Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

Martin E.P. Seligman
New York: The Free Press, 2002
321 pp., $26.00 hc

Paul Monaco
Media & Theatre Arts

In her novel, A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf asked, "How explain the anger of the professors? Why are they angry?"

Are academics today any more angry or dysfunctional than the members of other professions? Not according to the statistics reported in Authentic Happiness. Lawyers seem to be the unhappiest of any occupational group (with female attorneys ranking at the absolute bottom in measures of happiness and gratification). So the next time you find yourself in an especially ugly or dull faculty meeting, just lean back and take solace that you're not at your law office.

Of course, this is not to say that we academics and administrators don't need self-help books such as Donald E. Hall's The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual (reviewed in this issue). From the number of additional self-help books and essays cited in the book's bibliography, there is palpable concern among many academics about finding real and lasting gratification in life. Like everyone else, they want to be happy, really happy. The book under review here will help them--and anyone else--have a better idea about how to achieve, and what happiness actually, or "authentically," is.

For some skeptics, any talk about "happiness," of course, seems too elusive to be valuable; but Martin E.P. Seligman's Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment makes a serious and powerful case on behalf of our understanding the empirical evidence about human gratification and the evolution and the nurturing of positive emotion.

Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a recent Past President of the American Psychological Association, believes that during the second half of the 20th century the field of psychology has been consumed by what he calls a "disease model." As a result, since 1945 great progress has been made in treating depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism, which, along with another dozen mental illnesses, can now be effectively treated with medication and specific forms of psychotherapy. What psychology has neglected since the Second World War, however, is the study of human virtue, positive emotion, and the enhancement of our lives. Seligman's book examines that emerging study and the science on which it is based.

According to Seligman, the "New Positive Psychology" has three pillars. The first is the study of positive emotion. The second is the study of positive traits, foremost among them the virtues, but also the "abilities" such as intelligence and athleticism. Third is the study of positive institutions that support the virtues, such as democracy, strong families, and free inquiry. While psychology, he argues, has neglected the study and analysis of virtue over the past half-century, philosophy and religion have not. From religion and philosophy, Seligman identifies six core virtues that converge across the millennia and across cultures: wisdom and knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; spirituality and transcendence. In his accompanying taxonomy of strengths, he identifies several as being "tonic," and ones which might be displayed by someone several times a day, such as kindness, curiosity, loyalty, and spirituality. The other, rarer strengths he labels as "phasia," perseverance, perspective, fairness, and valor. A single instance of "phasic" action may suffice to define a fulfilled life.

Modern psychology, working in the disease model, has concentrated on therapy in trying to help people who present themselves for treatment once their problems have become unbearable. Seligman and the others who identify themselves with Positive Psychology wish to shift at least some of the attention of their field to building human strengths as a buffer in the prevention of mental illness. In their view, coaching may soon begin to complement or to replace therapy in helping people live better lives and surmount their problems. Therefore, one branch of Positive Psychology focuses on the science of nurturing sets of strengths, competencies, and virtues in young people, such as future-mindedness, hope, interpersonal skills, courage, and the capacity for "flow," faith, and developing a work ethic.

In earlier books, Learned Optimism (Knopf, 1991) and The Optimistic Child (HarperPerennial, 1996), for example, Seligman has set out the evidence that teaching ten-year-old children the skills of optimistic thinking and action can cut their rate of depression in half by the time they go through puberty. Seligman's work on optimism (which grew out of his earlier pioneering research on learned helplessness) is one platform upon which the New Positive Psychology is based. It underlies the emphasis formulated throughout Authentic Happiness on cognitive coaching, self-help, and the importance of what Seligman calls one's "explanatory style." When pessimists suffers a loss or defeat in life, they attribute it to causes that are long-lasting or permanent, affect everything, and that are their own fault. By contrast, optimists regard defeat and loss as temporary, limited to the present case, and as being the result of circumstances, bad luck, or the actions of other people.

Another of the platforms for Positive Psychology comes from the research and writing of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who directs the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University. He has conducted a lifelong quest to discover scientifically the key to human beings at their best, and his signal contribution to psychology is the concept of "flow." When do you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to end? (See, Flow, Harper & Row, 1990, and Finding Flow, Basic Books, 1998.) When we are in flow we concentrate; there are clear goals; we get immediate feedback; we have deep, effortless involvement; there is a sense of control; our sense of self vanishes; time stops.

Standard English usage offers no real clarification of the differences between happiness and gratification, and few of us can clearly distinguish the difference between a cool drink on a hot afternoon or a back rub, on the one hand, and rock climbing or playing bridge on the other. Seligman explains that the difference is total absorption, the suspension of consciousness, and entering flow. These are the elements which define true gratification. Total immersion, in fact, blocks consciousness, and emotions are completely absent. It is the gratifications, not the pleasures, which are key to leading a fulfilled life.

