Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman

“Authentic happiness comes from identifying and cultivating your most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play, and parenting”

Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman

Authentic Happiness, by Martin Seligman

Authentic Happiness is the first positive psychology-oriented perspective on happiness written by professor Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association.

Seligman claims that the formula for happiness consists of several elements:

H= S + C + V

where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control.

According to Seligman, some elements are predetermined and there is little we can do about them, but there are others that are very much within our control and offer plenty of room to be influenced. S is strongly influenced by your parents’ level of happiness and there is little you can do about it. It accounts for about half of a person’s score on a happiness test. C includes things like the place you were born, your marital status, social environment, health situation or education. They are difficult to change, but have a small impact on happiness. V includes the variables under your voluntary control, those you can – with enough determination and effort – change to increase your level of happiness or positive emotion lastingly. Seligman’s book largely focuses on the V variables.

Positive emotion can be about the past, the present or the future. The positive emotions about the future include optimism, hope, faith and trust.

When addressing positive emotions about the future, he introduces the concepts of permanence and pervasiveness as the dimensions that define a person’s optimism. Optimists tend to see the causes of bad events as temporary (e.g. “The boss is in a bad mood”) while pessimists tend to see them as permanent (e.g. “The boss is a bastard”). Optimists are more likely to give specific explanations for bad events (e.g. “This book is useless”) while pessimists are prone to making generalized, universal statements for them (e.g. “Books are useless”).

While discussing the positive emotions about the past, he suggests two approaches to turn them to our advantage.

The positive emotions about the past include satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride and serenity.

There are two ways of bringing these feelings about the past well into the region of contentment and satisfaction. Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by, and rewriting history by forgiveness loosens the power of the bad events to embitter (and actually can transform bad memories into good ones).

Positive emotions about the present, Seligman explains, “include joy, ecstasy, calm, zest, ebullience, pleasure and (most importantly) flow (…)”. Here, he elaborates the fine distinction between pleasures and gratifications.

Happiness in the present moment (…) embraces two very distinct kind of things: pleasures and gratifications. The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers call ‘raw feels’: ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort. They are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking. The gratifications are activities we very much like doing, but they are not necessarily accompanied by any raw feeling at all. Rather, the gratifications engage us fully, we become immersed and absorbed in them, and we lose self-consciousness. Enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, and making a slum dunk are all examples of activities in which time stops for us, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, they involve quite a lot of thinking and interpretation, they do not habituate easily and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues.

Exploring the strategies that help enhance pleasures, Seligman recommends spacing pleasurable experiences to prevent habituation, savor them to make their effects more long-lasting, and develop mindfulness to be more receptive to the sensation of pleasure.

The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to gratifications and bypass the exercise on personal strengths and virtues is folly. It leads not just to lizards that starve to death, but to legions of humanity who are depressed in the middle of great wealth and are starving to death spiritually.

Such people ask, ‘How can I be happy?’. This is the wrong question, because without the distinction between pleasure and gratification it leads all too easily to a total reliance on shortcuts (…)

The right question is the one Aristotle posed two thousand five hundred years ago: ‘What is the good life?’ (…) My answer is tied up in the identification and the use of your signature strengths.

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.

Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.

Seligman translates his idea of gratification in the context of professional life, and introduces an interesting distinction between a ‘job’, a ‘career’, and a ‘calling’.

Recrafting your job to deploy your strengths and virtues every day not only makes work more enjoyable, but transmogrifies a routine job or a stalled career into a calling. A calling is the most satisfying form of work because, as a gratification, it is done for its own sake rather than for the material benefits it brings. Enjoying the resulting state of flow on the job will soon, I predict, overtake material reward as the principal reason for working.

In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman shows how positive psychology shifts the focus of traditional psychology from reactive to preventive intervention, from solving a problem to enriching people’s lives. If you found this article interesting, you may want to take a look at Flow: Are You “In The Zone” on the book Flow, written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

To hear professor Seligman talk about positive psychology and its contribution to happiness, you can watch his TED Talk in our video-article Can Modern Psychology Contribute To Happiness?

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