Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment

by Martin E.P. Seligman

Authentic Happiness challenges the notion that lasting joy is solely determined by genetics or luck. Esteemed psychologist and bestselling author Martin Seligman presents a groundbreaking perspective, emphasizing that true happiness is within reach for anyone willing to embrace a new approach. Through a series of practical exercises, you'll learn how to uncover your personal strengths, unleash your potential, and lead a happier and more fulfilling life.

Summary Notes

The Role of Positive Emotions in Leading a Fulfilling Life

In a study involving 180 nuns, the significance of positive emotions in leading a fulfilling life was demonstrated. The findings revealed that a staggering 90 percent of the nuns in the most cheerful quarter were alive at the age of eighty-five, whereas only 34 percent of the least cheerful quarter survived to the same age. Even more striking, 54 percent of the happiest quarter were alive at the impressive age of ninety-four, compared to just 11 percent of the least happy quarter.

Interestingly, factors like expressing unhappiness, looking forward to the future, or religious devotion didn't seem to make a difference in their longevity. The amount of positive emotion they expressed turned out to be the essential factor.

These findings shed light on an important aspect often neglected in psychology—the positive side of life. While much attention has been devoted to studying negative emotions and their impacts, their positive counterparts have not received adequate consideration, leaving numerous questions unanswered.

Positive psychology goes beyond just looking at how happy we feel in the moment. It's not all about having as many good moments as possible and avoiding bad ones, like a hedonist would think. A well-known psychologist named Daniel Kahneman has shown that our overall judgment of an experience isn't just based on how we feel at each moment. The way an experience ends also plays a big role in how we remember it and whether we think it was positive or negative. Thus, we should always pay particular attention to the endings of our experiences. The way they conclude will forever color our memory of the entire relationship or situation and affect our willingness to engage in it again.

Actions to take

Learned Optimism

Learned optimism is a psychological theory that emphasizes the significant role of attitude and outlook in an individual's success. According to this theory, having an optimistic mindset can greatly contribute to achieving success in various areas of life. The underlying premise is that a person's attitude and perspective can be modified through practice and repetition.

The concept of learned optimism was initially observed by Martin Seligman during his work with patients. He noticed that some individuals experienced remarkable improvements when they recognized their own inner strength. These patients underwent personal growth and transformation when they realized that while they couldn't change the past, they had control over their future. Conversely, Seligman also observed that pessimistic individuals tend to have a detrimental way of interpreting failures and frustrations, which can hinder their progress.

Building upon these observations, Seligman proposed that learned helplessness, a state in which individuals perceive themselves as powerless to change their circumstances could serve as a model for understanding "unipolar depression" (depression without mania). He discovered that both clinically depressed individuals and those who experienced helplessness due to unsolvable problems exhibited similar characteristics, such as passivity, reduced learning ability, and heightened feelings of sadness and anxiety. Moreover, he found that learned helplessness and depression shared common underlying brain chemistry deficits. Importantly, the medications that alleviate unipolar depression in humans were also found to relieve helplessness in animals.

Actions to take

The Happiness Formula

Martin Seligman has conducted extensive research that challenges the traditional notion of happiness as merely the absence of negative emotions. According to Seligman, happiness is better understood as the presence of positive emotions in one's life. In his studies, Seligman has explored the factors that contribute to an individual's happiness and made several significant observations.

One important finding from Seligman's research is that approximately 50% of an individual's personality traits are inherited. This suggests that a significant portion of a person's predisposition to experience happiness or unhappiness is influenced by genetic factors. This discovery highlights the complex interplay between nature and nurture in shaping an individual's overall well-being.

Seligman's work also introduced the concept of the "happiness formula,” which proposes that an individual's level of happiness is determined by three key factors. The first factor is one's set range, which refers to the genetically determined baseline level of happiness that an individual tends to experience. This suggests that different individuals may have varying natural tendencies towards happiness or unhappiness.

The second factor in the formula is the circumstances of one's life. Seligman acknowledges that external circumstances, such as socioeconomic status and relationships, can have an impact on an individual's happiness. However, he argues that these circumstances only account for a certain percentage of overall happiness and are not the sole determinants.

The third and final factor in the Happiness Formula is the presence of factors under an individual's voluntary control. Seligman emphasizes that people have the capacity to actively influence and shape their own happiness through intentional actions and choices. These factors, known as voluntary variables, account for approximately 40 percent of a person's happiness. They can be categorized into three buckets: positive emotions about the past (e.g., satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride, and serenity), positive emotions about the future (e.g., optimism, hope, faith, and trust), and positive emotions about the present (e.g., joy, ecstasy, calm, zest, ebullience, pleasure, and flow).

Actions to take

Optimism and Hope

Positive emotions about the future, such as faith, trust, confidence, hope, and optimism, play a significant role in our well-being and success. Optimism and hope, in particular, have been extensively studied and proven to have numerous benefits. They can be cultivated and developed, leading to better mental health, improved performance in challenging tasks, and enhanced physical well-being.

When we experience failure, it is natural to feel momentarily helpless. For many individuals, this pain subsides relatively quickly. However, highly pessimistic individuals can remain trapped in a state of helplessness for days or even months, even after minor setbacks. In the face of significant defeats, they may struggle to bounce back, or worse, never fully recover.

The way optimists and pessimists view positive events is different. Optimistic individuals believe that good things happen because of enduring causes, such as their personal traits and abilities. Pessimists, however, attribute good events to temporary factors like mood or luck.

When optimists achieve success, they are motivated to strive even harder in the future, as they see it as evidence of their skills. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to dismiss their successes as mere flukes and may give up easily, even when they perform well. Optimists have a knack for capitalizing on their achievements and maintaining positive momentum.

