Until recently psychology has mainly been working within a disease model: a strong emphasis has been placed on discovering deficits in human behavior and finding ways to repair this damage. Psychologist hardly focused on in doing studies acquiring knowledge about healthy functioning and building strengths. In other words: they have focused solely on taking away something negative (the disfunctioning) instead of adding something positive (increasing mental and behavioral health). The result: psychologist know little about healthy and happy functioning. This situation has been changing now since the rise of positive psychology a few years ago. What is Positive Psychology? It is a new movement in psychology, originated by Martin Seligman and a few other prominent psychologists among whom Mihali Csikszentmihalyi (author of FLOW). It aims to be a psychological science about the best things in life. Main topics of study are: positive emotions, positive traits and positive institutions. This book, Authentic Happiness, is the first book on positive psychology. Seligman is its main spokesperson.
This book mainly deals with the phenomenon of happiness. According to Seligman your enduring level op happiness results from three factors: 1) your SET RANGE ( the basic biologically determined range within which your happiness normally will be), 2) the CIRCUMSTANCES OF YOUR LIFE (some conditions – like being married and living in a democratic country- somehow seem to contribute to happiness, and 3) your VOLUNTARY CONTROL ( the things you can do to get your happiness to the upper part of your set range. Ok, then how to get this done? Before answering this question Seligman explains that happiness/positive emotion can refer to three domains: the PAST (satisfaction, contentment, fulfilment, pride and serenity), the PRESENT (joy, ecstasy, calm, zest, ebullience, pleasure and flow) and the FUTURE (optimism, hope faith, trust). Then the author comes up with suggestions to improve your happiness:
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR HAPPINESS
1) to be happier about your past, you need to: 1) let go of the false belief that your past negative experiences determine your present and future, 2) increase your gratitude about the good things in your past and 3) learn how to forgive past wrongs.
2) to be happier in your present, you need to distinguish between PLEASURES and GRATIFICATIONS. Pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components that require little if any thinking. Gratifications are flow-experiences. They are activities we very much like doing but that are not necessarily accompanied by any raw feelings at all. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues. The key to happiness in past and future lies in enhancing gratifications.
3) to be happier about your future, you need to change your explanatory style in order to become more optimistic and hopeful (for an explanation read my review of Seligman’s book LEARNED OPTIMISM).
USING YOUR STRENGTHS
These explanations imply what Seligman means by AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS. He says we should not rely on shortcuts like television watching, chocolate eating, loveless sex, and buying things to feel happy. He explains that positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, to inauthenticity, and to depression. So we want to feel like we deserved our positive feelings. That’s why Seligman says UTHENTIC HAPPINESS comes from identifying and cultivating your most fundamental strengths (so-called SIGNATURE STRENGTHS) and using them everyday in work, love, play, and parenting. This message reminds of the one in Csikszentmihalyi’s FINDING FLOW (see my review).
Psychology has devised a classification system (language) for describing abnormal behavior and mental diseases. But it lacked a language describing human effectiveness and sanity. That is why Seligman and a team of scholars researched sources from all kinds of cultures and times in history and found that there is a strong convergence in what these traditions consider to be virtues and strengths. This led to the formulation of a classification system of virtues and strengths. SIX CORE VIRTUES: 1) Wisdom and knowledge, 2) courage, 3) Love and humanity, 4) Justice, 5) Temperance, 6) Spirituality and transcendence. Further they identified 24 strengths corresponding to these virtues. This book contains definitions of this taxonomy and some questionnaires for the reader to complete (the questionnaires can be found on the web too, by the way: www.authentichappiness.org).
Some words about the form and style of the book. It is pleasantly written. Seligman writes in a rather personal and honest style which makes the book lively (for instance he exclaims on page 24: “I am a hideous example of my own theory.”) I recommend this book to anyone interested in psychology and in happiness (although it is not a self-help book in the first place, I think). The book ends reflectively dealing with the relationship between positive emotions and win-win situations, and speculating that we may be on the threshold of an era of win-win games and good-felling. I enjoyed reading the book and I like positive psychology. It is in many ways reminiscent of humanistic psychology (which I always liked) but has a more scientific approach. I have a good hope it will be a success.
Zie ook: Een optimistische denkstijl