “In Pursuit of Happiness: Why What We Want Makes a Difference,” on how identity formation shapes a person’s happiness.

“The best way to pursue happiness is to pursue eudemonia through self-realization and the development of our potentials,” Waterman said.

Eudemonia, Waterman said, is the development of personal identity by expressing oneself through activity.

According to Waterman, the activities you choose “say something very specific about who you are. Eudemonism is about a philosophy of self-realization.”

Waterman, a 34-year veteran of the College, is currently the editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed psychology journal Identity: The International Journal of Theory and Research.

“My primary area of research has been looking at identity formation and how it develops goals, values and beliefs for an individual in the transition from adolescence to adulthood,” Waterman said. “Part of my program of research was to compare different aspects of happiness in history.”

The colloquium, organized by the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Intellectual Community, is a semiannual event showcasing the research or creative accomplishments of one nominated faculty member each semester.

“This is a way we can highlight our faculty and have them show us what they have been researching,” Faculty Senate member Jerry Petroff, assistant professor of special education, language and literacy, said in his introduction to the colloquium.

“It is very important to celebrate our own,” Beth Paul, interim provost and associate professor of psychology, said. “It is nothing short of spectacular.”

According to Paul, Waterman has written 45 articles, five books and 18 book chapters in his career.

Ruth Palmer, professor of education, said she attended Waterman’s lecture because of her interest in his work on identity formation.

“This was an occasion to follow up on the conceptualization of happiness and the link with his former work,” Palmer said.

“We all have our own understanding of happiness,” Waterman said. Because life is not simple enough to follow one path to reach a goal, Waterman focused on the difference between two concepts of happiness: eudemonia and hedonia.

According to Waterman, a doctoral graduate from the State University of New York at Buffalo, hedonia is equivalent to achievable pleasure, such as eating a pizza or winning the lottery, but does not bring about prolonged happiness.

“The happiness you get from pizza is not sustainable,” Waterman said. After eating a pizza every day for six months, “one has to push the envelope further, taking increased risks. A tolerance is developed.”

Waterman referenced renowned psychologist Ed Deiner’s “Hedonic Treadmill,” explaining to students and faculty that after an event that brings happiness, people typically wind up where they started.

Psychological research has found that, according to Waterman, “a year after winning the lottery, people are just as happy or unhappy as the year before they won.”

“Hedonia is not a sustainable source of happiness. The pursuit of eudemonia is naturally progressive,” Waterman said. “The pursuit of excellence puts us on the Eudemonic Staircase.”

To climb the Eudemonic Staircase to happiness, Waterman said we need to find the unique set of potentials that best suits each of us, and reaching the highest level of eudemonia may be through social activities.

Social activities, Waterman said, bring “the happiness we derive from family, friends and romantic partners.”

When asked about the possibility of one day achieving nirvana, Waterman chuckled.

“There are very predictable, satisfying consequences of the pursuit of self-realization,” he said.