The Fuzzy (Warm) Science of a City's Happiness

Positive psychology stakes a foothold in Cleveland, proving this really is a happy place after all

The group swells slowly as people trickle into the room. They each comment initially with a jubilant curiosity on how difficult it was to get here.

"Well, that shows you've got grit and perseverance," Louis Alloro says with a smile.

"At times we thought the whole thing was a test!" one man says. "With all the signs being hung upside-down and everything!"

He wasn't alone in his suspicions. The walk through Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, with early evening sunshine casting long shadows down mostly dim hallways, was a bit like meandering through a labyrinth. About 20 people found their way to the classroom, whereupon they exchanged names and occupations and, with flashes of excitement, the reasons why they made the journey here. As the conversation rolled onward, a question is posed: When was the last time you freaked out with joy?

Alloro is joined by Adele DiMarco-Kious, and they are leading the evening's SOMO leadership learning lab. The brand, which bounces off the notion of "SOcial-eMOtional leadership," is helping to flick on some mental light bulbs around Cleveland.

The two positive psychologists are enthusiastic and passionate about their work - their burgeoning field that is still pioneering the science of happiness. They are here tonight once again to let you in on their secret.

"A lot of what we teach in these labs is not new," Alloro says as the evening's activities begin.

Earlier in the week, a windy afternoon greets pedestrians as the sun peeks out among a dusty garden of clouds. Alloro is working over a black coffee at Ohio City's Light Bistro. Today, reasons for happiness abound.

"There are 20,000 moments in a given day," Alloro says. And at each of those junctions, he continues, a person has a choice to confront the moment as a positive opportunity or as a negative threat. Cleveland, if you take the city as the living organism that all cities are, also meets thousands of choices everyday.

With our locale in mind, Alloro leans in and describes Cleveland as "pregnant with possibility." It's a choice phrase that works wonders to encapsulate the vibe in and around town. "Cleveland is a hotbed of sustainability," Alloro says.

He showed up in town several years ago by way of New York City. He participated in the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit, which is essentially a 10-year campaign to really revitalize this town we call home. Tangentially, the plan coincides with the 50th anniversary of the well publicized Cuyahoga River fire, so there's sort of a "Look at how far we've come!" aspect, a past and future with steadfast focal points of ruin and hope. And, as Alloro explains in talking about change agency, that's a pretty fitting starting point.

So if the history of Cleveland is a rocky one - and it is - what propels real positive change and these supposed waves of optimism that people are talking about in certain corners of town? It's a worthwhile question, because it's always worthwhile to understand how one contributes to a sense of well-being. What the hell are you doing to help the city beam? Then, these change agents can really capitalize on the momentum at hand and continue the growth.

Alloro sees the SOMO brand of leadership working in several ways in a town like Cleveland. An overarching theme that he explores in both conversation and work is the idea of many individual people or organizations in the region interlocking and furthering their goals as a group. Momentum, passion, drive: These are all characteristics that Clevelanders exhibit, and if you buy into the latest batch of Cleveland's rebirth narrative, these are all characteristics meeting critical mass.

"The work SOMO sees next is aligning the many initiatives involved in change in northeastern Ohio into a super organism," Alloro says. He's digging into this notion of a shift in energy in a collection of cells or, in the case of a city, individuals. Whether via the monthly meetings like the one in Shaker Heights or a SOMO visit to an office or organization, the SOcial-eMOtional leadership style is an infectious one. "We go to where people are and give them an invitation to their own well-being," he adds. "Verve" is the word he chooses to explain the unspoken momentum that's beginning to show itself here in town.

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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