Book review: Authentic happiness

Martin Seligman is the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, a shift in attention to the psychology of functional rather than dysfunctional states of mind. Rather than asking how to heal the troubled, Positive Psychology asks how to help people make their lives as good as possible. Seligman has written several books that shade over into self-help, although his work and his recommendations are much better supported by research than many other self-help books. Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment takes the somewhat fuzzy concept of happiness and dissects it neatly, linking happiness to the development and exercise of character strengths.

Seligman describes the various contributors to happiness (your characteristic set-point, your circumstances, and your voluntary control over your thoughts). He makes the point that a set-point is actually more like a range, and you can often move to the high end of your range even if you can’t change the range itself.

The data about which circumstances matter, and how much, were particularly interesting. Education, race, climate, and gender, for example, seem to have little effect; life satisfaction rises with age, which pleasant affect (good feelings) rises slightly and negative affect stays the same. Religion is linked to optimism for the future, which in turn is linked to happiness. (The more fundamentalist the religious beliefs, the greater the optimism. So are fundamentalists happier? I can’t remember if the book said this straight out, and even if they are, I’d still rather be an atheist.) A “rich and fulfilling social life” was linked to happiness, although the cause-and-effect relationship is not clear (are people happier because they socialize more, or are happy people more likely to socialize, or is there some other factor underlying both the happiness and the socialibility?). Time spent alone is one of the measures of what kind of social life you have, which leads me to wonder how introversion is taken into account. What looks like an abundant social life for someone like me, who needs a lot of time alone, might look pretty sparse to an extrovert, but it could still be plenty rich and fulfilling.

The voluntary factors take up a good deal more of the book than the discussion of circumstances and inherent capacity for happiness. Seligman suggests that we can feel happy about the past, the future, and the present. He describes some ways to cultivate more positive thoughts and feelings about the past (gratitude, fulfillment, pride, serenity) and the future (optimism, hope, faith, trust), but the bulk of the advice is about cultivating happiness about the present. He makes the distinction (crucial in my opinion) between pleasures and gratifications. The former he divides up into bodily pleasures and higher pleasures; they are “about the senses and the emotions”, and they are subject to decrease through habituation. Building up the habit of savoring our pleasures, perhaps limiting our indulgence in some of them, and practicing mindfulness are ways to counter this decrease.

The gratifications, on the other hand, are “about enacting personal strengths and virtues”; they might not always feel good at every stage of the process, but they provide the deep satisfaction and fulfillment that Seligman sees as essential to happiness. He suggests that the pleasures are the reward for doing something that’s good for the body, and gratification is the reward for building up psychological capital that benefits us mentally. The personal strengths and virtues that we exercise are part of what used to be called character; Seligman believes that character needs to be resurrected as a viable concept in the social sciences. He describes a search for positive character traits that are valued in religions and cultures all through recorded history and around the world; the search identified wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality and transcendence. He describes the 24 character strengths associated with these six virtues; everyone, he says, can work to improve these strengths in themselves, and applying these strengths to the situations in your life is what will bring you gratification and happiness in the present.

You can take a quiz in the book or online at the Authentic Happiness web site that will give you a listing of your top strengths. The ones you identify as your signature strengths–that appear high on your list and that feel the most integral to who you are–are the ones you should strive to find ways to use in your job and in your personal life. The three penultimate chapters describe applying this knowledge in your job, in your marriage, and in parenting.

The final chapter was, I have to admit, a major disappointment. I thought that applying your best characteristics to a worthwhile goal here in this world is a noble enough path to take through life and not a bad way of spending your time on this planet. Being part of the human race, part of the life of the planet (and trying not to be such a destructive part), and part of the universe gives plenty of meaningful context to my life. However, Seligman in his final chapter suggests that there is something more to aspire to. He mentions Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The logic of human destiny, which suggests that evolution is proceeding toward a goal, and that humankind is evolving toward a future of greater cooperation (win-win games, rather than the zero-sum win-lose games that characterize so much human interaction) and that we will outgrow our less lovable behaviors like greed and hatred. (I haven’t read the book, so I’m summarizing what I’ve learned about it from Seligman’s book and from reviewers. I’d love to hear from anyone who has read it.) Seligman’s take on this is that maybe the negative emotions are there to warn us away from things, and the positive emotions are there to tell us of opportunities for cooperation and growth, although I’m still unclear about why the latter should come to predominate over time. Seligman says that if you take God to be omniscient, omnipotent, and good (leaving out the creator aspect which has caused so many theological conundrums), maybe that’s what humanity is evolving toward. Personally I don’t need for humanity to be evolving toward godhood in order to feel like my life has plenty of meaning and purpose, and I was disappointed that a book that was overall so grounded in research should drag these religious speculations in toward the end. (Being here is enough!) Still, there was some good information in the book and it was worth reading for the ways it clarified some of the concepts involved and summarized some relevant research.