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

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"Happiness" may be a more specific term, but it's still a far cry from being completely understood by way of actual words or language. It's a generally hazy neurological process to nail down. Happiness is a loosely defined spark that swerves around the frontal lobe and, by the very topography of the brain, urges one to look forward, to move ahead, to lunge at opportunity.

Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, began pioneering analyses of the concept of happiness. The paradigm shift he ushered in began in the late 1960s with experiments that countered classic concepts like "learned helplessness."

If helplessness can be forced and learned, couldn't a sense of optimism and well-being be equally dispersed?

On the ground here in Cleveland, Jack Ricchiuto is another positive psychologist who joined the movement in its infancy. He says that the shift from the Cleveland of old to today's groundswell of optimism is pretty clear: There's something altogether different these days. Cleveland may not be alone in this, but its budding sense of happiness and local culture does represent a shift from our more industrialized roots.

("The thing about change is that it's happening all the time," Alloro says.)

Tailored to the work environment - or even just to the routine of daily life - this sort of paradigm shift is easily illustrated: In the past, the American Dream mentality was that hard work and success would sire happiness. Nowadays, certain people like positive psychologists are declaring and proving that a happy lifestyle will beget further motivation and, however you'd define it, success. A thorough reversal of the tides.

So it's important for cities like Cleveland to keep that change in mind. "If you don't shift the metrics, you can't move the mountain," Ricchiuto says. Indeed - and he adds that the change in the air these days is coming from the people, rather than civic leaders who are tied to budget proposals and the like.

"The most exciting thing for me is that when people are happy, they take responsibility for their own well-being. They don't outsource it to leadership," Ricchiuto says. "As soon as you reclaim your authorship as a community, you start doing things about it and you're intrinsically interested in well-being."

He posits: "All this happiness - is there a master plan?...No? Well, that's why it's happening."

Last month, a group of disparate Clevelanders gathered at a specified location on West 25th Street in the middle of the day and, rather uncharacteristically, broke into dance.

Thrive Cleveland, the organization behind the mid-workday party, is hoping to expand with similar offerings. Chris-Anna Sterling, who works on the creative team of Thrive, explains that the idea is to provide unique, rich experiences.

"We try to hit as many senses as we can," she says of the group's event planning. The core tenet of Thrive is buoyed by positive psychology's paradigm shift. How can Clevelanders of all stripes become happier and - again, as a result - more successful? "There's now this idea of looking at healthy people and making them happier and healthier," she says.

A year into its existence, Thrive is promoting the discussion of happiness as a local ideal and planning get-togethers for everyone who might want to try something different. Come as you are, the group urges, and give a look-see at what's happening in other corners of Cleveland.

"It's just a fun, totally unexpected and wacky thing to do during the day," Sterling says. Clearly, not everyone's going to be able to cut a rug across town during the lunch hour, but the opportunity is there. And people are not only starting to take notice, but also beginning to join in en masse.

Ricchiuto, who also serves on the organization's creative team, elaborates on the group's charm: "It's the 'wow' factor."

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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