Psychology Classics

Authentic Happiness
Martin Seligman

For every hundred scientific journal articles on sadness, there is only one for happiness. The science of psychology has always been about what is wrong with a person, Martin Seligman notes, and in the last 50 years it has become pretty successful at diagnosing and treating mental illness. But this focus has meant much less attention has been given to finding out what makes people happy or fulfilled.

For the first 30 years of his working life, Seligman himself worked in the field of abnormal psychology, but his work on feelings of helplessness and pessimism led him to research optimism and positive emotion, and how their presence could be increased in our lives. This work caused him to rethink the larger purpose of psychology, and he is now known as the founder of the 'Positive Psychology' movement. While his 1991 book Learned Optimism is an acknowledged classic, Authentic Happiness has also had a significant impact as a sort of manifesto for positive psychology, and has much to teach us about leading a good and meaningful life.

What causes happiness?

Collating hundreds of research findings, Seligman makes these points about some of the factors conventionally thought to bring happiness:


Purchasing power in the last fifty years has more than doubled in the rich nations like the United States, Japan and France, but overall life satisfaction has not changed at all. Very poor people have a lower level of happiness, but once a certain basic income and purchasing power is reached ('barely comfortable') beyond this point there are no increases in happiness on par with extra wealth. Seligman notes: “How important money is to you, more than money itself, influences your happiness.” Materialistic people are not happy.


In a huge survey looking at 35,000 Americans over the last 30 years, the National Opinion Research Center found that among married people, 40 per cent said they were 'very happy'. Only 24 per cent of divorced, separated, and widowed people were 'very happy'. This statistic has been borne out in other surveys. Marriage seems to increase happiness levels independent of income or age and is true for both men and women. In one of Seligman's own studies, he found that nearly all very happy people are in a romantic relationship.


Nearly all people who consider themselves very happy lead a “rich and fulfilling social life”. They spend the least time alone among their peers. People who spend a lot of time alone generally state a much lower level of happiness.


Women experience twice as much depression as men, and tend to have more negative emotions. However, they also experience a lot more positive emotions than men. That is, women are both sadder and happier than men.


Religious people are consistently shown to be happier and more satisfied with life than the non-religious, have lower rates of depression, and are more resilient to setbacks and tragedy. One study found that the more fundamentalist the adherents of a religion, they more optimistic they will be. Orthodox Jews are more hopeful for the future, for instance, than Reform Jews. The sermons in Evangelical Christian churches are rosier than those heard in regular Protestant congregations. This strong 'hope for the future', as Seligman terms it, makes people feel really good about themselves and the world.


Illness does not affect life satisfaction or happiness as nearly as much as you would think. Good health on its own is taken for granted, and only severe or multiple illnesses actually lowers a person's normal level of positive feeling.


Climate has no effect on happiness levels. Seligman remarks: “People suffering through a Nebraska winter believe people in California are happier, but they are wrong; we adapt to good weather completely and very quickly.”

Finally, intelligence and high education level have no appreciable effect on happiness. Neither does race, although some groups, such as black Americans and Hispanics, record lower levels of depression.

Character and happiness

All the above factors have traditionally been seen as the chief causal factors in happiness, but the research indicates that together they account for only 8-15 per cent of your happiness. Considering that each factor relates to very basic things about who you are and your circumstances in life, this is not a high figure. As Seligman suggests, it is great news for people who believe that their circumstances preclude them from being happy.

Instead of the above factors, Seligman's view is that genuine happiness and life satisfaction arises through the slow development of something you may last have your grandparents speak of: 'character'. Character is made up of universal virtues which are found across every culture and in the literature of every age. It includes wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality - among others. We achieve these virtues by cultivating and nurturing personal strengths, such as originality, valor, integrity, loyalty, kindness and fairness.

The idea of character has long fallen out of favor because it is thought old-fashioned and unscientific. But Seligman says that character traits or personal strengths are both measurable and acquirable, which makes them suitable for psychological study.

Strengths and happiness

There is a difference between talents, which you are born with and which you are therefore automatically good at, and strengths, which you choose to develop. We are more inspired, Seligman notes, by a person who overcomes a great obstacle to achieve something, than by someone who does so because of simply natural ability. If will and determination is applied to our talent, we will have pride in our accomplishments in the same way that we feel proud if complimented on our honesty. Talents alone say something about our genes, but virtues and developed talents (making the most of personal strengths) say something about us.

Through the refinement of our 'signature strengths' (Seligman provides a questionnaire to identify them) we gain satisfaction in life, and a happiness that is genuine. It is a mistake to spend your life trying to correct your weaknesses, the author says. Rather, he says, the most success in life and real gratification – authentic happiness - will come from developing your strengths.

Does your past determine your future happiness?

