on October 29, 2005
I quickly read this book a couple of years ago and thought it was very good, but I got little benefit. Then, called to jury duty, I grabbed it going out the door. Sitting a room in LA with 200 people and after reading 4 newspapers, I reread the first 100 pages of this book. But I read it the way I did textbooks, pen in hand, underlining, diagraming, analyzing and synthesizing. I digested the book. I did the forgiveness exercise. I took the surveys and I added up my scores. Then I did the appreciation exercise. I was struck that several of the people I decided I needed to forgive also turned up as people who did things for me that I greatly appreciated. I have moved work and wealth into a lower priority and moved my subjective health, fitness and nutrition into a higher priority. Now, I try to be mindful and savory the experiences of today. I am still struggling with other exercises and methods, but I am grateful to one more person, Dr. Seligman who wrote a great book. My family and coworders enjoy me more. I have ordered the audiobook, too. If you are chronically unhappy, irritable, often angry, this book may be life changing for you. But don't just breeze throught like I did the first time, read carefully and more than once.
on March 4, 2003
As a psychologist, I completely understand Martin Seligman's drive to free psychology from its obsession with negativity. Freud, he writes, made many people "unduly embittered about their past and unduly passive about their future," while clinical psychology focussed on diagnosing and treating mental disorders. In his new book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman goes a long way towards breaking psychology free from its love affair with pathology and replacing it with a far more positive approach.
I don't know of anyone with better credentials to guide readers through what psychology has discovered about happiness. Seligman's own research has contributed greatly to our understanding of the entire range of human experience from profound depression to "abundant gratification." His early, groundbreaking studies of learned helplessness provided great insight into inescapable trauma as a major source of helplessness and depression. He went on to study "learned optimism" as a powerful antidote to depression--his earlier book by that name is invaluable.
Now, Seligman sets out to provide readers with the insights and tools from the relatively new field of positive psychology. He does this with a rich mixture of anecdotes, personal revelations and research. In addition, he provides frequent self-assessments and exercises. I think that almost anyone who takes the time to read what Seligman has to say, who takes and thinks about the self assessments, and who does the exercises, will start thinking and acting in ways that lead to lasting happiness.
It's important to realize that Seligman is not a self-help guru by any stretch of the imagination. He is a leading research psychologist who builds on solid experimental findings. (Although the book is vividly written for the most part, at times Seligman's reliance on research findings slows things down.) Still, he is also devoted to the idea of making those often dry experiments as meaningful and useful as possible. He doesn't promise limitless bliss, but what he does offer may actually be reachable by ordinary, unenlightened people like us.
Early in the book Seligman makes the point that pleasure in itself is not the road to happiness. As we all know, pleasure is fleeting, and pursuing it can easily turn into addiction or futility. Instead Seligman identifies and values a set of nearly universal virtues which he believes lead to deep and lasting gratification. These include wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendance. "The good life," he writes, "is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification."
What I liked most about this book is that it made me feel good about myself, other people, and the "simple" virtues that make up much of the fabric of life, but which are often ignored and devalued. Kindness, tolerance, competence, interpersonal skills, a work ethic, and faith emerge as vital ingredients of a good, gratifying, happy life.
Authentic Happiness is not a miracle cure for all unhappiness. It is, however, a wise, well-informed, and extremely valuable guide to a more grounded, heartfelt and gratifying life.
Robert Adler, Author of _Sharing the Children: How to Resolve Custody Problems and Get on With Your Life_(1988, 2nd. Ed. 2001), and _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_ (2002).
on November 2, 2009
Written by the former president of the American Psychological Association, and author of over a dozen books including the popular Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, this title is one of the better selling happiness books out there.
While this is the kind of book I could write a really long review about, I think I'll just discuss what I consider to be the best bits for those looking for ways to become happier- which I think is why most people would buy this book. Soooo.....
1) the book provides the reader with a "happiness formula", which is H = S + C + V. This works out to happiness = your genetic Set point + intervening Circumstances + factors under you Voluntary control. So, since your can't do much about changing your genetics, when it comes to becoming happier, that leaves room for improvement in the areas of circumstances and voluntary activities.
