Book Review: Authentic Happiness by Dr. Martin Seligman
Reprinted (with minor changes) from Roeper Review, Vol. 28, issue 4, 2006
Staff in Student Affairs will find this book to be a useful resource in engaging our students to fulfill their full potential.
The field of Positive Psychology is based on the premise that we are capable of happiness, life satisfaction and optimal performance by devoting our efforts to cultivating our strengths. Seligman’s wonderfully accessible book is filled with thought provoking ideas and strategies to this end. In the process, he also challenges us to let go of our need to highlight and then compensate for our weaknesses. Instead, Seligman suggests that by focusing on our mental health, virtues, character strengths and core values we can enrich our own lives and the lives of those around us and thereby experience authentic happiness.
Of the many compelling and thought provoking ideas presented in this book, there are two concepts that transformed my thinking beyond the professional implications for my work as a clinical psychologist:
- Expressing gratitude has surprisingly wide ranging benefits to both the recipient and the person conveying appreciation, and
- Identifying and augmenting your signature strengths is a far more effective strategy to accomplish life satisfaction (authentic happiness) than exploring and trying to improve your weaknesses.
Seligman suggests an exercise in which you pick someone who has made a positive impact on your life but to whom you have not yet expressed your gratitude. He recommends that you work on a letter expressing your appreciation with concrete examples and detailed shared memories of the events. Once the one page letter is completed, laminate it, meet with the recipient and read the letter to him or her.
I wrote the letter. I learned that the act of highlighting those aspects of this particular relationship, which I did appreciate and value, allowed me to let go of the aspects that still disappointed and hurt. I learned that forgiveness heals the forgiver and the forgiven, and that it is possible to re-write memories that haunt you into memories that nurture you. It is a matter of perspective, like the picture depicting a vase or two profiles—which is foreground and which is background? It’s all about the title we give to our stories that paves the way to life satisfaction.
Seligman identifies six clusters of virtues, ubiquitous across many cultures, religions, philosophies and centuries, into which he grouped 24 strengths. The six virtues are:
- Wisdom & Knowledge
- Humanity & Love
These six virtues are considered the key characteristics of good character, expressed and operationalized by 24 different strengths. Seligman has numerous questionnaires throughout the text and on his web site (www.authentichappiness.org) in which he invites the reader to self-assess with respect to these and all the concepts presented. I accepted his invitation and identified my signature strengths—the traits that are most characteristic of my expression of these virtues. What I found most inspiring about my questionnaire results and Seligman’s message was the notion that optimal performance in work and love is predicated on focusing your attention on using and enhancing your signature strengths, and leaving your weaknesses alone.
The implications of these insights are easily transposed from personal life to professional work, and back again. Educators, psychologists, and/or staff in Student Affairs interested in encouraging and facilitating authentic happiness and empowerment in others will find a goldmine of exercises and interventions that are supported by current research into how to build a satisfying life. For example:
- In the classroom you can encourage students to identify and then enhance their signature strengths in order to make academic and career decisions that will yield optimal performances and high job satisfaction.
- In the therapy office, interventions with respect to presenting issues related to low self esteem, loss, anger, bitterness and unresolved relationships can include the gratitude letter to facilitate a change in the client’s subjective memory of the relationship (changing the title to the story, not the story itself). This is only one of the many exercises suggested in the text.
- As staff in Student Affairs, focusing on the student’s obvious strengths, encouraging them to develop and augment these strengths, and supporting further development and opportunities to advance these strengths will likely result in higher self esteem and external validation of their respective successes.
Whatever your current paradigm of human development, the Positive Psychology research cited in this text will challenge and inspire you to learn more about going beyond remedial interventions and learning how to set the stage for happiness, in your self and in others.
Martin Seligman recently wrote a follow up book: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Stay tuned for Diana’s next book review later this term.
Diana Brecher and her colleague Jastej Gill offer a 2-session workshop on Building Resilience (as part of the CSDC Stress Management Open Group) and are currently developing a workshop on cultivating happiness through action. These workshops are designed for students who have sought counselling support. They plan to offer both workshops in winter term, 2015.