From the time it was published over a decade ago, Authentic Happiness has become a classic positive psychology book in its own right. Written by the founder of positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman has been writing about positive psychology long before this book came to fruition.
Seligman also wrote “Learned Optimism“, which became a national bestselling book, though Authentic Happiness is his most recognized book due to how happiness was scientifically discussed.
The book is divided into 3 parts: Positive Emotion, Strength and Virtue, and In The Mansion of life. Written from the writer’s perspective, it is an easy and interesting read. Seligman also writes with the hope that the reader will identify their own strengths and virtues alonhg the way.
In the preface, Authentic Happiness is stated to counter the belief that “happiness is inauthentic” and the book aims to overthrow the idea that happiness is something fixed and can never increase. Seligman proposes the 3 pillars of positive psychology as positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions (in 2011, it was turned into a PERMA model to better cover all aspects of well-being).
Authentic Happiness Summary
During the first part of Positive Emotion, Seligman aims to provide readers with a better understanding of what positive emotion really is. He begins with a study of essays written by 180 nuns who had the same lifestyles, economic class, and social class. The study found that the nuns who expressed words relating to good and positive feelings lived longer.
Another study investigating smile authenticity in college yearbooks revealed that women with a genuine smile (Duchene smile) tended to have higher marital satisfaction and well-being than those who had a non-Duchene smile (Pan American smile).
He also makes the distinction between positive psychology and ‘happyology’, stating that positive psychology is not about hedonism but instead it is about finding “meaning in those happy and unhappy moments.” In addition, rather than finding shortcuts for happiness and well-being through comfort, joy, rapture, and ecstasy, the aim behind authentic happiness is to find your strength and virtue, which is further discussed in part two.
Positive feelings are states, which last for a finite amount of time, while positive character or traits “recur across time and different situations.”
Positive traits such as gratitude, optimism, altruism, humor, the 24 traits, plus the 6 core virtues (wisdom, courage, love, humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality, and transcendence) can lead to an increase in well-being.
Based on evolution, negative emotion is there to protect us from threats. It is there to assist us. A flight or fight response.
Positive emotions play the opposite role, helping us to “broaden our abiding intellectual, physical, and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself’.”
People with high positive affect do not feel good all the time but they feel good more often than those who don’t. Based on Barbara Fredrickson’s theory, positive emotion can also undo the negative emotions
The happiness formula was presented after a few exercises on happiness i.e. Fordyce Emotion Questionnaire, Positive Affectivity, and Negative Affectivity Scale (PANAS). The equation is ‘H=S + C + V’. Seligman discusses each of the factors and proposes that in C or circumstances represent money, marriage, social life, negative emotion, age, health, education, climate, race, gender, and religion.
He looks at to what extent these factors are relevant to happiness.
Seligman gives us the life satisfaction scale and the gratitude survey to complete. He argues that the reason people believe that the past determines the future is influenced by Freud, Darwin, and Marx.
Even though there are some supportive data showing that bad childhood events can lead to a destructive adulthood, the results are not consistent enough to adequately conclude that. He suggests that the best way is to forgive and it will help you forget your past.
Moving forward, optimism plays a large role during this period. As the writer of Learned Optimism, he clearly distinguishes between pessimism and optimism. Sometimes we are illogical and quickly jump to conclusions, which creates false beliefs. Therefore, Seligman suggests 4 ways to argue with yourself.
Based on the scientific study of positive emotion, there are three ways to increase the amount of happiness, which are mindfulness, savoring, and habituation. Somehow, pleasure has to be distinguished from gratification, as Seligman stated, it separates the pleasant life from the good life.
Strength and Virtue
“Authentic happiness comes from identifying and cultivating your most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play, and parenting.”
Throughout the history of psychology, little research has been conducted on character except through personality studies. “Any science that does not use character as a basic idea”, Seligman argues, “will never be accepted as a useful account of human action.”
He counter-argues 3 reasons on why character is underestimated in science and shows how to cultivate the 6 virtues, the 24 strengths, and how to find your top five to focus and work on.
In The Mansion of Life
Seligman uses the third part of the book to answer “What is the good life?”, which he believes is the act of using your strength every day. In terms of work and life satisfaction, it has little has to do with money. Freedom of choice and finding flow is much more important.
Lawyers were used as an example, highlighting a highly stressful job and unhappy work environment. The 3 principles that foster the outcome are pessimism, lower choices in high-stress circumstances, and a win-lose game in their field of work. Nevertheless, Seligman also presents a way out of this.
Towards the end, Seligman looks at love based on research conducted across 17 nations and found that married people are happier. He proposes that the 3 levels of love explain why this is so. Marriage combines ‘the love of people who give us comfort, love from people who depend on us, and romantic love.’
A Parent’s marriage also influences the way children look at relationships and their partners. Using our signature strengths every day can enhance marriage quality.
Seligman suggests 8 techniques for building positive emotions. Each emotion leads to exploration and cultivates mastery, which reveals the strength and virtue in you.
On the good life, Seligman states that it,
“Consists in deriving happiness by using your strengths every day in the main realms of living. The meaningful life adds one more component: using these same strengths to forward knowledge, power, or goodness.”
This book is a classic. It is well written and it will change how you think about happiness and strength in many ways. Various questionnaires are provided and it is easy to follow for all positive psychology knowledge levels.
The content is easy to follow, includes questionnaires and has plenty of research to back up its claims. Some are conducted cross-nationally but others are conducted in a limited group. I think it would be valuable if we could see how positive emotion is understood across different cultures from around the world.
In my opinion, I enjoyed reading Seligman’s perspective but I am also aware that this is a one-sided view. I like how he makes it clear at the beginning about the origin of positive psychology. However, I feel the content in all 3 parts of this book is quite imbalanced.
It seems like the core of the book is about cultivating strength and virtue for lasting life fulfillment (discussed in part 2). I think it would be better if each of the characteristics was discussed more in-depth so that we could understand it better.
Part 3 of the book, which focuses on answering what is a “good” life, uses examples that are quite limited (work, love, and children). Also, the 3 pillars of positive emotion, flow, and purpose does not seem to adequately answer the question in a satisfying way. Perhaps this is why the new PERMA model was launched 6 years after publication.