2) the book suggests that if you want to lastingly raise your level of happiness by changing the external circumstances of your life, you should: live in a wealthy democracy, get married, avoid negative events and negative emotion, acquire a rich social network, and get religion. Conversely, you needn't bother to do the following: make more money, stay healthy, get as much education as possible, or try to change your race or move to a sunnier climate. However even if you could alter all of these things, it would not do much for you as this stuff accounts for only a small part of your happiness. On to Voluntary efforts...
3) This is where most of the book spends a substantial part of its efforts showing you how to be happier, and there's a lot of "meat" to sink your teeth into, with sections on how to obtain more satisfaction with your past, what consitutes happiness about the future, and happiness in the present. Also, the book spend much time talking about how happiness can be cultivated by identifying and nurturing our traits, such as humor, optimism, generosity or kindness.
Readers who have read other happiness books will already be well familiar with the idea that the best way to increase your happiness is through intentional or voluntary activities. It makes a lot of sense, as you can't change your genetics, and circumstances are either out of your control, or make very little contributions to your happiness. Like this book, I agree that using intentional activities is the route to go when it comes to raising lasting happiness levels- and this book will help you out with that a lot. Readers might also be interested in The Prayer Project: How Each One of Us Can Make The World a Better Place to Live - In a Few Minutes a Day.
on February 7, 2004
I heard about this book on NPR a few months ago and checked out the companion website (authentichappiness.org) before buying the book. The site has 17 questionnaires on happiness, optimism, relationships, emotion, and Seligman's trademark Values in Action Signature Strengths. You can take these tests days or weeks apart and track your progress. It's an excellent site and does the job of prompting you to buy the book.
The book just isn't as strong as the site. As noted it other reviews it's part autobiography, part research report and part self-help book. You'll get formulas like H = S + C + V (H is enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, v is voluntary variables) and lots of self-congratulatory stories about Seligman's friends, colleagues, wife and kids. Not that any of that's bad, but I have to wonder if his editor didn't ask him "Are you sure you want to include this?"
Single greatest reminder of something I knew but had forgotten: "You can't change your past, but you can change your perception of it."
on June 28, 2009
I really enjoyed "Learned Optimism" by the same author. It opened a world for me of how rumination can lead to depressing thoughts and how cognitive therapy can be used to change those thought patterns. Unfortunately I did not enjoy "Authentic Happiness". "Authentic Happiness" did not have the same purposeful focus as "Learned Optimism." I applaud Seligman's position on the needed direction of psychology. Psychology has been used to treat the mentally ill. This helps a small percentage of the population. Seligman argues psychology should be used to help mentally healthy people become happier. This will help many more people.
When I read the survey used to measure happiness on page 15, I started to question Seligman's scientific authority. This survey is basically a scale from 0 to 10 that you rate yourself on how happy or unhappy you usually feel. Then you provide the percentage of time you feel happy, unhappy, or neutral. That is it! This is about as scientific a way to measure happiness as you would get from a fashion magazine. If this is the best tool Seligman has to measure happiness, you have to question his conclusions about how to achieve happiness.
The second part of "Authentic Happiness" is about strength and virtue. Seligman argues that when you use your strengths to do virtuous acts, you will be on the road to authentic happiness. Sounds good, but once again, the survey provided to discover your signature strengths is pretty lame. Twenty-four strengths are identified (which are things like curiosity, valor and bravery, etc.) and then you rate yourself if the strength on a scale of 1 to 5 is "very much like me" or "very much unlike me." This seriously has very little depth.
The third part of the book is more a philosophical discussion about happiness in different aspects of life. It is more the author's subjective opinions.
All in all, "Authentic Happiness" does not really help you get closer to authentic happiness. It does not give you clear steps of how to change yourself to routinely exercise your signature strengths. And how you end up identifying your signature strengths is not all that enlightening.
on September 8, 2006
In this well-written, very accessible book, Martin Seligman points out that traditional psychology has always focused on the pathology of the human condition: illness and trauma. By understanding more about what makes people exceptionally well - happy, positive, optimistic - and recognizing that those who have these characteristics are more likely not only to have rewarding lives, but also to be successful in the world, Seligman believes that those who are naturally pessimistic or focused on the down-side can shift their perspective and become happier people.
