The social distribution of optimism and purpose is also a vexing area for Kubzansky and Viswanath. “The question is, of course, who gets to have those?” she posits. “It turns out they are not heavily hereditary, but are pretty patterned by social factors. Both are heavily patterned by low educational attainment.
Are more highly educated people more optimistic, I asked, or less?
“Oh, totally, much more optimistic. Higher-ranked people in the army are, too. Status definitely helps. I think optimism is about being able to achieve goals. Whatever the goal may be, optimistic people have the wherewithal to do it.”
So, they’re not necessarily optimistic about the efficiency of the political system or the continued existence of the human species?
“Well,” she considered, “usually the way the question is phrased, it's something like, I generally view things from a positive perspective or I understand that when bad things happen it's not permanent or necessarily because I'm a horrible person.”
The center is named for an optimistic man named Lee Kum Sheung. (In all, it’s a mouthful of academic honorifics: the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.) But if anyone deserves his name on a happiness center, it may be Sheung. In China’s Guangdong Province in 1888, he concocted a thick batter of sugar, salt, and corn starch that would come to be known as “oyster sauce.” He launched the company Lee Kum Kee, which today distributes its sauces in at least 100 countries, the products aptly illustrating a modern tension between health and happiness.
The oyster-sauce empire remains today predicated on it founding principles of “pragmatism, integrity and constant entrepreneurship.” Lee Kum Kee also has a division which deals in Chinese herbal health products (Lee Kum Kee Health Product Group Infinitus), so this sponsorship affords a fitting branding opportunity to ally with Harvard.
But if oyster sauce is not itself the key to happiness, then researchers might do well to take its profits and turn them into a more tenable proposition. Because funding for this sort of research is not falling from the sky (like avocados). It is unlikely to lead to a profitable happiness drug or marketable medical device that induces happiness. It’s difficult to justify at the federal level, too. “If you think about tax dollars paying for research,” said Kubzansky, “I want to know that the government is looking at, say, heart disease, if my dad died of heart disease. Or Alzheimer's because I have a relative with Alzheimer's. It's very salient to say you’re going to fix these things. You have to have a longer view on things to say I'm going to learn something really important even if I'm not solving that problem today. We hope to gain insight that will help solve many problems.”