Shortly after I began writing this book I was having dinner with my friend James, who asked me what had inspired this project. I told him that I was writing this book to myself— the young adult version of myself—to share the information I wish I had known in my late teens and early twenties. My transition to adulthood, I confessed, had been marked by anxiety, loneliness, and yearning. James was quick to empathize. His early adult years had been emotionally turbulent too. We’d both wrestled with heavy feelings of unhappiness, surrounded by friends who seemingly didn’t. It wasn’t until I’d hit my mid-twenties that I started to gain some insight into the nature of these experiences and feelings—and then only because I’d set out on a career in psychology. Through my studies I eventually learned that these struggles and emotions are common in young adulthood—I hadn’t been alone. And there were strategies available that could break open hope, optimism, and meaning in my life. I just hadn’t had access to them. Neither had James.
Allow me to set the stage. I come from a large Italian family. Well, that’s redundant. I come from an Italian family. I am one of seventy-five cousins just on my dad’s side. With so many relatives, we gather just about every week to celebrate someone’s birthday, graduation, or wedding. I have seen most of that extended family regularly throughout my life. We have a lot in common in the way of culture and traditions. But beyond our Mediterranean facial features and love for spedini and cannoli, there is a large variability in personalities and emotional states—something I noticed even as a little kid. Some of my relatives are as kind, funny, and friendly as can be, like my Grandma Rosie, whose name matches her cheery disposition. She couldn’t make it to the mailbox without greeting everyone she saw on the street with a smile and a wish for a beautiful day. Others (who shall remain nameless out of fear of Mafia retaliation) are as sad, downhearted, and bitter as you can imagine, including a few who spent their entire lives clinging to decades-old grudges, ultimately estranging themselves from the family altogether. “Oh, woe is me” was their constant refrain.
Though I had a mostly happy childhood, I seemed to fluctuate between the cheery dispositions of some family members and the melancholy of others. As I made my way into my late teens and early twenties, I found the ratio shifting, my emotions becoming dominated by despair. If I had an exam coming up, I would worry nonstop. If someone angered me, I could not let it go. If I didn’t have plans on a Friday night, I would wallow in self-pity. When I considered how emotions like mine affected some of my family members— the “Woe is me” types— I became resolved to halt the sweeping negativity that was invading my thinking and decision making. I didn’t want to live my entire life like that. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, could be done, but I at least had to find out if there was something that might turn things around.
From my undergraduate psychology coursework, I understood that emotion and behavior are partly determined by genetics. Considering how glum some of my relatives were, I recognized that some of my unhappiness may have been built into my DNA. However, my courses also taught me that genes do not determine our destiny. Our intentional behaviors and daily habits—the parts of our life that we choose and control—can interact with those genes to suppress or enhance their natural expression. This gave me hope. Perhaps I could find a way to quiet my gloomy thoughts and increase my happiness, even with the limitations I inherited genetically. This became my Holy Grail during my twenties.
My personal quest aligned perfectly with my professional aspirations. I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a doctoral program in psychology at the time, which provided access to a wealth of science and the scholars in the field who could guide my inquiry. I started work toward my PhD when positive psychology, a field dedicated to the understanding and enhancement of positive emotions, was still new. In addition to satisfying the requirements for my degree, I used graduate school as a veritable sandbox. I dug my hands into as much research as I could find on the nature of human emotion and what scientists had discovered about ways to maximize positivity and psychological health in young adulthood. I gathered information with my younger self in mind, always asking questions, always pushing to identify those points of choice—where our intentions can override our genetics or circumstances.
My research provided a framework both for my own personal exploration and for the courses I began teaching shortly thereafter at Washington University in St. Louis. To answer my friend James’s question, that research is ultimately what motivates this book.
In 2008 I began teaching a course called The Psychology of Young Adulthood, which has enrolled between one hundred and two hundred incoming freshmen each fall ever since. As part of the course, the students complete weekly surveys in which they report what it was like to be a college freshman that week. They answer questions about their overall happiness and stress levels and tell me about the best and worst things that happen. They report how much time they spend in the library, how often they exercise, how often they get sick, and whether they feel socially connected. About eighty questions altogether gauge every aspect of how they are thinking, feeling, and behaving during each week of their transition to adulthood.
