Martin Seligman’s “Authentic Happiness”

by David_Gross6 min read27th Dec 20201 comment

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Martin E.P. Seligman (W) is a pioneer of “positive psychology” (W). His book Authentic Happiness (2002) is a pop-psych examination of how people can use positive psychology in their lives (I've put page number references in superscript below).

Positive psychology

Positive psychology supplements traditional psychology, which often focuses on fixing pathologies and bringing people up to a normal baseline, by aiming to help people live better, happier, more meaningful lives that exceed such a baseline.

The discipline, according to Seligman, has three focuses:xiii

  1. positive emotions (e.g. confidence, hope, trust). These are fleeting but important to living a flourishing life.
  2. positive traits (or sometimes “strengths,” “virtues,” or “abilities”). These are characteristic, abiding dispositions.
  3. positive institutions. These are social and political structures and practices that support the virtues.

Concentrate on your strengths

Seligman believes everyone has certain strengths already (“signature strengths”), and you should concentrate on using those strengths as much as possible rather than on trying to improve your weaknesses:

“I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.”13

(For the record, I disagree.)

Happiness is where it’s at

This is in part due to Seligman’s belief that simple “happiness” (as opposed to, say, Aristotle’s more complex eudaimonia) is our end goal. To use your signature strengths feels easy, natural, and competent; by contrast strengthening our weaknesses can be hard, frustrating, and tiring; so while the latter may help make you more well-rounded and capable, the former is more conducive to happiness.

What’s good about happiness isn’t just the enjoyable feeling itself, but that when we feel happy we are better at forming social connections, we are more “expansive, tolerant, and creative,” we learn better, and we are mentally quicker.35–36 (Though there are some conflicting studies suggesting depressed people have better critical thinking skills.37–38) Happier people are healthier and live longer. They are more satisfied in their jobs, and tend to earn more and get better employee evaluations. Two other things that seem to correlate with happiness are connection and altruism.42–43 Seligman doesn’t put much effort into explaining whether these sorts of things are mere correlations or if some sort of causation (and if so in which direction) is involved.

One’s happiness depends on a combination of factors, which Seligman expresses as: : Enduring happiness (H) is equal to your set range (S) plus your life circumstances (C) plus factors under your voluntary control (V). Your set range includes things like your genetic predisposition to a particular range of moods, and common aspects of human psychology like the “hedonic treadmill” (in which good fortune only seems to give us temporary boosts in mood).45–50 Circumstances include things like do you have enough economic resources, are you in a romantic relationship, do you have a rich social life, your age, whether you’re healthy, whether you’re religious… that sort of thing. Some of these things correlate strongly with happiness (e.g. being reasonably well-off, married, with a rich social network), some moderately (avoiding negative circumstances, being religious), some less than you’d think (health, climate, education, vast riches).50–61

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman is more interested in the V factor.

Satisfaction, optimism, and happiness

Seligman says there are certain positive emotions about the past, present, and future, such as:

The past

Seligman believes that old psychological dogmas, those that say we are helplessly determined by accidents of our childhood upbringings, are bogus, and that we have much more control over ourselves than we have been given credit for. Also, freely expressing our emotions (so as to avoid the damage of Freudian “repression”) rather than trying to exert control over them is overrated and perhaps counterproductive.66–70

Our emotions about the past can be adjusted by deciding to think about our pasts differently. In particular, we can deliberately focus on the positive aspects of the past through such techniques as gratitude and deemphasize the negative ones through such techniques as forgiveness.70–81

The future

One thing that distinguishes people who are optimistic about the future is that they see the negative things in their past as temporary and malleable; pessimistic people are more likely to see them as permanent and persistent. (The opposite is the case for positive things in their past: optimistic people are more likely to see these as characteristic rather than episodic.) This feeling about time has a corresponding counterpart in feeling about space. Optimistic people are biased toward seeing negative things as local and particular, positive things as pervasive and universal; pessimistic people, the other way around. These things combine to give optimistic people their sense of hope.88–93

Seligman advises trying to recraft yourself into an optimist by challenging your negative thinking: notice pessimistic thoughts when they happen and then spend some time arguing against them as though you were arguing with someone else. He gives a five-step technique for doing this that sounded to me like a cognitive-behavioral therapy thing, but I don’t know enough about CBT to say for sure. He supplements that with a set of effective rhetorical techniques to use when arguing with yourself.93–97

The present

Positive emotions in the present include simple, transient sensory pleasures and more complex and enduring “gratifications” that seem to involve a flow state, are somewhat more intellectual, and rely on virtues more than senses.

