Sidney CALLAHAN, Called to Happiness: Where Faith and Psychology Meet. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2011. pp. 158. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-918-5.
Reviewed by Michael J. TKACIK, Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, Florida 33574

Despite the complex and changing nature of happiness, this work maintains that efforts to increase one’s experience of the human universal and universally recognized experience of happiness are worthwhile for such efforts render more positive inner emotional experiences as well as healthier and more peaceful social relationships. While candidly acknowledging the plurality of opinions, skepticism and resistance regarding happiness studies which mark contemporary psychology, the author provides a compelling consideration of the emerging science of happiness which accentuates the positive developments and potential possibilities inherent in this fledgling field of psychology. Additionally, the work highlights the parallels which exist between emerging psychological methodologies aimed at enhancing one’s experience of happiness and the benefits which are derived from traditional spiritual practices and disciplines.

Positive and hopeful in tone, the work expounds upon the findings of positive psychology, a psychological movement which has grown in recent decades and one marked by the conviction that to empower persons to live the most rewarding lives psychologists must balance the traditional foci of psychology (repairing weaknesses and healing pathologies) with newly emerging psychological findings yielded by neuroscientific studies of the brain (neuroplasticity), cognitive science and behavioral therapies, evolutionary theories, genetics and the psychology of emotions. Collectively, these new findings suggest that individuals can be guided, helped and supported by interventions in the process of proactively changing for the better. The book also takes a balanced approach vis-à-vis approaching happiness as both an inner emotional and conscious experience and a culturally socialized experience, i.e., an innate capacity as well as a temporally evolving one.

The pioneering work of Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky in the area of positive psychology receive significant attention and serve as an illustrative framework to articulate the emerging contributions of positive psychology to happiness studies. Features of positive psychology include its acceptance of spirituality and its recognition that spiritual and religious virtues, exercises and disciplines may help persons become happier, a conviction born out of research that reveals that ingrained habits can be altered and new habits can be introduced via the application of happiness enhancing activities aimed at intentional activities and emotions. Intentional choices, self-reflection and chosen responses can impact one’s happiness as well as one’s social environment and inherited temperament. Lyubomirsky’s “Twelve Happiness Enhancing Exercises” and “Five Hows Behind Sustainable Happiness” are proffered as programmatic guides which can influence one’s predispositions so as to produce positive emotions. These guides bespeak of the positive effects that self-regulation of thinking processes, patterns and habits (avoiding overthinking and rumination); chosen commitments and activities (nurturing social interactions and physical and absorbing activities); the cultivation of a sense of gratitude; and assignment of meaning can each and all contribute to greater experiences of happiness.

The “Twelve Step Program” of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) also receives significant attention as it is employed as a paradigm to illustrate the parallels between the findings of positive psychology and spirituality. Both AA and traditional Christian spirituality bespeak of the possibility of personal transformation (conversion and redemption) if one humbly recognizes one’s self-limitations and opens oneself to receive the gifts (grace) of a higher power (God). AA’s personal inventory finds a correlate in the Christian examinations of conscience, and both AA and Christian faith traditions attest to the potential that narratives (stories), symbols and rituals have for personal construction of values and meaning and interpretation of reality. Additionally, the accents upon equanimity within a support community (solidarity) which advocates meditation, mentoring (spiritual direction), empathy, forgiveness and altruistic activities are shared by both AA and traditional Christian faith communities and have been scientifically demonstrated to contribute to psychological wellbeing.

The text upholds Jesus as exemplifying how engaging in purposeful, nonviolent and peaceful actions, humility, empathy, and loving relationships lend to greater happiness—dispositions and actions which also find correlating support in the emerging findings of happiness studies. Although highlighting the parallels between positive psychology and Christian spirituality, the text also conveys an ecumenical openness via its consideration of some of the psychological benefits afforded by Buddhist meditative practices and disciplines, as well as via its affirmation of the universal salvific will of God Who invites all human beings into relationship with the divine and Who has endowed all human beings with the innate capacity to discern what is true, good and loving via one’s conscience. An affirmation of and appreciation for other religions and all people of good will is further attested by the suggestion that Holy Spirit is operative within and among all persons, and in light of Jesus’ mandate given to all of His would-be followers to go forth to all. Such religious humility and inclusivity, in turn, contributes to one’s ability to transcend oneself, thus opening oneself to new relationships and new insights which may enhance one’s happiness.

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