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The Science of Happiness

Scientists and experts share five ways to lead a better life.

Photo Credit: William Perugini /


With a wild grin and orange cowboy hat, flanked by women friends (her de facto bodyguards) in Johnny Cash-black and dark shades, the rail-thin blonde with the contagious laugh rolled up to the microphone and launched into her one-woman show  Die Laughing With Cathy Speck.

“Was it Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn who faked his death so he could go to his own funeral?” Speck began her performance. “Right now, I feel like I’m at my own funeral! So here we go!”

Over the next hours Speck—known by some in her hometown of Davis as the “queen of happiness”—sang, laughed, joked, blew bubbles and told stories about life, death and love so as to raise money last summer for her cause. Diagnosed in 2009 with a familial form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly called ALS, Speck has dedicated her life to raising awareness and funds for the fatal malady (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

It wasn’t the first time this woman had taken center stage as a local advocate for carpe diem. Since her diagnosis, Speck has hosted annual Specktacular Skydiving for ALS fundraisers (yes, she’s jumped); led boisterous teams of supporters on annual Sacramento ALS walks; and told her story to anybody who will listen, including multiple college and junior-high classes in the region. Last month, when doctors told Speck they had found a new medical issue with her lower intestines—a rare cancer had taken up lodging there—her response was classic.

“This [the cancer] is just a wake-up call for me to get back on top of my game,” said Speck. “To be with the sweetness of the moment, to be happy to the core and extend that out.”

Given the unfathomable challenges of her primary disease, the additional arrival of cancer, the suffering she and her family have been through (Speck has already lost her mother and two brothers to ALS), and the anguish that must accompany any terminal diagnosis, two questions come to mind:

1. Why is this woman so happy?

2. If Speck can exemplify happiness despite the severity of her circumstance, why can’t we all?

Seven years ago, SN&R published a story “The big happy” (SN&R Feature Story; August 9, 2007) that examined the relatively new field of positive psychology. Instead of obsessing on human failings and flaws as psychologists had previously done (think Freud), a new group of professionals suggested a shift in emphasis to what makes humans strong, gritty, resilient … happy. Thanks to pioneers like Martin Seligman, the renowned psychologist who wrote Authentic Happiness in 2002, an industry was born with its best-selling books, national summits and contentment gurus.

Well, developments in the field have only accelerated since then. In fact, science has discovered that we humans can actually be taught many (sometimes unexpected) things about happiness.

And who better than Speck to serve as teacher?

'Because I'm happy'

Search “Pharrell Williams” and “Happy” on YouTube, and before you can say “room without a roof,” millions of results pop up, including variations from Russia, France, Iran, Vietnam—you name it. Each features groups of people, singing along with, and getting their happy-feet boogie on, to the Grammy Award winner’s mega pop anthem. The “Happy” flash mobs (don’t miss the one from Azerbaijan) will particularly wash you in hope for humanity. “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you. … Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do.”

Turns out, this outpouring of feel-good euphoria may hold a lesson for us all. Yes, we can actually benefit from accepting Williams’ invitation to embrace the notion that “happiness is the truth.”

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