Positive Psychology places special value on the notion that true flow is achieved when a task is challenging and requires skill. Seligman argues persuasively that nearly any employment can be made into a vocation for one so long as the activity matches one's interests and also challenges that individual at some level of his or her "signature strengths." The argument is very different from the popular and widespread emphasis on nurturing self-esteem on the basis of indiscriminate praise. The notion that whatever you do will be rewarded is unlikely to produce any lasting gratification.

Positive Psychology arrives at the view that positive and negative traits are equally authentic and fundamental in humans, which constitutes the movement's basic motivational premise. The research of Barbara Fredickson and Thomas Joiner at the University of Michigan, for example, provides grounds for augmenting positive emotions in children early in life in order to start an upward spiral of positive emotion. Just as years ago cognitive therapists found themselves running up against a "downward spiral" of negative emotion in the depressed patients they treated, so Seligman has been advancing the idea that the coping styles of people can be altered. Evolution has various niches that support morality, cooperation, altruism, and goodness in humans. Authentic Happiness devotes an exhaustive number of pages not only to the argument for building positive emotion in kids, but also to the coaching of persons at all ages toward seeing the benefit of these values.

In his third section of Authentic Happiness, "In The Mansions of Life," Seligman provides his readers strategies for increasing our sense of gratification in work, love, and the raising of children. His readers are steered toward an understanding that has to do with the way in which we can increase optimism and hope into pervasive and permanent values for dealing with the world. Seligman the scientist, however, remains strictly descriptive. His goal is not to tell you that you should be optimistic, or spiritual, or kind, or good-humored. He accounts for the evolution of such traits; but his main point is to describe the consequences of these traits of being "optimistic" and developing an "explanatory style" that allows you to deal with life and its vicissitudes and setbacks optimistically brings about less depression, better physical health, and high achievement.

George Valliant's/1/ massive longitudinal studies of men from youth to death for the Harvard classes of 1939 to 1944, as well as for inner-city inhabitants of Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, conclude that having chores as a child is one of the only early predictors of positive mental health later in life. So, chores it must be, but which chores? Seligman's central argument points to selecting and assigning chores which match to a child's signature strengths and for which there is an increased likelihood of the child achieving flow while doing them. In the pages of Authentic Happiness Seligman has distilled and summarized for his readers volumes of seminal research findings from Ed Diener (University of Illinois), Chris Peterson (University of Michigan), Lisa Aspinwall (University of Utah), Sandy Murray (SUNY, Buffalo), Sonja Lyubomirsky (UC-Riverside) and others, as well as from Csikszentmihalyi, Frederickson, Joiner, and Valliant. The data is not only abundant, but it is also extensively cross-cultural.

In sum, three things reliably predict a heightened sense of gratification and fulfillment for adults: 1) being in a romantic relationship that we consider stable; 2) being able to perceive how we make a living as a vocation or a calling rather than simply as a job or work; 3) believing in something larger, or higher, than ourselves. Conversely, there is no significant correlation between wealth, or health, or education, and authentic happiness.

I am a fan of Seligman's work; not long after I had read Authentic Happiness in manuscript, I began putting together a documentary film project on the New Positive Psychology. Nonetheless, there are myriad points and suggestions in the book for which the volume has neither time nor space. Coaching in preventive life skills and explanatory style developing as a profession is intriguing, but remains unexplored in this volume.

For educators, beyond its general good science and information about what nurtures a sense of gratification and fulfillment, Authentic Happiness raises various questions about what is positive teaching/learning, a positive curriculum, and how schools, colleges, and universities might modify themselves toward being more positive institutions. Here, I can only say that I discern a few things from the book's general provocations, one of them being that praise and reward for something bereft of real accomplishment is empty and counterproductive.

The rewards of unearned grades and praise then, not too surprisingly, must be few and brief. Even worse, the evidence makes its likely that often unearned praise and inflated grades must leave lots of their recipients with an empty feeling of ill-gotten gain and a cynicism about the individuals and institutions who doled them out. On the other hand, how do educators design programs, curricula, and learning opportunities that better mesh with the signature strengths of greater numbers of students? Is this challenge not at the heart of what faces so many of us today in public higher education? What can positive Psychology suggest about how to engage students more effectively in their own learning? What can Positive Psychology tell us about what approaches to curriculum change which might have the highest likelihood of success in facilitating learning?

Any reader may take away from Seligman's book a number of suggestions for answering these questions. What Authentic Happiness demonstrates concretely is that the data is overwhelming that to the extent that children can be exposed to coaching in Positive Psychology and developing optimistic explanatory styles early they will be better prepared to deal with typical episodes of depression in adolescence. The extent to which adolescents are guided toward identifying signature strengths early, and toward finding situations in which flow is most likely achieved is solid grounds for future achievement and gratification. Post-secondary education in the United States is bound to benefit from the arrival of more focused and optimistic learners on its doorstep. The extent to which, and how, public higher education would most effectively respond to such a shift would become a question of what changes would really make multi-purpose universities into more positive institutions. Let's hope that in the first quarter of the 21st century that we may all get to find out.


  1. Valliant is Director of the Harvard Center on Aging.--P.M.[Back]

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