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The Fuzzy (Warm) Science of a City's Happiness

Positive psychology stakes a foothold in Cleveland, proving this really is a happy place after all

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The group swells slowly as people trickle into the room. They each comment initially with a jubilant curiosity on how difficult it was to get here.

"Well, that shows you've got grit and perseverance," Louis Alloro says with a smile.

"At times we thought the whole thing was a test!" one man says. "With all the signs being hung upside-down and everything!"

He wasn't alone in his suspicions. The walk through Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, with early evening sunshine casting long shadows down mostly dim hallways, was a bit like meandering through a labyrinth. About 20 people found their way to the classroom, whereupon they exchanged names and occupations and, with flashes of excitement, the reasons why they made the journey here. As the conversation rolled onward, a question is posed: When was the last time you freaked out with joy?

Alloro is joined by Adele DiMarco-Kious, and they are leading the evening's SOMO leadership learning lab. The brand, which bounces off the notion of "SOcial-eMOtional leadership," is helping to flick on some mental light bulbs around Cleveland.

The two positive psychologists are enthusiastic and passionate about their work - their burgeoning field that is still pioneering the science of happiness. They are here tonight once again to let you in on their secret.

"A lot of what we teach in these labs is not new," Alloro says as the evening's activities begin.

Earlier in the week, a windy afternoon greets pedestrians as the sun peeks out among a dusty garden of clouds. Alloro is working over a black coffee at Ohio City's Light Bistro. Today, reasons for happiness abound.

"There are 20,000 moments in a given day," Alloro says. And at each of those junctions, he continues, a person has a choice to confront the moment as a positive opportunity or as a negative threat. Cleveland, if you take the city as the living organism that all cities are, also meets thousands of choices everyday.

With our locale in mind, Alloro leans in and describes Cleveland as "pregnant with possibility." It's a choice phrase that works wonders to encapsulate the vibe in and around town. "Cleveland is a hotbed of sustainability," Alloro says.

He showed up in town several years ago by way of New York City. He participated in the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit, which is essentially a 10-year campaign to really revitalize this town we call home. Tangentially, the plan coincides with the 50th anniversary of the well publicized Cuyahoga River fire, so there's sort of a "Look at how far we've come!" aspect, a past and future with steadfast focal points of ruin and hope. And, as Alloro explains in talking about change agency, that's a pretty fitting starting point.

So if the history of Cleveland is a rocky one - and it is - what propels real positive change and these supposed waves of optimism that people are talking about in certain corners of town? It's a worthwhile question, because it's always worthwhile to understand how one contributes to a sense of well-being. What the hell are you doing to help the city beam? Then, these change agents can really capitalize on the momentum at hand and continue the growth.

Alloro sees the SOMO brand of leadership working in several ways in a town like Cleveland. An overarching theme that he explores in both conversation and work is the idea of many individual people or organizations in the region interlocking and furthering their goals as a group. Momentum, passion, drive: These are all characteristics that Clevelanders exhibit, and if you buy into the latest batch of Cleveland's rebirth narrative, these are all characteristics meeting critical mass.

"The work SOMO sees next is aligning the many initiatives involved in change in northeastern Ohio into a super organism," Alloro says. He's digging into this notion of a shift in energy in a collection of cells or, in the case of a city, individuals. Whether via the monthly meetings like the one in Shaker Heights or a SOMO visit to an office or organization, the SOcial-eMOtional leadership style is an infectious one. "We go to where people are and give them an invitation to their own well-being," he adds. "Verve" is the word he chooses to explain the unspoken momentum that's beginning to show itself here in town.

"Happiness" may be a more specific term, but it's still a far cry from being completely understood by way of actual words or language. It's a generally hazy neurological process to nail down. Happiness is a loosely defined spark that swerves around the frontal lobe and, by the very topography of the brain, urges one to look forward, to move ahead, to lunge at opportunity.

Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, began pioneering analyses of the concept of happiness. The paradigm shift he ushered in began in the late 1960s with experiments that countered classic concepts like "learned helplessness."

If helplessness can be forced and learned, couldn't a sense of optimism and well-being be equally dispersed?

On the ground here in Cleveland, Jack Ricchiuto is another positive psychologist who joined the movement in its infancy. He says that the shift from the Cleveland of old to today's groundswell of optimism is pretty clear: There's something altogether different these days. Cleveland may not be alone in this, but its budding sense of happiness and local culture does represent a shift from our more industrialized roots.

("The thing about change is that it's happening all the time," Alloro says.)

