Book of the Week: Authentic Happines

Authentic Happiness“Authentic Happiness – Using The New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” is a book by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2002 by Martin Seligman. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y., 336 pages


  • Psychology has focused too much on misery and not enough on being happy.
  • Happiness is healthy; happy people live longer and have fewer diseases.
  • Helping other people is the single most important element in long-term happiness.
  • People largely can control their happiness level. For example, exercise creates happiness.
  • People have different endowments of “signature strengths.” To achieve happiness, develop and practice your strengths, instead of trying to correct weaknesses.
  • Religious traditions agree that certain fundamental virtues are good and healthy, and lead to happiness: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and spirituality.
  • Money has almost no correlation with happiness, health has little and physical pleasures do not produce lasting happiness.
  • Marriage is the external factor most frequently associated with happiness.
  • People tend to adjust to most external circumstances, so great news (winning the lottery) or bad news (being paralyzed) has little effect on long-term happiness.
  • To make your children happy, raise them to embrace positive emotions.

What You Will Learn
In this Abstract, you will learn: 1) What happiness is; 2) How to achieve it; and 3) Why friends, religion, freedom and your spouse make you happier than money or good health.

I highly recommend this work by Martin E. P. Seligman, the founder of “positive psychology” and the author of Learned Optimism. This book combines the erudition of psychological research with the accessibility of a self-help text. The author explains why happiness matters. He recapitulates and takes issue with the fl awed deterministic assumptions that guided much of twentieth century psychology. He is careful to emphasize the importance of your individual control over your feelings and thoughts. The idea that people actually are in control of their fate marks a departure from Freudianism and behaviorism. Seligman argues, instead, for an understanding of character and virtue rooted in early Greek philosophy. However, his book is not merely theoretical or descriptive. He offers guidance on how you can change your way of thinking to change how you feel – and, thereby, get on the road to achieving long-term happiness for yourself and for others, especially your children.


Health and Illness
Twentieth century psychology concentrated on mental disease, and made considerable progress defi ning a range of illnesses. However, psychology has had very little to say about the good life. Only recently has research shown that it is possible to pursue and increase happiness. Happiness is not an intangible or nebulous concept. Its consequences are measurable. One study of nuns, a very homogenous, controlled population, found that the most cheerful women lived much longer than the less cheerful. However, happiness is not what many people think it is. For example, it is not the consequence of health and wealth. Instead, happiness comes from exercising six virtues that all major religious and philosophical traditions identify as fundamental to a good human life:

  1. Wisdom – Including learning, prudence and creativity.
  2. Courage – Including fortitude, perseverance and confidence.
  3. Love – Including both giving and receiving love.
  4. Justice – Including fairness, citizenship and leadership.
  5. Temperance – Including humility, discretion and self-control.
  6. Spirituality and transcendence – Including gratefulness and a love of beauty.

The Happiness Equation
People have unique individual virtues and strengths. To some extent, your personality and, thus, your set range of happiness are inherited. In fact, about half of any element of personality depends on genetic heritage. Most people do have a set range of happiness, and despite extremes of good or bad fortune, they tend to return soon to their set range.

Consider some of the circumstances that many people think affect happiness:

  • Money – Wealth matters less than you might expect. People in wealthy countries (particularly democracies that allow a degree of personal freedom) tend to be somewhat more satisfi ed than people in poor or totalitarian countries, but even extreme poverty has little correlation with unhappiness. Strikingly, people whose main goal is money tend to be very unhappy.
  • Marriage – Being married correlates strongly with happiness. National Opinion Research Center surveys find that roughly 40% of married people, but only 25% of unmarried people, are “very happy.” This correlation may not indicate causality. It’s quite possible that happy people are simply more likely to get married.
  • Sociability – More sociable people tend to be happier. Very happy people spend more time with others. However, causality is again questionable; perhaps, others simply prefer to spend time with happy people.
  • Bad feelings – Women experience more negative and more positive emotions. Only a very small negative correlation exists between pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
  • Youth – Young age does not correlate with happiness. In fact, older people are somewhat more satisfi ed with life than younger people.
  • Health – Even terminally ill people have roughly the same life satisfaction as healthy people. Severe health problems cause less unhappiness than you might expect. Happiness does seem to drop when people have five or more serious health problems.
  • Education, weather, race and gender – These factors do not have more than a slight correlation with happiness. Interestingly, African-Americans and Hispanics are less inclined to depression than Caucasians, but they are not happier than Caucasians.
  • Religion – Religious people are happier and more satisfied than irreligious people. One study found that people from the most conservative religions (Orthodox Judaism, fundamentalist Christianity and Islam) are happier than people from more liberal religions (for example, Reform Judaism and Unitarianism).

To achieve happiness by changing your life circumstances: marry, think positively, make friends, help others, adopt a conservative religion and live in a reasonably prosperous democracy. However, in terms of becoming happy, statistically it does not help to earn more money, improve your health, get more education or move to a better climate.

Let Bygones Be Gone
People who think about problems from the past find it harder to be happy. The only psychologically healthy approach to past offenses is forgiveness, which is healthy as well as noble. Consider the five-step REACH approach to forgiveness:

  1. Recall – Remember the offense. Breathe slowly and visualize it.
  2. Empathize – Try to put yourself in the offenders’ shoes and understand their actions.
  3. Altruism – Remember when you received undeserved forgiveness, and forgive.
  4. Commit – Make a public commitment to forgiveness.
  5. Hold – Do not release forgiveness or relapse into vengefulness.

