Michael (Mike) W. Fordyce is recognized as a pioneer in the area of happiness research (e.g., Seligman et al. 2005
). He was also a professor of psychology at a state college, a psychologist in private practice, and author of popular materials on personal happiness.Footnote 1 I first met Mike at Edison State College (then Edison Community College) in 1975, when I joined the faculty. He had started teaching there the previous year, so we were both new faculty members and bonded as colleagues, especially as our offices were adjoining.
I was surprised to learn that we had both graduated from Emory University with bachelor’s degrees, but he graduated 1 year earlier than me in 1968, and our paths had never crossed at Emory to either of our recollections. However, we both had many of the same teachers and often reminisced about our respective experiences studying psychology at Emory. Mike then went to California to complete his doctorate at United States International University, dissertating on his passion, happiness (Fordyce 1972). USIU at that time was a hotbed of counter-cultural activities, and major figures in humanistic psychology (such as Carl Rogers) were on its faculty, so Mike received considerable intellectual stimulation during those exciting times. I remained in Atlanta, but also graduated with my doctorate from a school encouraging studies in humanistic psychology during that same era, so Mike and I shared much in common in terms of our basic orientations to the field.
Mike appeared to be quite a hedonist when I first met him. I vividly remember him driving to campus 1 day in his old VW Bus festooned with hippie decals and filled with guitars and drums (as he was in a rock band), bereft of a shirt with his waist-long hair unfastened, but clean shaven and strikingly handsome. He lived in a nearby beach town that was well-known for its nightlife, and he often went to his day job as a professor after playing in local clubs the night before.
He taught two different classes at Edison, multiple (usually 4 or 5) sections of the psychology of adjustment and one section of contemporary social problems each academic semester. He was quite the showman with his psychology of adjustment class. He would arrive at his class and lock the door behind him, so that any late arriving students would be barred from his performance. And then he would pace in front of the class until he received his expected due, a standing ovation, after which class would begin, and never would he start without this applause. Simply put, his students loved him and he was among the most popular professors I ever met.
One might think that someone as creative as Mike would get bored teaching the same classes over and over again, but not Mike. First, he truly loved to teach, and his mission was to help his students become happier, so intellectual content was relatively unimportant to him in his psychology of adjustment classes, as he wanted his students to grow experientially. Second, his classes were his laboratory, as he tried whatever he could, within the constraints of an academic setting, to facilitate the growth of his students. It was out of this context that his pioneering work arose, as he could readily tweak his methods without interference, such as by not having to submit and resubmit to an oppressive Institutional Review Board for approval of every alteration in his research protocol. In fact, the type of free-flowing, yet rigorous, research Mike did would likely be disallowed now by IRBs, as it could be construed as a conflict of interest to even experiment on one’s own students. Teaching at a community college with large classes enabled, rather than hampered, Mike’s creativity. And I might add, this was also useful for me and my own early transpersonal research conducted in that same setting. Out of his early work with his psychology of adjustment students came what I think were Mike’s major contributions, his two classic papers on increasing happiness (Fordyce 1977, 1983).
Mike and I had many interesting intellectual debates from the time we first met until I left Edison in 1986. Our primary divide was on his hedonic, in contrast to my eudaimonic, stance toward happiness. In brief, Mike believed that, by identifying characteristics of happy individuals and teaching people to emulate these, he could increase their happiness. And his research supported his approach. He concluded the following about his research: “The collected findings from all studies indicate that the program has a noticeable and perhaps long-lasting effect on happiness for the great majority of individuals exposed to it and that this effect is due to the content of the information, not merely the artifact of sensitization or expectations about happiness to which it was compared” (Fordyce 1983, p. 483). In contrast, I argued that seeking happiness was like trying to grasp water: the more vigorously you would grasp, the more it would slip through your fingers. My belief was, and remains, that happiness is the byproduct of a life well lived, focused on interconnections with that which is larger than the individual (i.e., transpersonal, meaning beyond or trans the personal; see Friedman and Hartelius in-press), and cannot be directly pursued. Of course, this difference of opinion is still a vibrant debate within the field of happiness studies.
In addition to his work on furthering happiness through active interventions, Mike also focused on the assessment and measurement of happiness. Although he pursued a hedonic lifestyle outside of academia when I knew him well, he also was a consummate methodologist. He did his own computer programming and was quite adept with statistics (and this was the age of keypunch cards and mainframes, so statistical competency was more challenging than today). His happiness measures (e.g., Fordyce 1986, 1988) were deceptively simple, but they held up well to scrutiny in a comparative study of mental health measures (e.g., see Compton et al. 1996). In fact, one of Mike’s happiness measures demonstrated higher validity than most of the other measures with which it was compared in this paper. I employed this same measure in one of my early transpersonal research project in which I looked at happiness related to transpersonal variables (e.g., Friedman 1983), and also found it to be quite psychometrically robust.
After 1986, I left Edison and only had sporadic contact with Mike. However, occasionally I would happen across references to his work and pass them along to him, and he was always appreciative of that. For example, Mike was very pleased that, in the same publication in which he was recognized as a pioneer by Seligman and his co-authors, his lifework was also recognized as important: “the efficacy of psychological interventions to increase individual happiness [is] in many ways the bottom line of work in positive psychology” (Seligman et al. 2005, n.p.). My last contact with Mike involved communicating with him about a paper I was writing on the seemingly insurmountable divide between humanistic and positive psychology (Friedman 2008), and Mike, although identified as a pioneer in positive psychology through his happiness studies, confirmed to me that he always thought of himself first as a humanistic psychologist (personal communication, October 31, 2006). At that time, he was enjoying retirement and, especially, his extensive travels throughout Europe.
I share two relevant quotes from notable figures in the field of happiness research, which demonstrate the high esteem in which Mike is held. Ed Diener (personal communication, January 11, 2013) wrote: “Dr. Michael Fordyce was a pioneering leader in the scientific study of happiness. He designed a program to increase people’s happiness that is still influential today. Importantly, Dr. Fordyce studied the outcomes of his intervention program in a rigorous scientific way. When Fordyce began working in the field, it was very small. Because of his influence and that of other pioneers in the field it has grown to an important scientific area today, and has had a significant influence in the world. Around the world governments are becoming interested in the happiness of citizens, as are international organizations such as the United Nations. Michael Fordyce was an important influence in making this happen. At both the scientific and applied levels Dr. Michael Fordyce was one of the founders of the field of happiness studies, and his impact has been great.” And Ruut Veenhoven (personal communication, January 11, 2013) added: “Michael Fordyce was one of the first psychologists in the field of happiness studies, a pioneer like Richard Kammann in New Zealand, who also entered the subject in the 1970s. In retrospect Michael Fordyce can also be seen as a forerunner in positive psychology.” Mike lived a happy life while I knew him, congruent with his passion for studying and developing applications in the area of happiness, namely he “walked his talk.” However, although he produced many educational materials and landmark professional publications, I know he was disappointed that his books on happiness (Fordyce 1974, 1978, 1985) were rejected by mainstream presses and never widely recognized by psychology. Mike was ahead of his times with these unpublished books, but he lived his life according to his approach to cultivating happiness and was basically undaunted. However, despite pursuing his own avowedly hedonic path, from my vantage the fact that he also worked diligently to share with others his contributions toward increasing happiness seems quite eudaimonic, and constitutes the basis of what should be a lasting legacy.