My Weekend at a Conference for the Super-Happy
Americans spend $11 billion a year in pursuit of the blissful happy-ever-after. But what do we really accomplish? To find out, Peter Andrey Smith embedded with the utopia seekers for a weekend in Miami at the first-ever World Happiness Summit.
The inaugural World Happiness Summit in Miami, Florida, convened in mid-March inside the Ice Palace Film Studios, a 1923 fortresslike building surrounded by high hedges and palm trees. Its white walls seemed to glow under the sun. Inside, there was a darkened speaker area, a bazaar with vendors, and a lot of balloons—green ones made up the trees in a massive indoor park, and white balloons hung from the ceiling to simulate cumulonimbus clouds. Giant block letters spelled out #WOHASU, the summit’s hashtag-friendly nickname. You could recline in the letter U, which sat slightly askew, and take a selfie.
The summit attracted 1,200 attendees, but one of them, a creative director told me, was the happiest of them all. I first met her as she walked toward a bank of brightlights and a video camera. As she stood in front of the lights and the camera, a live video selfie projected onto the screen. The video was being fed into a real-time facial recognition software that transformed any unsmiling faces into yellow orbs with two black zeros for eyes and a neutral, flat-line mouth. Anyone wearing a grin or a not-so-happy grimace was instantly transformed into a big green smiley face.
The live experiment was called the MIT Mood Meter, and the woman had yet to give it a try. “I haven’t done it.” Her voice squeaked. “Can I get into my subconscious thoughts, though? There’s some shit up in there.”
“Go for it,” the creative director replied.
“Really, should I do it? How do you do it?”
Her name was Ariana Gleckman, and like many attendees, she had been drawn to the summit because, as she put it, she’d “been trying figure out how to cultivate self-love and figure out her stuff.” She’d surfed the scripture and verse of TED, the technology-conference-turned-viral-idea industry, and hoped to land somewhere with “positive-ass vibes” after graduating college. Ideally that meant working somewhere like GoodThink Inc., an applied research consulting firm in Lewisville, Texas, run by Shawn Achor, a positive psychologist and one of the morning’s speakers. Achor had previously spoken at the White House and mentioned something about how a new political regime, as well as things like climate change, were the types of circumstances outside our control as individuals. But, he said, you could still control your reaction.
Ariana kept what she called a “low-key blog” on her modeling website—she called it “Confessions of an Apprehensive Optimist”—and, somehow, her impassioned plea on social media to attend this summit had reached the organizers’ attention, and they agreed to pay for her ticket. Which made her an atypical attendee and only partly explained her enthusiasm.
“It’s my spring break!” she said. “In Miami!”
The happiness summit was open to anyone, with the exception of a few invite-only events. Tickets cost $169 for students and $1,699 for VIP access to speakers in the Gratitude Lounge. (Disclosure: I received complimentary media access to the WOHASU event, along with a tote bag and several coconut waters.) Many of the business owners, scientists, coaches, and individuals in attendance came in search of some scientific respectability—or, at the very least, a veneer of it.
Javier Hernandez, 33, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the MIT Mood Meter’s developers, said emotional recognition technology and affective computing was bound to become routine in market research—for example, to gauge whether an ad intended to be funny elicited the desired response from consumers. For now, however, the meter was simply designed to bring people joy. Hernandez said he often presented at scientific seminars. The mix of Zumba and yoga at the summit was a little outside his comfort zone, and he was intrigued by the range of scientific rigor. “Many of these studies say, ‘Oh, we can measure your stress levels. We can do these things.’ They usually oversell it,” Hernandez said. “Happiness is difficult to quantify.”
The pursuit of happiness has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Americans spend an estimated $11 billion a year in search of a blissful happy-ever-after, according to Ruth Whippman, the author of America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks. In 1999, the Gallup Organization hosted the first Positive Psychology Summit. The WOHASU organizers cited a report in Forbes that described Miami as the happiest place to work, but a nagging misery hung about the travelers headed there on an overbooked plane from New York. When I told a flight attendant I was headed to a summit on happiness, she said, without hesitation, “You never would have guessed with this crowd.”
The United States could certainly be a happier place. In a 2013 poll, Gallup reported that American businesses lost around $500 billion in revenue because of unhappy employees. The United States currently ranks 14th in global happiness, behind countries like Denmark and New Zealand, according to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report. In the past decade, private businesses and governments around the world have been combating what positive psychologists call an epidemic of depression by nudging employees and citizens toward things that clinical psychiatry had once overlooked: personal strength, hope, joy, compassion, love. Tal Ben-Shahar—who spoke at the summit and whose Harvard class, Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology, is said to have broken attendance records—kicked off barnstorming tours around the world. A stable of academic experts laymanized their scholarly work for mainstream audiences on the big-ideas lecture circuit—all of them intent on convincing people that the bold, and mostly unproven, claims of positive psychology were not merely pseudoscience and wishful thinking. It seemed to be working.
The movement seemed to have reached its zenith with the World Happiness Summit, which convened more than 50 so-called thought leaders in one place. The first event was held in March, with the hope of creating, as one of its founders put it, “a Davos for happiness.” But unlike the World Economic Forum, WOHASU focused on people and “on happiness as a life choice, as a human right, and as an enabler of human development and social innovation.” Karen Guggenheim, CEO of WOHASU, said that after losing her husband of 21 years to the flu, she didn’t want to be pigeonholed, at 46, as a young widow. After working with the Miami Herald, she had gone back for an MBA at Georgetown University, and often told people she “chose happiness.” The phrase served as a kind of mission statement and a call to action. Near the entrance to the speaker area, Lululemon, one of the event’s sponsors, installed swings and a mural with large cursive letters that read, “Choose Happiness.” Everyone at the summit received a tote bag with the phrase “I Choose Happiness” in neon-pink lettering.
