You're called the father of positive psychology. When you were president of the American Psychological Association, you brought a revolutionary change to the focus of what psychologists were doing. Could you talk about how that happened?
It used to be that whenever I introduced myself to people and told them I was a psychologist, they would shrink away from me. Because quite rightly the impression the American public has of psychologists is "You want to know what's wrong with me." Having paid 35 years of dues learning what's wrong with people, I had my own epiphany which convinced me that what psychology needed to do was to ask not just about the disabling conditions of life, the things that prevent us from having fulfilling lives, but what are the enabling conditions. I came to the belief that we needed to have a psychology to complement the psychology of suffering--a psychology of the best things in life and how to build them.
Were your colleagues at the APA shocked by this change from the mental illness model?
When I give speeches to colleagues, it's the only time in my life that I see people weep in the audience, it's the only time when I have heartfelt standing ovations. I think many psychologists went into it because they wanted to make people happy. They found that they were on this healthcare plantation in which their job was only remedial. Psychologists recognized they sold their birthright to become part of the healthcare system.
So you've enabled them to have a more meaningful impact on the world?
Most psychologists want to help you have more fulfilling lives. They want to ask the religious question. My colleagues were very open to this issue. So to my astonishment, because I had always relished being unpopular, this was the most popular thing I'd ever done.
What was the epiphany that led you to study happiness?
Almost everything I've done that involved big changes in life has happened in a flash. This happened when my daughter Nikki and I were gardening, and she was just five. I should confess that when I garden, I'm goal-directed, time-urgent. Nikki was throwing weeds in the air and dancing around, and I yelled at her. She came back to me and said, "Daddy, do you remember before I was five, I whined all the time, I whined everyday? Did you notice that since my fifth birthday I haven't whined at all?" I said, Yes, Nikki. "Well, Daddy, that was because on my birthday I decided I wasn't going to whine anymore. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being so grumpy!"
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."