"Authentic Happiness," Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Pros: Grounded, solid research; well-explained; practical and helpful; associated web site
Cons: In the effort to avoid association with certain bad practices makes apparent contradictions
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 1/27/2005
Review book provided courtesy of Simon & Schuster/The Free Press.

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., is a self-avowed pessimist. He’s also a world-renowned researcher into the field of positive psychology–the idea that we shouldn’t just be concentrating on making ourselves less unhappy, but also on making ourselves more happy.

Much research has shown that people have a set range of happiness, and they’re likely to stay within this set range throughout their lives, returning to it over and over again. This is a positive thing when faced with negative life circumstances–it means we’re likely to recover from them. But it also means that if our set range isn’t very high, we’re unlikely to progress much beyond this.

Seligman proposes a slightly different way of looking at this situation, however, and represents it with the following equation:

H = S + C + V

where H is your overall current happiness, S is your set range, C is the influence of current life events, and V represents those factors under your voluntary control. His idea is that while you can’t really change your set range, you can do things to maximize your current position relative to that set range. In other words, you can set yourself up to experience the highest part of that range a much greater portion of the time.

In large part he believes you can do this by altering how you view your life (past, present and future), using psychological strategies to make your life more pleasant, and discovering and using to the fullest what he calls your “signature strengths.”

Solidly-researched

The research in this book is quite methodical and solid. Seligman systematically lays out the details of dozens of studies (at least!) and decades, if not centuries, of research by luminaries and students alike. He makes it easy to look at the numbers and see for yourself whether his arguments make sense or not. He also includes a very long chapter of endnotes in the appendices in case you’re looking for further directions to research in (there’s also a very well-detailed index to help you find things again after you’ve read the book and want to look things up).

Well-explained

I won’t lie to you–this is a thick book. Not dry, thankfully, and not inaccessible, but definitely thick. It isn’t something you can skim in two hours and be done with; it takes some time to read through, digest, and absorb. This is not a bad thing. Everything is explained with care and attention to detail, and there’s a great deal of research to mention and suggestions to convey.

In short, this is no “ten steps to happiness” fluffy self-help book; it’s a solid work of lasting merit. A couple of times I had to re-read paragraphs because there was a lot of information to digest, but I didn’t feel confused or lost. On those rare occasions when I started feeling a little uncertain as to where Dr. Seligman was going with something, I learned to sit back and wait–he inevitably drew to a conclusion that made sense and explained anything I was having trouble with.

Practical and helpful

This is an immensely practical and helpful book. It doesn’t just talk about happiness; it provides concrete strategies backed up by thorough research that can help you to improve your happiness and your satisfaction with your life. For example, in one study people took tests that measured joy, happiness, and life satisfaction. Then, for two weeks they kept a diary every night of things they were grateful for in their lives. At the end of those two weeks they took the test again, and their scores had shot up. The research Seligman shares shows that even simple things like this can have a great impact on how we see our lives and the satisfaction we derive from what we do. In this instance he suggests that you take similar tests, write down up to five things every night for which you’re grateful, and re-take those tests after two weeks to see if the same thing happens for you.

The associated web site

There’s a web site associated with the book: www.authentichappiness.org

There you can register for an account and take any of the tests present in the book, such as those that measure happiness, life satisfaction, and your signature strengths. Having the tests on-line makes them easy to take, and the site will tell you how you fared compared to others in your age group, gender, geographic area, and so on. It will also record and save your scores so that you can access them and look at them before re-taking the tests after applying some of his strategies to your life.

Some well-meaning apparent contradictions

My one problem is that there are some apparent contradictions in this text. For example, in an attempt to decry the self-esteem movement Dr. Seligman points to research that shows that children largely grow up to have personalities similar to those of their biological parents regardless of upbringing, making the point that therefore all of this stuff about teaching self-esteem to children is pointless.

However, after that his own suggestions and research seem to put the lie to this. For example, when discussing cognitive therapy, beliefs, and replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, he states, “Our reflexive explanations are usually distortions. They are mere bad habits of thought produced by unpleasant experiences in the past–childhood conflicts, strict parents … But because they now seem to issue from ourselves, we treat them as gospel.” He also has an entire section on applying positive psychology to parenting, which I think is a beautiful section with wonderful ideas–none of which would really matter if he was right about childhood not making a difference.

Here’s what I think happened. People often confuse self-esteem as a concept with some of the poor ways in which it has been applied. For example, a good exploration into the field of self-esteem makes it clear that people should take responsibility for their actions and lives; passively declaring yourself a victim of your childhood experiences is not the point of promoting self-esteem theories. However, there are many people who have used it that way. I believe that Dr. Seligman wanted to make sure that there was no way for people to abuse his theories in this manner–that they simply couldn’t take his ideas and twist them into some notion that whether or not you’re a nice or happy person is your parents’ responsibility and not yours, nor that genetics had no effect on your personality at all (as usual, research shows that neither extreme in the nature vs. nurture argument gives us all the answers–they both hold some validity).

However, in so doing I think perhaps he went a little too far in the other direction. It would now be too easy for someone to read that one section and decide that they didn’t need to worry about positive parenting at all because it didn’t matter–which clearly isn’t his goal, because he has an entire chapter on applying positive psychology to child-rearing. Also, many of his “positive psychology” goals of recognizing and applying your strengths relate directly to self-esteem ideas–just not to, again, the poor and overly-broad ways in which some people have applied self-esteem theories.

How to be happier

This truly is a how-to book on happiness. The research is solid, careful, and well-thought-out. Dr. Seligman, a self-avowed pessimist, makes it easy for non-optimists to see and understand his points; unlike many optimists he doesn’t boil it down to a simple “cheer up!” but instead gives us critical evidence and practical strategies. The examples he uses from his own life and the lives of others are carefully-chosen and do a wonderful job of illustrating his points. He isn’t afraid to show the times and places where he’s been imperfect in his attempt to show us how we can better our lives.

This is a courageous, in-depth, thoughtful, and highly helpful book for just about anyone from a brilliant researcher. I have no hesitation in recommending it, and will probably be passing it on to several people I know.

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