While this is not a self-help book per se, it does offer tools - including a series of self-evaluations (also available at the Authentic Happiness website) - to help readers understand their strengths and how they can adjust their own viewpoint to become happier.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in positive psychology and the power of positive thinking. This book is grounded in solid research; it's not "fluffy" in any way!
Much research has shown that people have a set range of happiness, and they're likely to stay within this set range throughout their lives, returning to it over and over again. Dr. Seligman proposes a slightly different way of looking at this situation and represents it with the following equation: H = S + C + V where H is your overall current happiness, S is your set range, C is the influence of current life events, and V represents those factors under your voluntary control. His idea is that while you can't really change your set range, you can set yourself up to experience the highest part of that range a much greater portion of the time.
He believes you can do this by altering how you view your life (past, present and future), using psychological strategies to make your life more pleasant, and discovering and using to the fullest what he calls your "signature strengths."
The research in this book is quite methodical and solid. Seligman systematically lays out the details of dozens of studies (at least!) and decades of research by luminaries and students alike. This is a thick book. Not dry, thankfully, and not inaccessible, but definitely thick. It isn't something you can skim in two hours and be done with; it takes some time to read through, digest, and absorb. This is not a bad thing. Everything is explained with care and attention to detail.
This is an immensely practical and helpful book. It doesn't just talk about happiness; it provides concrete strategies backed up by thorough research that can help you to improve your happiness and your satisfaction with your life. This truly is a how-to book on happiness. The research is solid, careful, and well-thought-out. Dr. Seligman, a self-avowed pessimist, makes it easy for non-optimists to see and understand his points; unlike many optimists he doesn't boil it down to a simple "cheer up!" but instead gives us critical evidence and practical strategies. This is a courageous, in-depth, thoughtful, and highly helpful book for just about anyone from a brilliant researcher. I have no hesitation in recommending it, and will probably be passing it on to several people I know.
on September 1, 2002
As a physician who has treated clinical depression and anxiety the past 16 years, I have studied the best of pop psychology [Burns, Peurifoy, Bourne]. The standout feature of Seligman is that he is able to take high level scientific data and incorporate it into his lay literture. It provides for a strong argument in trying to convince the reader of the topic a hand. Also, Seligman is able to provide us with a progression of any of his previous written work. So 10 years ago, he presented us with "flexible" or learned optimism. Now, he has acquired enough data to back-up that basic concept and lay the foundation for the whole new field of "Positive Psychology". He truly is a visionary in this field. And yes, he most likely will succeed in cultivating a new branch of psychology.
Seligman's book shows that he's a beneficiary of Banker's Paradox: (p 186): the more you have, the more you can get. A successful professor, researcher, author and (icing on the cake) president of APA -- you have license to create, and Seligman uses it wisely.
I heard Seligman's APA Presidential address many years ago, where he openly questioned the claims of traditional psychotherapy. Some folks applauded; some actually walked out. Perhaps his greatest contribution is his questioning of traditional therapy, especially Freudian emphasis on childhood as the source of current ills.
Additionally, Seligman wisely deplores traditional psychology's emphasis on "what's wrong with you." That's probably why "life coaching" has become a bonanza. People want to talk about their lives but they don't want to be in a one-down position, as patients with a diagnosis.
That said, this book offers a simple introduction to what he calls Positive Psychology. Ironically, much of what Seligman offers echoes what we've already read in the unscientific pop psychology books that we find everywhere. Some, of course, were written by authors who have PhD degrees in psychology but no longer practice.
For example, Richard Carlson's "small stuff" books make points that are scientifically valid: Hashing over sad childhood memories leads to sad moods, which cause us to remember more sad memories, and so on. Wayne Dyer's books encourage us to express gratitude and forgiveness. So I think Seligman needs to be even more scientific to distinguish himself from the "self-help" section of a major bookstore. It can be done: Annie Paul's Cult of Personality is a fine recent example. Gilovich, Dawes and Russo have used research findings to create readable but helpful guides to decision-making.
