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Review of "Authentic Happiness"

By Martin Seligman
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2002
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 13th 2003
Authentic Happiness

In this audiobook, Martin Seligman offers Positive Psychology.  He argues that we need a science of happiness, and explains that that there have been a number of new findings in psychology that help us understand how to become happier.  He argues against some of the cherished doctrines of older psychology, especially what he calls the "rotten to the core" doctrine.  He argues there is no evidence that humans are basically selfish and aggressive and that any altruistic or creative action must have a neurotic motivation.  Seligman claims instead that evolution has given us both good and bad qualities, which he calls his "dual aspect premise" and is a foundation of his work.  He argues that it is as important to build our positive qualities as it is to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, and that psychological research has neglected the positive emotions.

Seligman does a great job of setting out interesting scientific findings about the importance of happiness.  Using this data, he argues that a positive outlook can extend and improve our lives.  One amazing piece of evidence he cites concerns high school senior class photos.  A study showed that women who gave genuine smiles in their photos (smiling with their eyes as well as their mouths) were more likely to get married, stay married, and report satisfaction with their lives many years later.  Seligman argues that in order to understand happiness, we need a rich understanding of its nature, since it is more than just a feeling.  In his view, it is important to foster one's positive character traits, especially optimism, which he argues can bring about greater longevity. 

Barbara Frederickson's work on positive emotions is especially important to Seligman.  She performed experiments that show that happy people can be more effective and creative.  There are experiments that suggest that depressed people are more accurate judges of their skills and capabilities than happy people, but Frederickson also shows that depressed people, not surprisingly, often tend to remember negative information more readily than positive information.  So there are limits to so-called "depressive realism."  Indeed, it is a part of common experience that being depressed interferes in people's ability to get things done and to do a good job.  Happy people often have greater endurance and ability to cope with adversity.  Seligman concludes from such facts that it is worth trying to make oneself happy rather than assume that one's happiness level is fixed by one's genetics and childhood experience. 

One interesting idea Seligman promotes is that a solitary life is not conducive to happiness -- and that happy people tend to be highly sociable.  Wealth, physical attractiveness, and even personal accomplishments apparently have little correlation with overall levels of happiness.  Once the gross national product of a nation exceeds $8000 per person, greater wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness.  Even the fabulously rich are only slightly happier than the average person.  In contrast, marriage is robustly related to happiness.  Seligman is careful to recognize that it has not been proven that sociability and marriage cause people to be happy, since it is possible that it is happiness that makes people more sociable and makes them more likely to get married.  Similarly, he points out that religious people tend to be more resilient and happy than non-religious people, but again, it does not follow that religion causes one to be happy. 

Seligman occasionally discusses Freudian and behaviorist views, mostly in order to dispute them.  He argues for the importance of cognition over emotion, but concedes that thinking and emotions can affect each other.  He emphasizes that it is crucial to avoid being ruled by one's past, and it can be helpful to look back one's past in a positive way since bitterness and regret can poison one's life.  Seligman endorses the views of Aaron Beck against psychodynamic theories that suggest that dwelling on the past can be helpful and venting one's feelings helps one to release them.  There are many studies that show that people who readily vent their anger are more likely to suffer from heart disease.  

While Seligman devotes little time to explicitly discussing the philosophical tradition that discusses the nature of happiness and how one should achieve a happy life, it seems that tradition does inform his approach.  In particular, his ideas overlap with both the Aristotelian and Epicurean traditions in his emphasis on developing virtuous character traits and the necessity of acting honorably in order to achieve happiness. He distinguishes between the pleasurable life and the good life, and argues that we need to enrich our lives through involvement in the world rather than selfishly seeking pleasure.  He strongly endorses the concept of "flow" that has been highlighted by Mihaly Csikszentmilhayi -- very roughly, he believes that it is important to be totally involved in one's activities rather than self-consciously detached from one's life. 

Ultimately Seligman's advice is very much in the American tradition of positive thinking, and his use in scientific findings does not depart much from the sort of advice that would have been available a century before.  However, his writing is clear and he makes a strong case for his view.  Listening to Authentic Happiness is full of hints that may be helpful to some people -- as with any self-help book, its usefulness will depend very much on the individual reader.  Seligman's advice is neither patronizing nor badgering; rather his tone is moderate and respectful. He provides plenty of examples to illustrate his ideas and he avoids technical jargon.  If you are looking for a self-help book that might help you to find more satisfaction in your life and to find ideas about becoming happier, Seligman's Authentic Happiness is a good option.

 

Link: Authentic Happiness Website.

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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