The sheer volume of data I have collected over the years has allowed me to see which variables are most closely related. Not surprisingly, more studying means better grades, and better sleep means more happiness. But not all the findings have been so intuitive. The first year I taught this class I gave special attention to how much time students spent on social media. Facebook had been on the scene for only a few years at that point, and I wanted to see how it was impacting their lives. By 2008 nearly all of the students had an account, and they were using it to organize social events, share funny videos, and peer into the lives of all the “friends” they had amassed, even those they had never actually met. One of my students called it a “miracle website” for letting him stay connected with friends from high school who had scattered all across the United States for college. The amount of time they spent maintaining their social media presence must offer a payout, I thought. With this much social connection at their fingertips, and given how much time many of them were spending on it, I assumed Mark Zuckerberg had blessed young adults everywhere with the gift of happiness.
That was, until I looked at their data.
The more time students reported spending on Facebook, the worse off they were in nearly every other aspect of their lives. Their efforts crafting perfectly manicured lives for the world to see were not only unproductive, they were actually counterproductive for their happiness More time on social media was associated with lower self- esteem, less optimism about the week ahead, less sleep, more homesickness, and less motivation. The single strongest correlate was the most ironic of all: less connectedness to others. That’s right, the more time they spent on the “miracle website” allowing them to read daily updates and live vicariously through pictures of friends and family around the world, the less socially connected they felt to actual people.
Instagram only made the problem worse. The Washington Post recently published the story of a teenager who carefully monitors not only which pictures she posts for her hundreds of followers to admire but also how many likes each photo gets.1 Those photos without at least a hundred likes she deletes altogether. She has even established a system of earning likes from others by making comments on their pictures. That’s assuming they stay on her good side. As the ultimate form of revenge, she might un‑like another’s photo to show her disdain. What started as a means of connection has evolved into a machine for competition. Social media has become a social charade.
So if accumulating likes isn’t the answer to finding sustainable happiness, where else is a young adult to turn? Reading the weekly survey responses from my Psychology of Young Adulthood course over the years has taught me a lot about the ups and downs young adults encounter as they navigate relationships, establish their independence and sense of self, and attempt to craft lives of meaning and purpose. I used what I learned from those weekly surveys to inform the topics I selected for my Positive Psychology course, which I began teaching a few years later. Since social media wasn’t the solution, I wanted to offer students an opportunity to see what science had discovered about the strategies and behaviors that actually could bring about the happiness they were seeking.
I initially designed the Positive Psychology course to be a fifteen-person seminar. The student response has since been overwhelming. It has become the largest course in the Psychology Department each semester it is offered. The largest classroom I can use on campus allows seating for three hundred, which still doesn’t meet the demand. A few years ago, an administrator from the IT department e‑mailed me about an observation he’d made while perusing waiting-list numbers for courses throughout the university:
I was looking at waitlist counts and saw yours. Positive Psychology is the #1 waitlist class by a pretty hefty margin. The irony is pretty funny (at least from a distance).
He attached a screenshot of my course’s listing showing a waiting list in the triple digits. Similar trends occur with college classes on happiness nationwide. At UC Berkeley the waiting list for the course often grows to twice the number of seats available. At Harvard the course had to be relocated from a standard classroom to a campus theater to accommodate the eight hundred students looking to understand the psychology of well-being. And of those who enroll (at least at my own institution), few are looking just to fulfill degree requirements. Engineering, art history, architecture, finance, and English literature majors are just as common as students studying psychology. The demand for a class on happiness, though “ironic” from the perspective of Jason, my IT administrator, reflects what research on college students around the world, including findings from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, points to: young adults are yearning for well- being, and they want evidence-based solutions that they can realistically incorporate into their lives. The thousands of students who have passed through my lecture hall over the last decade have been interested in the same thing I spent my twenties grappling with: the pursuit of happiness.
What you will read in the pages that follow is what I wish I had known in my early adult years—and what I am very glad I have been able to incorporate into my life since then. I have been honored to share the science of positive psychology with young adults I have taught and advised over the years. This book shows how they have translated this information into practical strategies in their own lives. I hope it can help you do the same