Pop psych books are, by definition, aimed at a mass audience. Therefore, they appeal to people who feel some pain and want to change their lives. In contrast, it's hard to see who Seligman wants to reach. Scientifically trained readers (like me) will want to read original journal articles. And Seligman's prescriptions tend to be vague or targeted, as he suggests in the "love" chapter, to making great lives better. If you don't have a great life to start with, you can get pretty discouraged! A newly-divorced, newly-fired fifty-something reader won't find much help here.
In particular, the chapter on Signature Strengths seems quite valuable. (Skip the tests in the book - a big waste of paper - and go right to the Internet.) I took the website test and sure enough, I "owned" the results. But, I pondered, what next? I score off the chart on "love of learning." No surprise! But if I were searching for a career or a mate, how would I use this information?
Seligman's chapter on careers doesn't seem focused. He encourages us to distinguish a job, career and vocation. (Carolyn Myss -- definitely a non-scientist! -- makes the identical distinction in her Advanced Energy Anatomy Tapes.) And perhaps many people can find ways to transform mundane jobs, like the orderly in the hospital who brings pictures to patients.
But some people thrive on jobs that bring money, leaving them time and resources for pursuing their own personal interests and philanthropies outside work. Pollan and Levine make this point in Fire Your Boss. And some will be such misfits, and so desperate to take any job, they will have trouble applying this framework.
Seligman's discussion of work now seems quaint in the post-9/11 era, when choices are less abundant than before. He focuses on young lawyers who leave high-paying jobs, possibly because he researched or consulted with law firms. He suggests ways the firm could use the talents of these young, smart people.
But firms have little interest in keeping employees happy, despite years of organizational behavior theories. They want results! I'd have liked to see suggests for employees to create their own jobs, not passively wait for the firm to come up with solutions.
Additionally, signature strengths can't be discussed in isolation. Sure, a lawyer might spend weeks alone in the law library, but social intelligence informs him what's important, when to challenge an assignment, how to talk to the partners and associates and a whole lot more. Indeed I would argue that social intelligence might be a better predictor of success and happiness than, say, creativity. Business firms say they value creativity, but, in my experience, not with their dollars. Barry Staw of UC Berkeley wrote a provocative article on this very topic.
Finally, Seligman doesn't address differences of race, gender and class. I'd argue that a male whose signature strength involved creativity, learning, or wisdom might be valued more than a female with similar strengths, and therefore find it easier to deploy those strengths. If you're not a privileged white male, you'll need social intelligence more than any other quality.
Seligman illustrates many points with examples from his own family, like Wayne Dyer does. At times these examples seem like annoying intrusions. And he interacts with the elite members of academic psychology (very few women, I noticed!), to whom he has unique access. There's a fine line between reporting and name-dropping and at times he blurs the distinction.
Overall, you can't disregard Seligman's courage in presenting what many of his colleagues would dismiss as silly. Without his distinguished track record, he wouldn't be heard at all. Or, put another way, he has chosen to use his fame to promote a very worthwhile cause that can, eventually, help others.
on October 31, 2002
After wide-reaching research across time and cultures, Martin Seligman has identified six virtues: Wisdom and learning, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. In "Authentic Happiness" he describes how to strengthen your character in order to develop these life-affirming virtues. Unlike traditional psychotherapy, which revolves around a "talking cure" and seeks to identify traumatic events in a person's past, and even to assign blame, Seligman's Positive Psychology focuses on developing your "signature strengths", and on learning what you will find genuinely fulfilling in life.
Using personal anecdotes in addition to well-documented (and in some cases, surprising) studies, he demonstrates how we can avoid being trapped by the downward spiral of negativity and depression. This is a remarkable book that defies classification. It should not be limited to the "self-help" genre, as Seligman goes far beyond that to introduce a new way of thinking about individual potential. Highly recommended.