Pessimists tend to think that bad things are permanent and inevitable. Optimists believe the opposite. Optimists may not be right, but they are happier – and it’s worth being optimistic if only for the sake of being happy. To build optimism, defeat negative thoughts by:

  • Checking the evidence – Put the facts on the side of optimism.
  • Consider the alternatives – Instead of seizing the most negative possible explanation, consider positive alternatives that may be equally plausible.
  • Look closely at implications – Even if the facts indicate that something bad has happened, the implications may not be so awful. Seek other effects and outcomes.
  • Believe what is useful – If a conclusion is useless or counterproductive, especially if it is based on judgment or opinion, discard it. Pick a more useful and constructive idea.

Identify Your Signature Strengths
Talents are innate and automatic. Strengths are the result of effort and practice. A strength is a psychological trait valued in many cultures, embodied in role models and supported with such social institutions as rituals, stories and proverbs. “Strengths, such as integrity, valor, originality and kindness, are not the same thing as talents, such as perfect pitch, facial beauty or lightning fast sprinting speed.” To cultivate happiness, focus on building your strengths instead of on shoring up your weaknesses. The six basic virtue clusters feature 24 strengths:

The First Virtue Cluster: Wisdom and Knowledge

  1. Curiosity and interest – Inquisitive people find the world appealing and novel. They constantly attempt to investigate and discover more about it.
  2. Love of learning – People who love to gain knowledge and understanding can fi nd opportunities everywhere.
  3. Judgment and critical thought – This strength involves analyzing and weighing information and carefully assessing the evidence.
  4. Ingenuity and common sense – Ingenious people are creative, practical, unconventional and willing to “think outside the box.”
  5. People skills – Social intelligence calls upon the ability to “read” people and respond to their feelings, moods and dispositions.
  6. Perspective – Among other things, this involves distinguishing between the important and unimportant.

The Second Virtue Cluster: Courage

  1. Valor – The brave are physically and morally valiant. Moral and physical courage are not the same, but in both cases people overcome fear and do what is right. Valor is
  2. not fearlessness. The valiant feel fear, but in spite of it, they face the danger.
  3. Perseverance – Those who continue to strive complete what they begin. However, they are realistic and they do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
  4. Integrity – True honor involves not only speaking the truth but also living the truth, being genuine and having no affectations.

The Third Virtue Cluster: Love

  1. Kindness – Caring people are generous and outgoing, eager to find ways to help others. As a matter of fact, helping others is a tremendous overall causative factor in being happy.
  2. Loving and being loved – It may be easier to love than to be loved. This kind of love is not a romantic feeling, but rather is the capacity for strong, close relationships.

The Fourth Virtue Cluster: Justice

  1. Citizenship and teamwork – This strength enables people to be loyal and committed, and to work hard on behalf of others. It involves respect for legitimate authority, but not blind obedience.
  2. Fairness – This strength involves the just and equitable treatment of others regardless of your personal feelings or prejudices.
  3. Leadership – The good leader evenhandedly mediates relations between groups, accepts responsibility for mistakes and is a peacemaker who plans for the future.

The Fifth Virtue Cluster: Temperance

  1. Self-control – Restraining your appetites and desires is important. This is not merely a matter of knowing what is right, but of doing it.
  2. Prudence and caution – Discretion does not mean delaying action until action is impossible, but waiting until all the needed evidence is in before making a decision.
  3. Humility – Unassuming people think little of themselves and do not feel that they merit special attention.

The Sixth Virtue Cluster: Transcendence

  1. Love of beauty – This strength bespeaks sensitivity to excellence, skill and loveliness in every area of achievement.
  2. Gratitude – A sense of appreciation is an extension of the love of beauty, an expression of appreciation for the excellence of others.
  3. Hope – People with positive expectations are optimistic and think of the future, anticipating that good things will occur and planning for them.
  4. Spirituality – This strength is closely correlated with happiness. It involves understanding where one fits in the universe and acting in accord with that understanding.
  5. Forgiveness – Pardoning is one of the most important strengths, because without it one dwells in bitter memories of the past. Forgiveness leads to positive emotions rather than negative ones.
  6. Playfulness – The lighthearted have a sense of humor and events rest easily on their shoulders. They laugh and help others to be cheerful.
  7. Passion – Ardent people involve themselves entirely in the things they do.

Raising Children
Cultivating positive emotions is especially important in raising children. Six techniques for building positive emotions in children include:

  1. Sleep with your children – When kids sleep with their parents they feel more secure.
  2. Play games of synchrony – Respond to a child’s actions by doing the same thing as the child. This almost invariably leads to laughter.
  3. Say yes and no – Say yes more often than no. Certainly sometimes it is important to say no, but say it as infrequently as possible.
  4. Punish and praise – Praise should outweigh punishment, but when punishment is necessary it should occur. Children need punishment and discipline.
  5. Minimize sibling rivalry – This is less of a problem when parents lavish attention and affection on their kids. Minimize rivalry by bringing children together, respecting their strengths and making them to some extent responsible for each other.
  6. Make the most of bedtime – This is a special time when you can build a close and positive relationship with a child, by using stories, conversation and the like.

About the Author
Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the director of the Positive Psychology Network, and former president of the American Psychological Association. His 20 books include Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child.

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