Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Book review: Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman
I generally dislike self help books (especially the ridiculous ones claiming that the universe or quantum laws are doing the job for you). However, if a book at least aspires to be science based then I am willing to give it a try. In addition positive psychology i.e., the scientific study of what makes happy people happy, is a hot topic within psychology today and Martin Seligman is one of the founders of this field.
For these reasons I was able to overcome my fear of being pursuaded to change my life by a silly self help book. It was a nice surprise when early on Seligman acknowledged that happiness is not everything. One can find meaning in life without being extraordinarily happy. Interestingly, happy/optimistic people are actually quite inaccurate in their beliefs about the world when compared with depressed people. For instance, happy people thought they were in control of completely random events much longer than depressed people who acknowledged their inability to affect events much earlier.
Still happiness, at least statistically, is correlated with many beneficial effects. Happiness and optimism correlates with longevity, income, and ability to endure pain, and whether or not someone would end up in a happy marriage correlated with the type of smile (genuine or fake panam smiles) people had on photos from their youth.
So how do you become happy? Having the right genes helps but at least according to Seligman (who does quote a lot of studies), there are thing you can do to become happier. Be warned though, it requires an effort. Up to a rather low limit, money makes you happier. Having friends and a wife is also correlated with happiness.
Another strategy if you do not fancy wives and friends but would still like to be happy is to engage in gratifying activities. Gratifying activities (e.g. hiking) are the one that make you feel good about yourself for a “long” time after you have done them (often they require you to work in some way). This should be contrasted with pleasurable activities (e.g. eating chocolate) that make you feel good when you do them but not afterwards. Seligman (thankfully) does not say that you should never engage in pleasurable activities, only that to achieve happiness we should really focus on gratifying activities.
Seligman further argues that it is important to use your “signature strengths”. Signature strengths are essentially the positive parts of your personality. This includes things such as passion, curiosity, openness, integrity, sense of justice humour etc etc. In other words, the things that others value in you. Try to steer towards situations that let you use your signature strengths and you will become a happier person...
Have this book changes my life? Not really, no. It was interesting and it has made me think more about what type of activities I find gratifying which include training and doing research, and I try to do more of this. All in all “Authentic Happiness” is a good interesting book that I would recommend it to people interested in positive psychology, and who would like a science based understanding of happiness and its consequences.