Tailored to the work environment - or even just to the routine of daily life - this sort of paradigm shift is easily illustrated: In the past, the American Dream mentality was that hard work and success would sire happiness. Nowadays, certain people like positive psychologists are declaring and proving that a happy lifestyle will beget further motivation and, however you'd define it, success. A thorough reversal of the tides.

So it's important for cities like Cleveland to keep that change in mind. "If you don't shift the metrics, you can't move the mountain," Ricchiuto says. Indeed - and he adds that the change in the air these days is coming from the people, rather than civic leaders who are tied to budget proposals and the like.

"The most exciting thing for me is that when people are happy, they take responsibility for their own well-being. They don't outsource it to leadership," Ricchiuto says. "As soon as you reclaim your authorship as a community, you start doing things about it and you're intrinsically interested in well-being."

He posits: "All this happiness - is there a master plan?...No? Well, that's why it's happening."

Last month, a group of disparate Clevelanders gathered at a specified location on West 25th Street in the middle of the day and, rather uncharacteristically, broke into dance.

Thrive Cleveland, the organization behind the mid-workday party, is hoping to expand with similar offerings. Chris-Anna Sterling, who works on the creative team of Thrive, explains that the idea is to provide unique, rich experiences.

"We try to hit as many senses as we can," she says of the group's event planning. The core tenet of Thrive is buoyed by positive psychology's paradigm shift. How can Clevelanders of all stripes become happier and - again, as a result - more successful? "There's now this idea of looking at healthy people and making them happier and healthier," she says.

A year into its existence, Thrive is promoting the discussion of happiness as a local ideal and planning get-togethers for everyone who might want to try something different. Come as you are, the group urges, and give a look-see at what's happening in other corners of Cleveland.

"It's just a fun, totally unexpected and wacky thing to do during the day," Sterling says. Clearly, not everyone's going to be able to cut a rug across town during the lunch hour, but the opportunity is there. And people are not only starting to take notice, but also beginning to join in en masse.

Ricchiuto, who also serves on the organization's creative team, elaborates on the group's charm: "It's the 'wow' factor."

Coming up - during National Happiness Week, no less - Thrive will host a dance party March 22 in Woodmere (check thrivecleveland.com). It's the natural contrast setting-wise to the recent Ohio City excursion. At least one point, Sterling emphasizes, is to get people to cross this superficial divide that's built up like plaque in Cleveland for decades.

"This is how it spreads through Cleveland," Sterling says. Momentum, passion, drive: The whole notion of observing the "happiness" of a city or a region can be filtered through simple lenses.

"How does a viral sweep of well-being take place?" Alloro asks.

He explains that much of the science and psychology behind happiness has to do with taking a critical approach to how one moves through life.  In the case of Cleveland, that could be described as how city stakeholders stepped back and - individually and collectively - tried to rewrite the direction of the region. His initial foray into Cleveland - the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit - is one of many examples.

By and large, it's a phenomenon happening outside political arenas. Whatever Cleveland "renaissance" people want to discuss is being crafted on the backs of dedicated volunteers, independent spirits and locally oriented creative niches.

SOMO's work locally tries to push that thinking outward and into the communities that comprise our region. Take a different route to work. Simple things like that will work to cause a person to look at the world differently. Leave the SOMO pods thinking, "I want to bring this to my network," as Alloro illuminates.

"We're human beings, not human doings," Alloro says. Reinvent systems intentionally.

In psychological terms, the variability of happiness is often broken down as 50 percent genetic, 10 percent environmental and 40 percent influenced through intentional activity. That last element is a pretty significant portion of our overall well-being.

So, again: "How does a viral sweep of well-being take place?" Alloro asks.

It's all on you. And her. And him. And all of us.

Positively Cleveland, housed as a window-lined landmark on Euclid Boulevard in the heart of downtown, is the region's convention and visitors bureau. Lexi Hotchkiss, communications director of the organization, explains that there's a notable fervor growing throughout town. She works with a lot of incoming, never-been-to-Cleveland-before visitors, all of whom are beginning to display a sense of fascination with our lake front majesty.

"These folks don't come in with a negative perception; they come in with no perception at all. They don't know what to expect," Hotchkiss says, countering concerns that the rest of the country views Cleveland as little more than the butt of a joke.

With a healthy and budding tourism sector (In 2009, 13 million visitors came to Cleveland for either leisure or business. The annual figure leapt to nearly 15 million in 2011.), Positively Cleveland is increasingly turning its sights toward Cleveland residents. The noted visitors bureau, you see, is really starting to work with people who are already here and who are expressing a growing interest in getting to previously unvisited parts of town.

