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From the time it was published over a decade ago, the book Authentic Happiness has become a classic book in positive psychology.
The author is none other than the founder of positive psychology himself: Martin Seligman.
Seligman has written about positive psychology long before this book came to fruition, and is one of the field’s most respected researchers.
Howard Gardner of Harvard University quickly endorsed the book, writing that “This book will change how people view psychology and how all of us view ourselves.” Other reviews about the book are from psychologists around the world who felt blown away by Seligman’s work.
Seligman also wrote Learned Optimism a decade earlier, which became a national bestseller. However, it did not ripple across America and Europe as profoundly as his book on happiness.
Why Authentic Happiness?
Authentic Happiness is an impactful study and reflection largely because of how Seligman delved into the science of happiness.
Even in the 2000s (when the book was first published), positive emotions were not studied as much as negative emotions; this trend ignored an entire realm of the human experience that Seligman brought into focus.
The book is divided into 3 parts: Positive Emotion, Strength and Virtue, and In The Mansion of Life. Seligman’s style is enjoyable to read, and he writes with the hope that the reader will identify their own strengths and virtues along the way.
In the preface, Authentic Happiness is stated to counter the belief that “happiness is inauthentic,” or fake. The book also aims to overthrow the idea that happiness is something fixed that can never increase.
Seligman proposes the 3 pillars of positive psychology as positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions. In 2011, this foundation became the PERMA mode, which is a core aspect of positive psychology today that explores well-being.
Authentic Happiness Summary
During the first part of Positive Emotion, Seligman aims to provide readers with an understanding of what positive emotion really is, and why it is critical to study for our own health.
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).
Do these seem like far-reached ideas? If so, it is time to press further: what is the anti-“happyology” root that distinguishes Seligman’s work from others?
Seligman offers a clear distinction between positive psychology and “happyology,” referring to the skeptical name assigned to studies that over-simplify the basis of happy living.
In his book, he writes that positive psychology is not about hedonism and excess, but rather about finding “meaning in those happy and unhappy moments.” Rather than finding shortcuts for happiness and well-being, the aim of authentic happiness is to find your strength and virtue.
Once you know your strengths and virtues, resilience is more likely to follow no matter what challenges are encountered.
To distinguish terms, positive feelings are states that 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 increase well-being.
Based on evolution, negative emotion does serve an important role: it protects us from threats and frames memories in terms of survivability. It is there to assist us with an ancient flight-or-fight response.
Positive emotions play the opposite role: they help us “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 do feel good more often. Based on the research of Barbara Fredrickson, positive emotion can also undo negative emotions.
Seligman affirms this and delves into the factors that are relevant to happiness, even reviewing the happiness formula. H = S + C + V.
Simple! H for happiness, S for your set range, C for circumstances in life, and V for voluntarily-controlled factors. In reality, the formula is not simple, nor is the practice of happiness.
The happiness formula was presented after a few exercises on happiness i.e. Fordyce Emotion Questionnaire, Positive Affectivity, and Negative Affectivity Scale (PANAS).
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.
Seligman gives us the life satisfaction scale and a gratitude survey to complete.
He also 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.
As one way to move beyond the past, Seligman suggests that the best way is to forgive and it will help you forget your past.
Optimism plays a large role during any period of recovery or forgiveness. As the writer of Learned Optimism, Seligman clearly distinguishes between pessimism and optimism.
Seligman writes how sometimes we are illogical and quickly jump to conclusions; this creates false beliefs. Seligman offers four ways to argue with yourself during those difficult moments.
The hardest part of this may be separating pleasure from gratification. Seligman argues that pleasure may actually separate the pleasant life from the good life.
Strength and Virtue
Throughout the history of psychology, little research has been conducted on character except through personality studies. Without knowing our strengths, how can we know our character?
“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 explains why character is underestimated in science and presents ways to cultivate the 6 virtues and 24 strengths. With these, he suggests that people find their top five strengths to focus on and improve.
In The Mansion of Life
Seligman uses the third part of the book to answer “What is the good life?”
Simply put, perhaps it is the act of using your strength every day. In terms of work and life satisfaction, happiness has little has to do with money. Across studies, freedom of choice and experiences of flow are much more impacting.
Lawyers were used as an example of a highly stressful job and an unhappy work environment. The three principles that foster the outcome are pessimism, lower choices in high-stress circumstances, and a win-lose game in their field of work.
Lucky for any unhappy lawyers, Seligman offers an alternative tool.
Towards the end, Seligman studies love, citing research conducted across 17 nations finding that married people are happier. He proposes that the three 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 one’s signature strengths every day can enhance marriage quality.
As the book concludes, Seligman suggests eight 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.”
Why not try a different way of approaching life and happiness?
This book is a classic. It is well written and will change how you think about happiness and strength.
Various questionnaires are provided, with opportunities for self-reflection and application of the book’s content. Seligman’s writing is easy to follow and accessible to readers whether new to the field or not.
Content is easy to follow, with ample research to support his claims. Some are conducted cross-nationally, but others are conducted in a limited group.
As one reviewer, I think it would be valuable if we could see how positive emotion is understood across different cultures from around the world. I also found myself wanting more in-depth discussions of the characteristics of strength and virtue.
Lastly, in Part 3 of the book, which answers the weight what is a “good” life question, I would have been more satisfied with more expanded examples. Work, love, and children, are not the core foundations of happiness for many people.
Perhaps this is why the new PERMA model was launched 6 years after publication.
In my opinion, I really enjoyed reading Seligman’s collection of research and reflection. I am also aware that this is a one-sided view around positive psychology, which Seligman makes clear from the start.
Have you read Authentic Happiness? If so, please leave your own review or comments below. We’d love to hear from you!