Keyes to the Good Life
By Susan M. Carini
Just hearing the words “Dr. Pos” might conjure up Drs. Phil or Drew or any of the megawatt-smile TV “doctors” who profess to feel our pain even as they sit pleasurably atop the ratings heap. Before you reach for the remote to change the channel, know that Dr. Pos (shorthand for “Dr. Positive”) is part of Emory’s programming—a highly credentialed member of the sociology faculty who also answers to the name Corey Keyes.
Although he accepts with good humor this playful moniker, Keyes’ research on the concept of flourishing has earned him respect from fellow scholars and laypeople around the world. Through his work, Keyes has shattered persistent myths about mental health. For too long, health—physical or mental—was perceived to be the absence of disease. Not so, says Keyes. The two sides of Keyes’ coin, if you will, are these statements, both equally true in his view: Mental health is still there when you have a mental disorder and just because you are free of psychopathology doesn’t make you healthy.
For Keyes, the lie of psychology has been that “we can treat our way out of everything.” His work has demonstrated that there is so much that, as he wryly notes, “can’t be put in a pill.” On what, then, do we rely, if not our tiny xanax or a weekly conversation with a therapist or shopping or eating chocolate or the many things that people do to blunt what is making them feel unhappy? For one thing, we need to take stock—with renewed appreciation—of who cares about us, who loves us. The figures starkly prove that the mentally ill suffer for not feeling adequately cared about. Beyond the love others give us, we need to be more in touch with our own resilience, according to Keyes.
Keyes got his lesson earlier than most. When he was still in a crib, his mother left him and his sister in the house for five days while she was out on a drinking binge. When his grandmother discovered the children unsupervised, she found that Keyes had pneumonia, but he survived. There is a toughness in all of us, he asserts, that we sometimes neglect to call forward. As Keyes says, “The world that we are crafting in this country makes everyone think that they are fragile. I want to fight against that.”
Since the “frontal cortex came online” (note Keyes’ delightful lack of jargon), we have understood that the brain is wired based on two complementary systems, negative and positive. For whatever quirk in our collective makeup, says Keyes, “we have approached the negative with zeal.” And the doctors follow suit, categorizing and treating all that seems negative. With the right ratio of positive to negative, we flourish, which Keyes' research has revealed is a far more secure and higher state than “happy.” Two-thirds to three-quarters of us would answer that we feel happy. Says Keyes, “With that, you might say that the whole world is high on life, but when you look at the flourishing criteria, those numbers drop by half.”
To measure flourishing, Keyes turned to the ancient Greeks. Hedonics is a system for measuring happiness that is most often associated with the philosopher Epicurus. These days, being a hedonist probably gets you a bad rap as someone selfish. Hedonic well-being, in Keyes’ system, signals feelings of satisfaction with one’s life and positive affect, or simply being in a good mood. But the former must be paired with another type of happiness, eudaimonia. This notion of happiness, articulated by Socrates and Aristotle, entails a life lived well, one in which we feel loved and behave in a way that feels consistently good and right.
Are you flourishing? With at least one element from the hedonic chart and six from the eudaimonic, you are catching the wave.
• positive emotions
• avowed satisfaction with life
• making a contribution to society
• social integration
• social growth and potential
• acceptance of others
• social interest and coherence
• environmental mastery (control)
• positive relations with others
• personal growth
• having a purpose in life
A number of us might flunk flourishing, especially if we defined it materially, in terms of three-car garages and the like. Indeed, while on the subject of threes, Keyes is particularly concerned for the younger generation, especially the students in his classes. Of them, he says: “They are up against a wall if they buy into the concept that more and faster is always better—for instance, adding a third major.” On the other side of that race, Keyes warns, are heart disease, mental illness, and early death.
As the chart indicates, despite the rigor of his science, Keyes always has welcomed philosophy into his research and thinking. Asked if any of his peers ever have rejected the philosophy in his constructs, Keyes declares, “To the scientists who might have thought that my work was soft and gooey inside, go ahead: bite into it.” The words are deliberately devilish, but the confidence that shines through them is irrefutable.
Keyes finds himself in this issue of Women’s News and Narratives, of course, because of the strong suspicion that he would have something to say about its theme: “I feel most loved when . . .” Before leaving readers to dash nervously through the flourishing chart to see where they stand, here is a tip from Keyes on the life lived well: “Love tethers us to this world,” says Keyes. “Otherwise, we would be nomads wandering.”
Though he has not always been comfortable revealing aspects of his personal story, Keyes speaks of the “people who have given me great gifts and carried me through life, including my grandparents.” In that category as well is his wife of twenty-three years, a lawyer who knows the “best and darkest” about Keyes. She is his “soul friend,” a concept of the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue that moves Keyes to tears. The soul friend is the confessor, teacher, and friend—the person who knows us for who we are and accepts us, making us feel at home in the world.
It is no small testimony to the self-possession of this celebrated sociologist that, in the end, to convince the skeptical writer, he abandoned all talk of neurotransmitters and handed over O’Donohue’s Anam Cara, from which I read quietly for several minutes, then left with a flourish.
Susan M. Carini is the executive director of Emory Creative Group, a former chair of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, a member of Emory’s Intimate Partner Violence Working Group, and a member of the Center for Women Editorial Board and Advisory Council.