Accomplished via outreach programming, the organization's blooming goal is starting to be seen across the region. The #happyinCLE Twitter hashtag, a sort of rah-rah batch of internal public relations surrounding good news of any sort happening within Northeast Ohio, garnered nearly 4,000 uses last year.

"It's such a different mentality than it ever was," Hotchkiss says. "There such an overwhelming civic pride lately."

So what is Cleveland's home-spun version of happiness? ...Is it different from other cities?

Well, yes and no.

Cleveland's certainly unique; no one would argue that. But it falls in line with this revivalist mentality that's really taking hold in the Great Lakes region. The unsung heroes of our town have been writing about "rust belt chic" for years. It's nothing new, but the world at large is beginning to pay attention, zoom in and discover the sheer authenticity of places like Cleveland.

That, in turn, is a recipe for happiness among residents and visitors alike. There's an inherent cultural desire to be here.

The external world - the vast expanse out there - might not always glom onto the hope on the ground in Cleveland. Forbes magazine, for example, slapped Cleveland with a spot on the list of the 20 most miserable cities in the country. We in town collectively shrugged, let out a quick insult in some cases and moved on with our lives. For Forbes' part, the magazine lists Cleveland's mass population exodus as the lone criterion for this notion of miserable living. It's a notion, of course, that gets spread around the national discourse all too easily.

When Scene reached out to readers via social media to ask about the general happiness of our city, one reader proffered a resounding "hell naw."

And you can certainly find that jaded sentiment on the back end of any (fairly unclever) Cleveland punchline, but it's a surface-level assumption that does little to actually consider what's going on in town.

Take for example, an interactive project hosted last fall. Bedecked with holiday lighting, a map of the greater Cleveland area loomed in front of onlookers during last year's Ingenuity Fest. A simple, understated header reads: "Plotting Emotional Space in Cleveland, Ohio." As each person approached the map, they were handed a yellow pin and a white pin.

"Place the yellow pin on a place where you feel happy. Place the white pin on a place where you feel sad."

Ashley Perry, a Clevelander studying psychology at The New School in New York City, devised the project to transpose the importance of place onto the idea of happiness and sadness.

It's not entirely surprising that yellow pins congregated along the lakeshore, along tree-lined suburban side streets and along the thoroughfares of downtown Cleveland. White pins dotted East Cleveland and the ghost town ruins of some of the region's more outlying cities. (Yes, Parma was heavily represented in the "white pin" category.) Downtown, for that matter, also garnered plenty of white pins, too.

Far from our lakeshore - on the other side of the world, in fact - the residents of a small, landlocked country in southern Asia are proffering a rather novel worldview. In Bhutan, leaders and countrymen alike espouse an idea - a metric - called Gross National Happiness.

It's the paradigm shift that people like Ricchiuto and Alloro are kicking around locally.

"I believe that more and more people in Cleveland have turned the corner and realized that focusing primarily on economic indicators does not change the conversation," he says. "The reality is that more and more people are talking about quality of life - about culture, sustainability and community as indicators as of well-being."

It's an idea that's catching on in other parts of the world and in other cities - even in the U.S. Ricchiuto cautions that top-down leadership attitudes are treacherous things. So it's not terribly surprising that the groundswell of support of ideas like, say, the Gross National Happiness or something similar are coming from the grassroots arenas of a given community.

"A lot of the change we're seeing is bubbling up from the edges," Ricchiuto says

Alloro has fashioned a chart that demonstrates the ripple effect of positive thought. Once an individual begins shifting his or her perspective, the effect flows outward to one's family, organization, community and, inevitably, the world. Positive thought, Alloro says, is leadership at its heart.

Part of what makes the sensation of a Cleveland renaissance so valid is the long-term reaction to the city's post-industrial life. As industry moved on out of town, the city and region began to decay and rot. The sense of purpose that once drove Cleveland was mostly gone. In modern parlance, one might say that Cleveland had a bit of a branding problem for the latter half of the 20th century. In some ways, maybe we still do. So what's next? "I think it's emerging now," Alloro says.

It's a thought that osmotically seeps into realms of business, economic development, art, technology - the bevy of fields in which Clevelanders excel time and time again.

"The main idea is that when people are happier, they're more likely to become courageous and to seek new things. You have a more entrepreneurial spirit. And you certainly see that in Cleveland," Ricchiuto says.

A line can be drawn from John D. Rockefeller's earnest beginnings to the present day. Cleveland, as the Industrial Revolution was stirring -- a bit like the Silicon Valley of its day. So the question at the doorstep of 2013 is: Into what realm of possibilities will our positive energy flow next?

"I think Cleveland is going to show the world something," Alloro says.

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