Micael Widell

Martin Seligman on Authentic Happiness

/ happiness

I've read numerous books on the topic of happiness during the last few weeks. Almost all of them reference Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman a lot. So I felt obliged to pick it up.

The book is well written, enjoyable and easy to read. It is filled with interesting facts, exercises, self-tests and science-backed knowledge about happiness. It is also written by the main front figure of the Positive Psychology movement.

Positive psychology

The Positive Psychology movement is basically a bunch of psychology researchers that were fed up with the inclination in the scientific community to only focus on how to get depressed or otherwise mentally sick people to feel a bit less dreadful. Of course it is important to cure mental illness, but almost no research has been done on positive feelings and how to cultivate and promote them in our minds. Seligman is the front man of the movement to change this. It all started in 1998 when he decided to have positive psychology as his theme when being chairman of American Psychological Association.

Optimists vs. pessimists

Researchers have studied optimistic and pessimistic people, too see what traits each kind has. It turns out that the difference lies in how we talk to ourselves – our inner explanations for the things that happen in our lives. Optimistic people tend to explain positive events in ways that reinforce the feeling of them being permanent, all-encompassing and due to their own personality. Optimistic people tend to attribute bad and negative events to temporary factors, or to other people, or other things outside one's own control.

Pessimistic people? You may have guessed it – they are the exact opposite. They tell themselves that positive events are due to luck or otherwise temporary. Likewise, they explain negative events in their lives as lasting, as a predictor of the future, and due to their own unchangeable inherent traits.

The benefits of being happy

Something the book touches on several times, and which I have brought up on this blog earlier, is that happiness is good not just for the happiness itself, but it also seems to enhance good health and lead to a longer life.

Seligman retells a study on nuns. The benefit of doing a longitudinal psychological study on nuns is that you can easier factor out environment, food and general way of life, which for the 180 nuns in the study can be assumed to be identical over a lifetime. What was discovered was that the nuns who seemed the most cheerful when entering the monastery also lived the longest.

When the amount of positive feeling was quantified by raters who did not know how long the nuns lived, it was discovered that 90 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age eighty-five versus only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter. Similarly, 54 percent of the most cheerful quarter was alive at age ninety-four, as opposed to 11 percent of the least cheerful quarter.

Another example of a study cited below. Simply put, if you want to live a long and healthy life, trying to be a happy person seems like an effective strategy.

In the largest study to date, 2,282 Mexican-Americans from the southwest United States aged sixty-five or older were given a battery of demographic and emotional tests, then tracked for two years. Positive emotion strongly predicted who lived and who died, as well as disability. After controlling for age, income, education, weight, smoking, drinking, and disease, the researchers found that happy people were half as likely to die, and half as likely to become disabled. Positive emotion also protects people against the ravages of aging.

Many other studies show that happy people have more casual friends and more close friends, are more likely to be married, and are more involved in group activities than unhappy people.

Why are people sometimes depressed then, if there are no benefits to it? Actually there are benefits to being depressed. One of them is that research shows that depressed people are much more realistic than optimistic people. A depressed person's assessment of factual reality tends to be more correct.

CBT vs. dwelling on depressing thoughts

A stance that Seligman holds is that dwelling on negative or anger-inducing thoughts will not do you any good. Instead we should embrace CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) as a means to getting rid of unhelpful thoughts, thereby making us happier and more well functioning.

Going to a therapist to dig up, relive and retell unpleasant memories will not help you become happier.

I agree with Seligman that it is instead important to practice mental hygiene. Become alert towards negative thoughts, and learn to recognise when they are born and to immediately dispute them with facts and other arguments if possible. If something negative is actually a fact, try to downplay to yourself the impact of it.

Gratifications and pleasures

A central theme in the book is gratifications vs. pleasures. As Seligman explains it, a pleasure is something derived directly from the senses. A good tasting cookie, having sex, going to sleep when really tired etc. Pleasures are also signified by being temporary, stopping very soon after the bodily sensation fades away. Another thing that signifies a pleasure is that it is prone to hedonic adaptation, meaning that if we experience the pleasure too often we will get bored with it and need more of it to feel the same pleasure as in the beginning. The twentieth delicious cookie we eat will not be as pleasurable as the first one.

Gratifications, on the other hand, I interpret is good feelings derived from us being in a state of flow.

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 slam 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.

So we should focus on gratifications, or flow, to become lastingly happy. That doesn't mean that pleasures should be avoided or that they cannot make us happier. I personally see the pleasures as the small things that may spice up a happy life even some more, while deeper meaning, flow in work and good relationships are among the things that make up the underlying foundation for a happy life.

Distilling universal virtues

Seligman talks a lot about a concept he calls our signature strengths. The idea is that we become lastingly happier when we make use of our strengths in doing work or gratifications, and that flow will come easier then.

He went looking for universal virtues or strengths, something that every major world religion unanimously views as something good. He came up with the following 24 strengths, which are described in detail in the book.


  1. Curiosity
  2. Love of learning
  3. Judgment
  4. Ingenuity
  5. Social intelligence
  6. Perspective

7. Valor
8. Perseverance
9. Integrity

10. Kindness
11. Loving

12. Citizenship
13. Fairness
14. Leadership

15. Self-control
16. Prudence
17. Humility

18. Appreciation of beauty
19. Gratitude
20. Hope
21. Spirituality
22. Forgiveness
23. Humor
24. Zest

Seligman provides a test where you can see for yourself what your signature strengths are. You can take this questionnaire and some others right now if you register an account at authentichappiness.org.

My recipe for more flow is as follows: Identify your signature strengths. Choose work that lets you use them every day. Recraft your present work to use your signature strengths more. If you are the employer, choose employees whose signature strengths mesh with the work they will do. If you are a manager, make room to allow employees to recraft the work within the bounds of your goals.

Romantic relationships and a social life

Something that is repeated over and over again in all scientific literature I read about happiness, is the importance of strong social relationships in general and a strong romantic relationship in particular. To find a romantic partner seems to be one of the major roads to improved happiness that is also actually something you can take action towards.

We took an unselected sample of 222 college students and measured happiness rigorously by using six different scales, then focused on the happiest 10 percent. These “very happy” people differed markedly from average people and from unhappy people in one principal way: a rich and fulfilling social life. The very happy people spent the least time alone (and the most time socializing), and they were rated highest on good relationships by themselves and by their friends. All 22 members of the very happy group, except one, reported a current romantic partner.

Secure, avoidant, anxious attachment styles

Seligman spends a few pages explaining attachment theory and the different attachment styles that people have. I think this is really important to be aware of, and the book is worth reading if only for these parts.

Seligman explains what the different attachment styles are, how they are shaped by genes and our upbringing, and how they have a profound effect on our success in relationships with other people. Maybe I'll do a separate blog post on this later, but in the meanwhile read up on it here.


To summarize Seligmans advice:

You can make your past happier by practicing gratefulness, which will enhance your happy memories and feelings. You can also make your past happier by practicing forgiveness, which will weaken your negative memories and feelings. If you have the world view that your negative past will dictate your future, you should recognise that this view is not helpful for you and let go of it.

And you can make your present happier by finding your signature strengths, and adjusting your work in a way so that you are utilizing them more, thereby being in flow more of the time.

These things together will lead to ha happy future.

Thanks Ed Schipul for the header photo, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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