What is happiness?
It’s a word that has been at the heart of endless debates over the years. Martin Seligman, the grandfather of the positive psychology movement tells us that happiness comes from many routes.
As a quick side note – positive psychology is a stream of psychology that looks at what it means to live a happy and fulfilled life. Until recently, almost all of psychology was focussed on how to help people with mental illnesses like depression overcome them. In this summary of his book Authentic Happiness, we’ll cover those different routes, discuss why they matter, and give you concrete suggestions on how you can incorporate more of them into your life. Join us for the next 12 minutes as we explore what it means to life a happy, meaningful life.
Why Be Happy?
We’ll start this summary at the beginning, discussing why we should even want to be happy in the first place. Barbara Fredrickson was the original winner of the Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2000. Her theory suggests that positive emotions have a purpose in evolution. In particular, they broaden our intellectual, physical and social resources, building up reserves we can draw on when a threat or opportunity appears.
Why does this happen?
When we are in a good mood, people like us better and we are much more likely to create friends, find love, and make coalitions with other people or groups. We are also much more open to new ideas and new experiences, which is at the core of evolutionary behavior.
Why does this matter? Happiness is directly and positively correlated to job satisfaction, productivity, and income. Being happy has its advantages.
The Happiness Equation
At the core of Seligman’s theory is an easy to remember formula.
H = S+C+V
Let’s briefly look at each of these elements separately.
H = enduring level of happiness
This is what we are looking to increase – our levels of happiness over time.
S = set range
You are born with a range of happiness that you can thank your parents for. About 50% of your level of happiness is predicted by this set range that you almost always return to after a positive or negative event. For instance, lottery winners are no more or less happy than they were before they won. The inverse is also true – after a negative event you’ll eventually revert back to your set range.
C = circumstances of your life
Many of the circumstances of your life are out of your control – like whether or not you were born in a prosperous or poverty stricken nation. Some circumstances are in your control, and their effect on your happiness might surprise you.
For instance, studies have shown that your level of income and education, your general health, your age, the climate where you live, your race and your gender have very little correlation to your levels of happiness. On the flip side, being married, having a robust social life, and having religion are positively correlated to your level of happiness. Remember, these are not moral teachings with judgements attached to them – these are things that science has proven to have an impact on your level of happiness.
V = factors under your voluntary control
Finally, there are factors that are under your immediate voluntary control – which are your emotions about has happened in the past, what is happening in the present, and what you expect to happen in the future. We’ll spend the rest of the summary exploring these factors, and how you can create a lasting increase in your levels of happiness as a result.
Positive Emotions About The Past
How you think and feel about what happened to you in the past is completely under your control. There are two things that get in your way from being happy when it comes to thinking about the past. Insufficient appreciation of the good events, and an overemphasis on the bad events. The solution is to practice gratitude and forgiveness.
Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events that have happened in your life. Here’s a practical exercise you can use to create more of it in your life.
Each night for the next two weeks, set aside five minutes right before bed. Do it right before you brush your teeth so you don’t forget. Then, list up to five things in your life that you are grateful for. If that goes well and you find yourself going to bed a little less stressed out at night, keep doing it.
As Seligman points out, how we feel about our past depends entirely on our memories – there simply isn’t any other source. Utilizing forgiveness gives us the power to rewrite our own histories which loosens the grip of negative events over our lives. As Everett Worthington, a noted forgiveness researcher, tells us “you can’t hurt the perpetrator by not forgiving, but you can set yourself free by forgiving.”
Here is a strategy for doing just that:
R = Recall the hurt in as objective a way as you can. Don’t think of the other person as evil and don’t wallow in self pity.
E = Empathize. Try to understand from the other person’s point of view why they hurt you. This isn’t an easy step, but make up a story you can see them saying if you asked them to explain why they did it.
A = Give the gift of altruistic forgiveness. This is difficult, but giving the gift of forgiveness will make you feel much better.
C = Commit yourself to forgive publicly. Write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in a diary, or tell a trusted friend.
H = Hold onto forgiveness. Memories of the event will surely recur. Although forgiveness is not forgetting, it is a change in the feelings the memory creates.
Positive Emotion About The Future
Positive emotion about the future can be increased by learning to identify and dispute automatic pessimistic thoughts. There are two crucial elements to doing this well.
Explaining bad events as temporary rather than permanent
People who give up easily believe that the causes of bad events that happen to them are permanent. People who resist helplessness believe that the causes of bad events are temporary. For instance, somebody who fails in their diet after eating out might say “diets never work.” A better way to frame the event would be “diets don’t work as well when eating out.”
Explaining bad events as specific rather than universal
People who make universal explanations for their failures give up on everything when failure hits on one area. People who make specific explanations are much more likely to march forward towards their goals. For instance, somebody who gets an unfairly bad grade might say “all teachers are unfair.” A better way to frame the event would be “Professor Seligman is unfair.”
