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For One Penn Researcher, Happy Is as Happy Does

December 29, 2005 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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Karen Reivich
Oprah and Dr. Phil notwithstanding, 'tis the season to be blue. With the dead of winter officially here, the lights of the menorah fading from view and all those gift bills starting to pile up, it could just about take the happy right out of the holidays.

Couple that with the stresses of work, family and the shuffle of everyday life, and you have one whopper of a doldrums setting in about now.

But Karen Reivich knows all this - knows it, in fact, much better than the average person. She analyzes happiness for a living.

Technically, Reivich, 39, is a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychology, where she co-directs a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the prevention of depression and promotion of resilience in schoolchildren. She is also a co-principal investigator on a Department of Education grant to teach positive psychology to ninth-grade students. To top it off, she also teaches in the Master's of Applied Positive Psychology program, in its inaugural year at Penn.

Reivich, who once thought she was "destined to write jingles" for an ad agency, acquired these lofty titles by spending 20 years doing research as an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn, where she earned her Ph.D. in psychology.

The Upper Darby native - who still marvels at the idea that "I'd spend my whole life here" - became drawn into the field through an abnormal psychology class she took from Penn professor Martin Seligman, a decades-long researcher and creator of the ideology behind the Web site ReflectiveHappiness.com.

Reivich boils down a description of this subject to a basic question: "How do you have happiness in your life?" And she answers that with three distinct responses: You need positive emotions (i.e., feelings of joy), engagement with others (social ties, communal connections) and meaning in your life (causes, charities, religion, spirituality).

"We teach people to become more optimistic," she goes on to explain. "We broaden the notion of happiness; we help people understand that they can have more thoughtfulness around happiness. You're not destined to be unhappy, and it's never too late to make changes."

Contemporary society, she states, is simply brimming with overwhelming accounts of how bad the world is. The Internet, TV news, other media outlets - all contribute to anxiety, sadness and a lack of control that can be problematic, especially for children.

"When I grew up, you could turn on the TV and see ugliness in your own backyard. Now, with CNN, you can see ugliness in every backyard in every part of the world. Nobody needs to be watching that more than two minutes a day!

"You have to change the average diet - the 90 percent of ugliness, badness and danger combined with just 10 percent of goodness, beauty and happiness."

This researcher challenges common assumptions about contemporary life - that, for instance, you have to have money and material goods to be happy. She pushes that aside to stress the intellectual component of actually being happy, and the tools to tap into it: "It's working toward a life full of engagement and meaning. It's about investing energy in relationships you have in your life right now."

Reivich knows from this, as well. Co-author of The Optimistic Child (1995) and The Resilience Factor (2002), she is also the mother of four young children - 81?2-year-old twins Jacob and Aaron; son Jonathan, 6; and daughter Shayna, almost 2. Husband Guy Diamond shares her knowledge of all things deep-seated as an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn. The family resides in Narberth.

Write It Down!
The boon for this working mother is that she can bring some of the rewards of her profession home.

For example, she uses exercises to help guide her children: compiling an end-of-the-day "good stuff" journal, where the kids write down three good things that happened to them (something funny, beautiful, remarkable), and then jot a sentence or two about those blessings.

That's in addition to creating an "awe" wall - with pictures, notes, letters, school projects and other items that inspire. Reivich has one at work and another at home, and suggests that others do the same. It's a reminder that good things sit right in front of you, if you manage to pay attention and take the time to look.

Of course, to get all this accomplished, she works - full-time - "in a funky kind of way."

As she explains, "I make compromises. I have a wonderful career, but I don't travel the way others do, and I'm not going to become a tenured-track professor."

For her, that works - tackling parenthood as not just a physical but intellectual challenge: "I think about it; I engage with my kids. I see things from their perspective, their sense of awe and wonder."

She also taps into religion, and wants her children "to have a strong sense of Judaism." The family, which belongs to Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, celebrates the holidays together and often lights the Shabbat candles, and Reivich is planning for Bar Mitzvahs and a Bat Mitzvah for her kids - something she chose not to have. She stopped going to Hebrew school in her younger years to play competitive kickball, and later regretted it.

For her offspring, she wants community and ethics, and the notion of "giving back" - what she identifies with as a Jew. She wants for them fairness and feeling, self-esteem and the joy of the process, to do for the sake of enjoyment. She wants them to know "who they are at their best."

And, of course, she wants them to be happy.

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