Fortunately, there is a well-documented method for cultivating optimism. It involves recognizing and challenging pessimistic thoughts. The key is to treat these negative thoughts as if they were coming from an external person, someone whose sole purpose is to bring you down—like a rival whose mission is to make you miserable.

To effectively dispute pessimistic thoughts, you can follow the ABCDE model. A stands for adversity, representing the challenging situation or negative event. B refers to the beliefs that automatically arise in response to that adversity. C represents the typical consequences of holding those beliefs, such as feeling dejected or inclined to give up. D involves the process of disputation, where you actively counter and challenge your routine beliefs. Finally, E signifies the energizing feeling that accompanies successful disputation, empowering you to change your reaction from despair and inaction to proactive behavior and a more positive outlook.

By engaging in this process, you can transform your responses to adversity, fostering a sense of activity and genuine cheerfulness. Recognizing and effectively disputing your own pessimistic thoughts enables you to build and maintain optimism, leading to a happier and more fulfilling life.

Actions to take

The Flow State

Happiness in the present moment can be increased by engaging in activities that bring pleasure and gratification.

Pleasures are characterized by strong emotional components, such as feelings of joy, excitement, or comfort. These activities are usually temporary and require little or no conscious thought. Examples of pleasurable activities include watching TV, getting a massage, listening to music, eating chocolate, or enjoying a glass of wine.

Gratifications, on the other hand, are activities that may not elicit strong emotions immediately. Instead, they captivate our attention and immerse us to the point where we lose self-consciousness. This state of absorption is often referred to as flow. During flow experiences, time seems to stand still, our skills align with the challenge at hand, and we feel connected to our own strengths and capabilities.

Unlike pleasures, gratifications last longer, require more thinking and involvement, and are based on our virtues and strengths. They're deeply satisfying and fulfilling. Playing volleyball, having a great conversation, rock climbing, reading an amazing book, dancing, or helping those in need are examples of gratifying activities.

While pleasures can provide temporary happiness, they are transient in nature and do not lead to lasting fulfillment. In fact, studies have shown that the average state of someone simply watching TV is mildly depressed, indicating that seeking only momentary pleasures may not contribute to overall well-being.

To live a truly happy life, it is important to shift focus from chasing momentary pleasures to seeking more gratifying experiences. By engaging in activities that induce flow and align with our virtues and strengths, we can tap into a deeper sense of fulfillment and long-term happiness. Cultivating gratification allows us to experience a state of flow more frequently, leading to a more meaningful and satisfying existence.

Actions to take

The Cultivation of Strengths and Virtues

Ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, Socrates, and the Stoics, held the belief that true happiness is attained through the cultivation of virtue. They argued that the key to happiness lies in realizing one's full potential as a human being, rather than pursuing material wealth, external possessions, or momentary pleasures.

A comprehensive study conducted by Seligman and his colleagues explored various religions and philosophies throughout history and discovered that six fundamental virtues were consistently present across cultures. These virtues are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The underlying premise is that when we align our actions with these virtues, we experience happiness in the form of fulfillment and gratification.

While virtues can greatly contribute to our happiness and overall well-being, they cannot be measured and acquired. That's why Seligman and his team focused their research on identifying the pathways to achieving virtue. They referred to these pathways as strengths and created a catalog of 24 character strengths organized within the six virtues:

  • Wisdom & Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
  • Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
  • Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
  • Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership
  • Temperance: forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
  • Transcendence: appreciation of beauty & excellence; gratitude; hope; humor; spirituality

Nurturing strength and virtue is a personal journey of self-improvement and self-development that demands dedication and hard work. It entails a process of learning and understanding oneself, recognizing one's abilities, and engaging in self-reflection and self-awareness. Ultimately, the pursuit of strength and virtue is an ongoing endeavor aimed at achieving personal growth and well-being.

Actions to take

The Correlation Between Work and Personal Satisfaction

Martin Seligman emphasizes the strong correlation between work satisfaction and personal fulfillment. When we're happy with our work, it positively affects our personal lives. We feel more fulfilled and have a sense of purpose. On the flip side, if we're unhappy with our job, it can drag down our personal lives. We feel unfulfilled and lack motivation.

The idea of work-life balance is all about finding a good mix between our work and personal lives. When we strike that balance, we become more productive and feel more satisfied overall.

To boost our work satisfaction, Seligman suggests that we tap into our signature strengths every day. It doesn't matter what kind of job we have, whether we're a secretary, a lawyer, a nurse, or a CEO. If we can find ways to use our strengths and virtues in our work, it not only makes our job more enjoyable but can also turn a seemingly boring job or stagnant career into something that feels like a true calling. By leveraging our strengths, we bring more meaning and purpose into our work, which leads to greater job satisfaction and personal fulfillment.

Actions to take

Leading a Fulfilling Life

Living a fulfilling life involves striving for a pleasant life, a good life, and a meaningful life.

A pleasant life is about experiencing positive emotions related to the past, present, and future. This can be achieved by breaking free from the boredom of routine, seeking out novel experiences, and appreciating the good things that are happening right now. Being aware and mindful of our surroundings helps us fully enjoy life's positive aspects.

A good life, on the other hand, is about using our signature strengths to achieve true joy and satisfaction. Pursuing our passions and using our strengths regularly brings a sense of purpose and happiness.

Lastly, a meaningful life involves using our skills and abilities to make a difference in the world. It's about connecting with others and contributing to something larger than ourselves. Whether it's helping others, volunteering, or working towards a cause we care about, these actions bring a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose to our lives. By living a life aligned with our values and working towards positive change, we can find a meaningful and rewarding path.

Actions to take

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