For sensory pleasures it helps if they are novel (because it’s otherwise easy to habituate to them such that they are no longer pleasurable), and that you deliberately savor them mindfully.102–111 “Gratification” Seligman compares to eudaimonia. It is the feeling you get when you’re in the flow, doing something skillfully and well.111–112 In particular, this state happens when (bulleted list quoted directly from the book)116:

  • The task is challenging and requires skill
  • 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

This state is usually not accompanied by emotions like joy… instead it’s more empty of emotion. Joy comes in retrospect. But the satisfaction you get from this state is also more enduring than anything that comes from the cheap-and-easy sensory pleasures.

The virtues

There are three criteria that distinguish virtues:11

  1. They are valued in almost every culture. (Contrast this with Alasdair MacIntyre’s point of view in After Virtue in which he said that virtues are necessarily specific to the culture in which they develop.)
  2. They are valued as ends in themselves, not just means. (To use Seligman’s example, “punctuality” is a means to efficiency, not an end in itself, so doesn’t count as a virtue.)
  3. They are malleable / learnable. (Seligman says this means things like “intelligence” and “perfect pitch” are out, as these are more innate; he calls them “talents” to distinguish them from “strengths”.)

(At another point137–38 he adds that strengths are things “parents wish for their newborn”, often cause “elevated and inspired” feelings in onlookers and in the person who exhibits the strength, are encouraged by the culture via “institutions, rituals, models, parables, maxims, and children’s stories”, can be exemplified by well-known “role models and paragons”, and are things people have a wide range of proficiency in — some “prodigies” and others “idiots”. Amusingly he, in 2002, lists Donald Trump among the obviously idiotic examples as a bad role model for children.)

Remember also that Seligman distinguishes virtues from what he calls “positive emotions” (e.g. confidence, hope, trust), which are considered virtues in some other schemes. He’s not entirely consistent about this (“hope” turns up also as one of his strengths/virtues).

The routes to the virtues

Seligman identifies “six core virtues” that fit this bill, which in turn can be subdivided into various “strengths,” which he sometimes also calls “routes” to the virtue:11, 132–33, 137–60

virtuestrength / route
wisdom / knowledgecuriosity/interest in the world,
love of learning, judgment/critical thinking/open-mindedness,
ingenuity/originality/practical intelligence/street smarts,
social intelligence/personal intelligence/emotional intelligence,
perspective
couragevalor/bravery,
perseverance/industry/diligence,
integrity/genuineness/honesty
love / humanitykindness/generosity,
nurturance,
the capacity to be loved,
sacrifice,
compassion
justicegood citizenship/duty/teamwork/loyalty,
fairness/equity,
humane leadership
temperanceself control,
prudence/discretion/caution,
humility/modesty
transcendenceappreciation of beauty and excellence,
gratitude,
hope/optimism/future-mindedness,
spirituality/sense of purpose/faith/religiousness,
forgiveness/mercy,
playfulness/humor,
zest/passion/enthusiasm

Some virtues, he says, are tonic (they can be practiced just about any time) and others are phasic (they require unusual circumstances).13

“Talents” are distinguished from “strengths” in Seligman’s scheme, as noted above, by whether they’re innate and inflexible (talents), or learnable and malleable (strengths). Some other things that distinguish strengths are that they are “moral traits”, are acquired by practice, are more voluntary and deliberate, and demonstrate good character more than good luck.134–37

Signature strengths

Certain of these strengths will be your “signature strengths”. You will know them because they feel like they’re part of the authentic you, you get a charge out of exhibiting them, they’re easy for you to acquire and strengthen, you can deploy them in a variety of ways and are eager to do so, you feel particularly competent in them, and you tend to engage in activities in which you can use them. You can take a test designed by The VIA Institute that’s meant to help you find your signature strengths.160

The more you can organize your life such that what you do on a daily basis exercises your signature strengths, the more you’ll be in the flow, and the happier you’ll be. In particular, you’ll probably get a lot more out of life if you work at a job at which you can exercise your signature strengths than if you work for money.Ch.10

The meaning of life

Seligman has a couple of chapters on relationships and on parenting that I skimmed. They didn’t have much to do with his main thesis and seemed a little tacked-on.