The program freely combined the statistical rigor of economists and psychologists with the business acumen of brand ambassadors and at least one Chief Happiness Officer, alongside those practicing a “sacred science” with a New Age or magical bent. Late on Saturday morning, a loud whoop went up from the Keynote Area, the darkened room where attendees sat in folding chairs and reclined on plush cushions under white teepee-like structures, massaging each other’s necks and stretching. The speakers on the nearby stage led a panel discussion on the “Practice of Happiness.” They talked about “the millions of people on your platform.” Of “building a movement.” Of “getting into your tribes and broadcasting happiness.”
Meanwhile, in the WOHASU Bazaar, a group sat, eyes closed, with brain-sensing Muse headbands wrapped around their temples. The device contained a compact electroencephalography (EEG) system and was designed to be a “personal meditation assistant.” Two men from Spain touted a virtual-reality platform called Psious, which offered exposure therapy by way of VR goggles and software. Nearby, Gary Cook sat behind a table and sold books. “This is not my type of event, let’s just put it that way,” he told me. “Feel like I need some Zen tea—two booths down.” The day’s bestsellers, Gary said, included Before Happiness, the Happiness Adventure, The How of Happiness, and Even Happier.
On Saturday afternoon, a woman named Lynne McTaggart climbed on the keynote stage. Described in the program as a “consciousness lecturer” and an “award-winning author of seven books,” she presented results from an “intention experiment” that had been performed on Friday afternoon. A Russian man, who she claimed was a physicist, had set up something called a gas discharge visualization machine that was allegedly capable of measuring the “energetic properties” of water. Because human emotions affect the nervous system, which change the body’s overall electrical conductivity, Lynne claimed that a room full of people in Miami—all focused on making water more alkaline, like a mountain stream—had a perceptible influence on the physical properties of the world. She put up a graph depicting what she said was a decrease in the electrical charge of the entire room housing the physicist’s bottle of water in St. Petersburg, Russia. “Your beautiful spirit radiated over to an environment thousands and thousands of miles away,” she said. “You changed the world.”
Most attendees seemed to be chasing a sort of inner change. I asked everyone I met, “Who’s the happiest person here?”
Many pointed to themselves and said, “Me.”
If nothing else, the summit seemed to substantiate the idea that that happiness begets happiness. According to self-reported data collected from attendees by Plasticity, a platform that measures workplace morale and one of the summit’s sponsors, the average daily happiness rose from 86 percent (of the self-reporting participants) on Thursday to 91 percent on Saturday. There are many activities that make people happy, subjectively, and as difficult as it is to quantify objectively, governments and companies were nonetheless finding ways to measure happiness and increase it. Individuals, too.
Outside, vendors sold bowls of poké, tempeh sandwiches, and green coconuts with long drinking straws. Vita Coca handed out complimentary coconut waters. Aisha Bin-Bishr, director general of the Smart Dubai Office—which had recently installed “happiness meters” that allow people interacting with some government services to rate their experience—had spoken about sharing best happiness practices globally. She admitted that she was unsure who was the happiest person in attendance. She then raised a piña colada–flavored popsicle and said, “But when I’m eating ice cream, I’m so happy.”
A couple hours before sundown on Saturday, as attendees gathered outside, Ariana—quite possibly the happiest girl in the crowd—held her hands up as if she were dancing to deep house music. Then she saw Shawn Achor, CEO of GoodThink Inc., walking around and ran up to him. He admitted that he was ordinarily hired to speak to audiences unfamiliar with his line of research, but he felt recharged knowing he wasn’t a lone voice. Ariana told him she loved his talks and had written a letter to attend the summit.
“I love this stuff,” she said.
“I love your passion. You’re like living proof of this research, right?”
“I think people around you would pick up from that. It’s contagious.”
Their conversation turned to coaching. It was possible, Achor said, to be an amazing coach without feeling like you were all that amazing yourself. “I’ve learned to be happy from people who were miserable,” he said. I took their photo, and Ariana posted it on Instagram: GUYS I JUST MET MY FREAKIN’ INSPIRATION/HAPPINESS GURU/ROCKSTAR/ROLE MODEL✨
I’ll admit, I was one of those people who left the summit happier than I arrived. This was almost certainly in part because it was sunnier in Miami than whatever dregs of winter were being served up back home in Brooklyn. But mostly I think it had to do with asking other people, “What are you doing here?” and genuinely wondering why. If I had set out to find the One True Thing That Will Make Everyone Happy Forever, I certainly would have left unsatisfied. There’s no surefire recipe for happiness. But what do I know is this: There are only so many factors within our control. Our government is not among them. Nor, unfortunately, are the effects of climate change. But just imagine a world where your intention mattered. Keep moving forward, the self-help gurus like to say. Keep moving forward in the face of adversity. Express gratitude.
Late on Saturday afternoon, dozens of people—their posture erect, their movement purposeful—formed a circle on the grass. Inside, attendees placed their heads down, palms pressed firmly into yoga mats. On Sunday morning, a man employed by GoogleX gave an engineer’s perspective about solving for happiness. There was dancing in a park downtown. Seventy miles north of Miami, the president of the United States of America played golf. Out on the white-sand beaches, which were all slowly washing away, the sun beat down and a Hitchcockian swarm of black insects stormed the shore. It was alarming. The first wave of insects usually arrived in May, and they came to feast on dead foliage. The infestation felt like an omen—as if to say, “The world is dying, and so are we.” But this wasn’t the end-of-the-world summit; this was the happiness summit. Everyone here decided to call them “lovebugs.”