Primer on positive psychology by Martin Seligman

March 17, 2010 | By | Reply More

Tonight I viewed Martin Seligman’s excellent 2004 TED lecture on positive psychology.

Seligman introduced his talk by bemoaning the many decades during which psychology utilized only the “disease model,” which he described as “Spot the loon.” Some good things came of it, of course. Seligman mentions that we can now treat many psychological illnesses (admitted only a small percentage all of them) and we can sometimes make miserable people less miserable.

The disease model ignored normal people and high talent people, however. It also failed to help normal functioning people to become happier. Seligman carefully made the point that the skill set for avoiding dysfunction is dramatically different than the skills necessary for improving happiness. The concerns of positive psychology take over where the disease model left off. Positive psychology concerns both human strengths and human weaknesses. It includes building up the best things in life as well as preparing the worst. It includes helping to make the lives of normal people more fulfilling and nurturing talent (including genius). Positive psychology seeks to do all these things, to complement psychology’s traditional aim of healing pathology.

But what is happiness? Based on Seligman’s research, happiness comes in three flavors (the following is from Seligman’s website, Authentic Happiness, where you can take various self-tests at this site to determine your level of happiness):

First The Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible and having the skills to amplify the pleasures. This is, of course, the only true kind of happiness on the Hollywood view. Second, The Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life. Third, The Meaningful Life, which consists of using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.

For another basic outline of these approaches, see here. Traditionally, the first of these three forms of happiness, Pleasant Life (also called “pleasant emotion”) was considered to be the entirety of happiness. Examples include social relationships, backrubs, a full stomach, orgasms, hobbies and entertainment. Pleasant Life activities invoke a form of happiness that consists of a “raw feeling” that is obvious–you know when it’s happening.

Pleasant Life feelings can be generated by spending time with others. Those who like to spend considerable time alone (I know I’m one of them) have often been perceived as less happy. That characterization is not necessarily accurate, though, once we consider the two other basic forms of happiness.

Seligman mentions those seeking the first type of happiness, pleasant emotions, can amplify this state of positive affect by staying mindful of the situations that bring on that feeling. This form of happiness has several drawbacks, however. It is 50% heritable, meaning that you get it mostly from your parents, though you can tweak it a bit. It also “habituates rapidly.” This means that the feeling of positive affectivity is ephemeral–difficult to maintain. Seligman compares it to vanilla ice cream, which quickly loses its ability to maintain our interest after a few bites of it.

The second type of happiness, The Good Life (which Seligman also calls “the Life of Engagement”) is longer-lasting and deeper than the Pleasant Life. The hallmark of this second type of happiness is the ability to do something that draws upon your highest strengths to a degree that “time stops for you.” Seligman suggests that this feeling is what Aristotle explored when he discussed “Eudaimonia,” the Good Life. Csikszentmihalyi’s description of “flow” is also central to this aspect of happiness. When you achieve flow, you become “one with the music,” and you experience intense concentration.

The third type of happiness consists of The Meaningful Life. There is some overlap with The Good Life, in that to achieve this third form of happiness, you must be aware of your highest strengths, but you must also employ those strengths such that you “belong to and are in service of something larger than yourself.” To get a good jolt of this kind of happiness, Seligman suggests doing something philanthropic, which will cause long lasting happiness rather than the Pleasant Life activities, which normally run their course like a “square wave.” Another way to get a good boost of this third type of happiness is to write a testimonial of thanks to someone who has done something wonderful for you, and go read it to him or her.

If you want to feel deep and long-lasting happiness, then, pleasure is not enough. “Successfully pursuing pleasure does not necessarily lead to life satisfaction, but successfully pursuing the Good Life and the Meaningful Life does lead to higher life satisfaction.”


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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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