The Psychology of Real Happiness
Dr. Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the areas of positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and optimism and pessimism. Currently Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he is the author of 20 books, including “Learned Optimism" and “The Optimistic Child." His latest book is “Authentic Happiness." He spoke with Wendy Schuman about how his work has influenced his views on happiness and spirituality.
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."
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.
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."
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.
Many people want to change their job or their life. They feel stuck, and they don’t know how to do that. You’re saying you don’t need to necessarily find another job but .
Recraft what you’re doing in line with your signature strengths. There are both exercises and self-assessment devices on our website – so it’s good link.
You speak in your book about faith and spirituality. What role do they play in happiness?
Quite a number of roles. First, there’s been evidence for a long time that people who are seriously religious are less depressed and happier and more optimistic. Secondly, people who are seriously religious are at a tremendous advantage with the third kind of happy life, the meaningful life. They use their signature strengths in the service of something much larger than they are, and that is a tried-and-true route to life satisfaction. But part of my concern is the enormous number of people who, like myself, have no religious beliefs, and yet want to lead a meaningful life. That’s what the last chapter in the book’s about.
I was reading your last chapter, and I sensed that here was a lifelong nonbeliever who seemed to be approaching some kind of view of God that he could accept. But then when I got there, I didn’t quite understand what it is that you found. I was wondering if you could elucidate it a little.
It was a major change in my life, and a big discovery for me. And I would like to share it and say it in a way that’s compelling for people who are secular. I have come to believe that there is a secular view that leads to God, and it leads to meaning because it’s grounded outside yourself.
In most religions, God has four properties: He or She is the Creator of the universe, and also omnipotent, omniscient, and righteous.. The objections to the idea of a creator are legion. But if you accept the Big Bang theory of creation, you are left with a God who isn’t a creator-but is omniscient, omnipotent, and righteous. The question is, does such a God exist? The answer would seem to be “Not now"-because you’re basically stuck with the problem of why there is evil in the universe and the question of how there can be free will if God is omnipotent. But will there ever be such an entity? The answer is yes, in the longest of runs.
It more or less fell into place when I read Bob Wright’s book NonZero. He describes life as a positive sum game in which complexity wins out. Evolution works strongly in favor of growth and complexity. In human history, we are going from knowledge to omniscience, from potence to omnipotence, from ethics and religion to righteousness..So, in my view, God comes at the end of this long process. This may not happen in our lifetimes or even in the lifetime of our species. But we can choose lives that are part of this pathway to God, lives that are meaningful and sacred. They’re in the service of God coming at the end. That’s the theology that I can accept.