Positive Psychology is the study of positive emotion, of engagement, and of meaning. Each of these turns out to be measurable with adequate precision and buildable. The central thesis of this article is that there is ample reason to select crews for long exploration for these three states and to monitor and support these three states during the mission.
What is happiness? What does it do? And how is it relevant to the ability of a crew to handle an arduous space mission?
The first measurable aspect to happiness (an unwieldy scientific notion) is hedonic, positive emotion. When people refer in casual conversation to being happy, they are often referring to this. Within limits, we can select for and increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g., by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g., by savoring and mindfulness), and our positive emotion about the future (e.g., by building hope and optimism).
The second measurable aspect of happiness is “gratification” or “flow.” The key characteristic of a gratification is that it engages us fully. It absorbs us. Individuals may find gratification in participating in a great conversation, fixing a bike, reading a good book, teaching a child, playing the guitar, or accomplishing a difficult task at work. We can take shortcuts to pleasures (e.g., eating ice cream, masturbating, having a massage, or using drugs), but no shortcuts exist to gratification. The pursuit of gratifications requires us to draw on our highest character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humor, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence. Each of these character strengths is measurable and buildable.
Although gratifications are activities that may be enjoyable, they are not necessarily accompanied by positive emotion. We may say afterwards that the concert was “fun,” but what we mean is that during it, we were one with music, undistracted by thought or emotion. Indeed, the pursuit of a gratification may be, at times, unpleasant. Consider, for example, the gratification that comes from training for an endurance event such as a marathon. At any given point during the grueling event, a runner may be discouraged or exhausted or even in physical pain, yet she may describe the overall experience as intensely gratifying.
Finding flow in gratifications need not involve anything larger than the self, but the third aspect of happiness comes from using these strengths to belong to and in the service of something larger than ourselves—something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice, or a higher spiritual power—or a successful mission. The third route gives work meaning.
There is ample reason to believe that individuals (and likely) teams that score well on positive emotion, on engagement, and on meaning function much better than those who score poorly: they fight depression better, they accomplish more at work and on the playing field, they are physically healthier and longer lived, and they are better liked.
Crew members can easily be selected for each of these three forms of happiness. Each of these states can be monitored during a space mission, either unobtrusively by content analysis, or directly by validated on line questionnaires. Most importantly, each of these states is buildable and there are validated, brief exercises to increase them both momentarily and in the long run.
In summary, I suggest that we complement (not replace) our usual tool kit of measuring and undoing negative states and traits, with a new toolkit: the measurement and building the positive states and traits in our space crews. It seems likely that selecting and monitoring crew for these will produce more harmonious work and will buffer against the emergencies certain to occur in ambitious space exploration.
Space shuttle (NASA), Extravehicular activity space suit being tested (NASA). Note: Dr. Seligman prepared this paper for ESTEC. Workshop: Tools for Psychological Support during Exploration Missions to Mars and Moon, March 10, 2007.