Book Review – Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman (2002)
Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman is a great read and is filled with very valuable learning, based on concrete studies and thorough research. Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the study of happiness and optimism and is considered the founder of positive psychology. The purpose of positive psychology is summed up by Seligman and Csikszentmihaly as:
‘We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families and communities’
This approach brings the focus away from psychology only studying mental illness and instead looks to finding ways to focus on the positive, build on strengths and nurture talent.
Seligman looks at what causes happiness and after collating extensive research findings he notes that things such as money, education, climate, looks and illness have little if no effect on happiness, whereas marriage, religion, sociability and gender do affect happiness (with women experiences both more happiness and more sadness than men). Seligman notes that contradictory to popular opinion and general consensus, these factors only account for around 8-15% of happiness. This is a huge piece of learning as many people believe many ‘if only’s’ – for example, ‘if only I lived somewhere warmer’; ‘if only I had lots of money’ or ‘if only I was better looking’. It turns out that these factors do not affect our happiness like many of us believe them to! Similarly, Seligman claims that your childhood has less effect on your life than you think, with research showing that parental divorce or death of a parent after the age of 11 has little effect on your happiness as an adult. (Death of a parent before the age of 11 has a small noted effect on girls). I find this fact to be extremely inspiring and there is a great freedom in knowing that any of us can be free of our pasts and work on our happiness levels separate to a life that we may feel has been mapped out for us.
So what does Seligman find to be the cause of true authentic happiness? His research shows time and again that it is developing our inner strengths, building our character and working to our strengths that leads us to a much more satisfied life. A life filled with cultivating and nurturing personal strengths and living in a way that is consistent with our values leads us to build a very happy core that we can expand upon, building things like wisdom, knowledge, love, courage and humanity. Only by knowing, understanding and developing our character strengths and by living them, becoming who we really are, knowing our personal character traits and owning them and being true to who we are at our core can we reach our potential and really be happy.
Seligman examines what strengths are and how their development contributes to a positive life, noting that the level of accomplishment is much higher if we feel we have worked hard on developing a skill, overcoming obstacles and really putting in the work. Something extra that this book has is option of using online questionnaires and other resources to participate in the research and understand our own level of happiness and understanding of ourselves and our strengths . I found this to be a huge help in relating myself back to the material being discussed. The approach of a strengths-based approach to self-development really works for me personally and I thoroughly enjoyed this interactive element of the book.
Seligman’s research shows that each of us have a natural level of happiness and that we can live in a way that reaches the highest levels of our own natural levels. Research shows that our levels of happiness or unhappiness are genetically inherited and we are prone to staying within that – for example, if one was to look at a person’s level of happiness before and after winning the lottery, they would ultimately have the same level of happiness after the win, as material gain and money has little effect on overall happiness levels. What we can do, however, is live a happy life. Choose happiness! Embrace forgiveness, let go of anger, be true to ourselves and aim to be proud of who we are, live according to our values and consistently build on our strengths. A strong message I got from the book is to be grateful for who we are and to actually make the choice to be happy. This is definitely a book I will be returning to and look forward to understanding on a deeper level. I imagine the more study I do in this field the more relevant the book will become and the more I will be able to embrace its learning.
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