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.

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One of my students is a waitress and she really hated being patronized by customers, plus it was physically tedious work. Her highest strength is social intelligence. She decided she would recraft her work to make her customers' encounter with her the social highlight of their evening. She transformed something that was both tedious and negative into something that had "flow." That's a "good life" example.

A "meaningful life" example is deploying your best strengths in the service of something larger. We do an exercise called "philanthropy vs. fun." The assignment is to do something fun and write it up, and do something altruistic and write it up. Here's a typical report: When people do something fun, when it's over, it's over-for example, hanging out with their friends, watching television, listening to music. When they're done, they're done. But in the philanthropic activities, the effects are longer lasting. One of the women spent two hours on the phone tutoring her nephew in third-grade arithmetic. She said that the whole day went better for her. She could listen to people better, she was mellower, people liked her more. And one of the Wharton [School of Business] students said, "I went to Wharton to make a lot of money, because I thought it would bring more freedom and more happiness. But I found I could be happier helping other people than I could be buying things."

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So money really doesn't buy happiness. In your book, you mention that even winning the lottery doesn't make people permanently happy. Why is that?

It turns out that each of us has our own set range for happiness, which is largely inherited-and there's a study of lottery winners showing that after the initial elation of winning, they eventually revert back to their baseline happiness level. In fact, good fortune is no guarantee of happiness. You get used to your level of wealth and health, and even major events-like being fired or promoted-lose their impact on happiness in a matter of months.

In contrast, when you identify your highest strengths and virtues, the things you're best at-and then you do the tricks of recrafting love and work and parenting and play to use them more-you create lasting happiness. So the whole point of positive psychology interventions that they are not only self-maintaining, but they snowball in a positive direction. That's because you really have to do it yourself, it's a discovery within you. It's not doing something external. It's finding what you're really best at and doing it more.

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Interview by Wendy Schuman
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