In the final chapter he tries to make the case for a sort of secular alternative to the religious outlook — something that would be useful to people who want to work on their transcendence virtue but who can’t swallow religious myths. He got excited by NonZero, a book by Robert Wright, (W) that says there’s a hidden teleology in biological evolution after all, and that this is moving life and human culture towards a destiny of intelligence and non-zero-sum, win-win cooperation.

Seligman suspects that positive psychology might play a role in this: negative emotions are crucial for navigating lose-win games, but to play win-win games you need nuanced and well-developed positive emotions. By aligning yourself with humanity’s quest to become more knowledgeable, more powerful, and/or more benevolent, you ally yourself with the godlike aspirations of the universe itself. By using your signature strengths to do so, you lead a life that is not just pleasant but also meaningful. Something like that. Seemed a little woo-woo to me.

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So much to think about. I will only comment on two details:

Seligman believes everyone has certain strengths already (“signature strengths”), and you should concentrate on using those strengths as much as possible rather than on trying to improve your weaknesses:

“I do not believe that you should devote overly much effort to correcting your weaknesses. Rather, I believe that the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.”

(For the record, I disagree.)

Seems to me that some traits are "optional", like playing a piano. If you have a weakness in an optional area, just ignore it. The time and energy to get from "zero" to "mediocre" is better spent somewhere else.

Some traits are "necessary", like healthy living, or communicating with people. A big weakness here is almost certainly going to hurt you. You should spend time and energy to get from "zero" to "mediocre", but maybe you can then stop there, because of the diminishing returns.

This was the perspective of weakness. From the perspective of strength, it depends on whether your skills are "alternatives" or "synergies". For alternatives, focus on the strongest. If you could be a great software developer or a great piano player, choose one, because you get better paid for having one "great" skill than two "nice" skills that you can't use simultaneously. For synergies -- if you are a math teacher, you could work on your math skills or on your teaching skills -- do whatever gives you better marginal total improvement, probably both of them in long term.

(It is debatable what exactly is an alternative and what is synergy. Perhaps you could become a YouTube celebrity by playing piano music about software development. But if you are not using your skills as synergy, for all practical purposes they are not.)

Important note: strengths are not opposites of weaknesses. For example, being physically too weak is bad and you should fix it, but being too bad at playing piano is a thing you can safely ignore. On the other end of the scale, being a bodybuilder and being a great piano player are two alternatives, neither of them inherently better than the other one.

As a toy math model, imagine that your traits are numbers from -100 to +100, and each trait at value x gives you x^3 utility points. If you get an opportunity to give +1 to one of your traits, obviously you choose the largest negative one over smaller negative ones, and the largest positive one over smaller positive ones. If this happens repeatedly with the negative numbers, you will keep improving the worst ones, putting them into greater balance. If this happens repeatedly with the positive numbers, you will keep improving the best one, making greater imbalance. In this model, skills like "communication" have a range between -100 and +100, but skills like piano playing have a range between 0 and +100.

But you also need to consider not just your hypothetical optimal character build, but also what is psychologically sustainable. Maybe spending 24 hours a day fixing your mistakes sounds good, but I wouldn't be surprised if it ended quite bad, simply because you would spend all your time focusing on how bad you are. You should spend enough time developing your existing strengths, just to remind yourself that you have them.

...oops, this got much longer than I originally intended...

Also, freely expressing our emotions (so as to avoid the damage of Freudian “repression”) rather than trying to exert control over them is overrated and perhaps counterproductive.

If "freely expressing emotions" means something like "whenever you get angry, start screaming", I believe that in psychoanalysis this is used as an intermediate stage, like an improvement over "sitting silently and cutting your arms", or as a debugging tool during the session, not as a desirable way of life.