Hope vs. Despair
If you want to have hope – and thus positive emotions about the future – find permanent and universal causes of good events along with temporary and specific causes for bad events.
If you want to have despair – and thus negative emotions about the future – do the reverse. But one thing is clear – this is a choice that you and you alone get to make.
Positive Emotions About The Present (Pleasures)
There are two different elements of positive emotions about the present – pleasures and gratifications. We’ll deal with them separately and focus on pleasures first.
Bodily pleasures are momentary positive emotions that come through the senses. They include things like delicious tastes and smells, moving your body well, delightful sights and sounds, etc. Higher pleasures are also momentary, but are more complicated and created by feelings like thrill, bliss, comfort, amusement, etc. There are two things you need to keep in mind to get the most pleasure out of your life – habituation and savouring.
Basically, rapidly repeated indulgence of the same pleasure doesn’t work. The pleasure in the second taste of ice cream is less than half of that of the first. Neurons are wired to respond to novel events, and not to fire if the events do not provide new information. The solution – space out your pleasures and you’ll be much happier with the result.
Savouring is the awareness of pleasure and of the deliberate conscious attention to the experience of pleasure. To go back to the ice cream example, don’t mindlessly eat it while you are watching TV or browsing the internet. Instead, give your full attention to the experience – don’t think, just sense.
Positive Emotion About The Present (Gratifications)
Finally, we move on to the other side of positive emotion in the present – gratifications. Instead of the presence of feelings like we have with pleasures, gratifications are defined by the absence of them. Instead, they are characterized by absorption, engagement, and flow, which come about by exercising your signature strengths and virtues.
The telltale signs of a gratifying experience include concentration on a challenging task, a deep sense of effortless involvement, and a feeling that time stops and our “self” vanishes. You can learn more about that state – which most people call flow – in our summary of the book by that title by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Seligman suggests that there are 24 strengths. We are going to list them here, and as we are going through them make a mental note of which ones best describe you – these are your signature strengths.
The 24 Strengths
The strengths are broken down into six categories, which represent what Seligman calls the 6 virtues. Interestingly, if you look at all of the famous philosophical and religious traditions, all of them value those virtues.
Wisdom and knowledge
- Curiosity/interest in the world. You are open to new experiences and flexible when presented with ideas that don’t fit your preconceptions.
- Love of learning. You love learning new things, both on your own and in formal settings.
- Judgment/critical thinking/open-mindedness. You tend to think things through and examine them from all sides.
- Ingenuity/originality/practical intelligence/street smarts. You are outstanding at finding novel yet appropriate behaviors to get what you want.
- Social intelligence/personal intelligence/emotional intelligence. You are aware of the motives and feelings of others, and you can respond to them well.
- Perspective. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and yourself.
- Valor and bravery. You do not shrink from threat, challenge, pain or difficulty.
- Perseverance/industry/diligence. You finish what you start.
- Integrity/genuineness/honesty. You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way.
Humanity and Love
- Kindness and generosity. You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favour.
- Loving and allowing oneself to be loved. You value close and intimate relationships with others.
- Citizenship/duty/teamwork/loyalty. You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated team-mate, and always work hard for the success of the group.
- Fairness and equity. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.
- Leadership. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing to it that they happen.
- Self-control. You can easily hold your desires, needs and impulses in check when it is appropriate.
- Prudence/discretion/caution. You are a careful person. You do not say or do things you might later regret.
- Humility and modesty. You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves.
- Appreciation of beauty and excellence. You stop and smell the roses. You appreciate beauty, excellence, and skill in all domains.
- Gratitude. You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted.
- Hope/optimism/future-mindedness. You expect the best in the future, and you plan and work in order to achieve it.
- Spirituality/sense of purpose/faith/religiousness. You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme.
- Forgiveness and mercy. You forgive those who have done you wrong.
- Playfulness and humour. You like to laugh and bring smiles to other people.
- Zest/passion/enthusiasm. You are a spirited person. You throw yourself, body and soul, into the activities you undertake.
Once you’ve identified your signature strengths, the best thing you can do to increase the level of gratifying experiences you have is to choose work and hobbies that allow you to use them on a regular basis.
The Pleasant, Good, Meaningful and Full Lives
Now that we are armed with the tools we need to increase the level of happiness in our lives, how can we combine them to be fulfilled as well? A pleasurable life is where we pursue positive emotions about the present, past and future. The good life is where we use our signature strengths to find gratification in the most important areas of our lives. The meaningful life means that we attach the use of our signature strengths to something larger than ourselves. And finally, a full life means living a well-integrated pleasant, good and meaningful life.
You may also like to read:
- Happy Hour is 9 to 5 by Alexander Kjerulf
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
- The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a &%$# by Mark Manson
- The Winner’s Brain by Mark Fenske
- The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
- The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy, Ph.D., D.D.
- The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
- Buyology by Martin Lindstrom