The Psychology of Real Happiness

Psychologist Martin Seligman helped change his profession's focus from what's wrong with people to what's right with them.

BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman

 

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In a flash I saw three things: first that she was right about me, I really was a nimbus cloud, and probably any success I had in life was probably not due to being a grouch but was in spite of it. And I saw that our usual theory of child-rearing was incorrect. I realized my job with Nikki was not to correct her errors but to take this virtue that she had just shown and somehow amplify it, help her use it as a buffer against troubles. That raised the question of strength and virtue.

And finally I realized that my profession was half-baked, that the baked part was about suffering, but the unbaked part was about positive emotion and virtue and positive institutions. In that moment, in a classical religious sense, I acquired a mission. And that mission is still with me, it's what I've been doing full-time since 1998.

In your book, you call it "authentic happiness." What in your view is authentic happiness?

I divide happiness into three completely different kinds of life: the pleasant life-and if you're really good at the pleasures, if you're in the upper 50% of positive affectivity, you can lead a pleasant life-that revolves around felt joys and pleasures. It turns out, though, there are a lot of people who don't feel pleasure. Half the population is at the bottom. But often those people lead lives that are very close to what Aristotle called "the good life," which is the second route to happiness. It's knowing what your highest strengths and virtues are and using them all the time-in work, in love, in play, in parenting. There are shortcuts to the pleasant life-drugs, loveless sex, television, shopping; but there are no shortcuts to the good life. It involves knowing what your signature strengths are, and then learning how to use them more often. That's the reason I call this "authentic happiness."

And the third [route to happiness] is the meaningful life: that's knowing your signature strengths, and using them in the service of something much larger than you are. There are no shortcuts.

Can you give me an example of using your signature strengths to achieve the good life, and then to achieve the meaningful life?

Sure. When I teach positive psychology-and it's the most joyous teaching I've ever done, it beats abnormal psychology by a mile-we do exercises each week which are meaningful for the students. I'll give you two examples. One of the assignments is to identify something they do at work which is tedious and to find some way to find some way of recrafting that part of their work to deploy their highest strengths. They've all taken the signature strengths inventory from the book, so they know what their strengths are.

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