Thursday, November 13, 2014

Authentic Happiness: Book Review

Over the years of my working with students, one of the lifetime goals most mentioned is "happiness."  Students are more likely to accomplish goals if they are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (SMART).  Authentic Happiness,  by Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, helps faculty and students to define, understand and achieve happiness as well as enhance personal and career success.

Excerpts from Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman:

Real happiness comes from "identifying, cultivating and using your most fundamental strengths and using them every day in work, love, play and parenting."  (page xiii)  Seligman describes a process of being "in the flow" which is the state of gratification we feel when totally absorbed in an activity that matches our strengths.  When engaged in these activities, we do not notice the passage of time.  It occurs when our activities match our talents.  For example, musicians are in the flow when they are totally involved in their music.  Athletes are in the flow when they are totally focused on their sport.  Writers are in the flow when they are totally absorbed in writing down their ideas.  

Seligman contrasts happiness with hedonism.  He says that a hedonist "wants as many good moments and as few bad moments as possible in life."  He states that hedonism is a shortcut to happiness that leaves us feeling empty.  For example, we often assume that more material possessions will make us happy.  However, the more material possessions we have, the greater the expectations, and we no longer appreciate what we have.  

Seligman has a formula for happiness: (p. 45)

Happiness = Set Range (50%) + Circumstance (10%) + Voluntary Control (40%)

In this formula, about 50% of happiness is determined by heredity.  In other words, about 50% of happiness is determined by our ancestors.  In good times or bad times, we generally return to our set range of happiness.  

About 10% of happiness is determined by circumstances such as money, marriage, social life, health, education, climate, race, gender, and religion.  Here is what psychologists know about how these circumstances affect happiness:
  • Once basic needs are met, greater wealth does not increase happiness.
  • Having a good marriage is related to increased happiness.
  • Happy people are more social.
  • Moderate ill health does not bring unhappiness, but severe illness does.
  • Educated people are more happy.
  • Climate, race, and gender do not significantly affect the level of happiness.
  • Religious people are somewhat happier than nonreligious people.  
In the above formula, about 40% of happiness is under our voluntary control. Factors under voluntary control include optimism about the future and positive emotions such as hope, faith, trust, joy, calm, zest, ebullience, pleasure, flow, satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride, and serenity.  Seligman suggest some ideas to increase positive emotions and happiness:
  1. Realize that the past does not determine your future.  The future is open to possibilities.  
  2. Be grateful for the good events of the past and place less emphasis on the bad events.
  3. Build on positive emotions through forgiving and forgetting.
  4. Work on increasing optimism and hope for the future.
  5. Find out what activities make you happy and engage in them.  Spread these activities out over time so that you will not get tired of them.
  6. Take the time to savor happy times.
  7. Take time to enjoy the present moment.
  8. Build more flow into your life.
Seligman has some interesting and useful ideas on work and personal satisfaction.  He suggest that we must build on our personal strengths to maximize job satisfaction.  He identifies three types of work: a job, a career, and a calling.  A job is something that we do for the paycheck at the end of the week.  A career has more personal meaning and involves achievement, prestige, power, and income. A calling is "a passionate commitment to work for its own sake.  Individuals with a calling see their work as contributing to the greater good. . ."  Work provides the opportunity for being in the flow.  

Why does happiness matter?
  • Positive emotions predict health and longevity.
  • Happier people are more satisfied with their jobs.
  • Happiness is positively related to productivity and higher income.
  • Happiness increases the joy in life.
As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, it is a good time to reflect on being grateful and taking steps to increase happiness.


Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, by Martin E.P. Seligman, Free Press, 2002.

More information on this topic, including free assessments of signature strengths and happiness, are available at: 

Dr. Fralick integrates concepts from positive psychology in her textbooks to help students achieve personal and career success.