For most of the history of psychology, the answer has been a resounding 'yes', from Freud to the 'inner child' self-help movement. But the actual research findings point another way. For example, a person whose mother dies before they turn 11 has a slightly higher risk of depression later in life, but the risk is only slight, only if they are female, and even then the risk shows up in only about half the studies. Parental divorce has only marginal disruptive effects on late childhood and adolescence, and this wanes in later life.

Adult depression, anxiety, addictions, bad marriage, anger - none can be blamed on what happened to you as a child. Seligman's message is a strong one: You are wasting your life if you think your childhood has delivered present misery or if it has made you passive about the future. What matters is your development of personal strengths that do not depend on the quality of your childhood or current circumstances.

Can happiness really be increased?

To some extent, the answer is no. A lot of research suggests that people have set ranges of happiness or unhappiness which are genetically inherited, just like people tend to revert, despite dieting, to a certain body weight. It has been shown that even after a big lottery win, a year later the winner will revert to their level of sadness or happiness that was their natural lot before the windfall. Seligman is blunt in his assertion that your level of happiness cannot be lastingly increased, however what is possible is to live in the upper reaches of your natural range.

Expression of emotion

The idea of 'emotional hydraulics' says we need to ventilate negative emotions, otherwise their repression will cause mental problems. In the West people think it healthy to express anger, and unhealthy to bottle it up. But Seligman writes that the reverse is correct. When we dwell on something that has been done to us, and how we are going to express it, the feeling gets even worse. Studies of 'Type A' (intense, driven) people have shown that it is the expression of hostility, rather than feeling it, that is the link with having a heart attack. Blood pressure actually goes down when people decide to bottle up their anger or express friendliness. The Eastern way of 'Feel the anger, but don't express it' is a key to happiness.

In contrast, the more gratitude you feel for people or things in your life, the better you feel generally. Seligman's students had a 'Gratitude Night' in which they invited someone along they wanted to thank for what they've done for them - in front of everyone. People involved were generally on a high for days or weeks afterwards.

The brain is so built that you can't make yourself forget things you would like to. But what you can do is forgive, which 'removes and even transforms the sting'. Not forgiving doesn't really punish the perpetrator, whereas forgiving can transform yourself and bring back your life satisfaction.

Final comments

We now live in a world offering endless shortcuts to happiness. We don't have to make much effort to get a positive feeling. But strangely, the easy availability of pleasures tends to leave a yawning hole in many people's lives because it demands zero growth of them as a person. A life of pleasures makes us a spectator, not an engager with life. We master nothing and do not use our creativity. A real life is one where a person seeks out and responds to constant challenges.

Seligman believes we need a psychology of 'rising to the occasion', or what he calls the 'Harry Truman effect'. When he took over from Franklin Delano Roosevelt after FDR died in office, against everyone's expectations Truman turned out to be one of the great American presidents. The position revealed his character and allowed his long-honed personal strengths to be utilized.

Whether or not we are happy every moment is largely irrelevant. Like Truman, what matters is whether or not we choose to develop what is within us, for happiness does not 'come along', but involves choices.

One of the best things in Authentic Happiness is the tests you can take to determine your levels of optimism, your signature strengths etc. Some readers won't like Seligman's vignettes of his personal life dropped throughout the book, such as how he won the presidency of the American Psychological Association, but they do spice things up and are often amusing. Amazingly, the author admits to having spent the first 50 years of his life as a grouch, but the mountain of evidence about happiness pushed him into thinking that he should apply it to himself!

Like Seligman, we can no longer allow ourselves to believe that happiness is some mystical thing enjoyed only by other people – the paths to it are now clearer than ever, and it is up to us to take responsibility for our states of mind.




Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

50 Psych Classics Book Cover

50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

"At long last a chance for those outside the profession to discover that there is so much more to psychology than just Freud and Jung. 50 Psychology Classics offer a unique opportunity to become acquainted with a dazzling array of the key works in psychological literature almost overnight".

Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist, The Maudsley Hospital London, Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry

"This delightful book provides thoughtful and entertaining summaries of 50 of the most influential books in psychology. Its a "must read" for students contemplating a career in psychology".

VS Ramachandran MD PhD, Professor and Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego

"A brilliant synthesis. The author makes complex ideas accessible and practical, without dumbing down the material. I found myself over and over thinking, 'Oh, that's what that guy meant'.

Douglas Stone, Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, author of Difficult Conversations



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Martin E P Seligman

Born in Albany, New York, in 1942, with both parents public servants, Seligman attended the private Albany Academy for Boys in New York. He graduated Summa Cum Laude in his BA from Princeton University in 1964, and received his PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. He has been a professor of psychology at UPenn since 1976.

In 1998 he was elected to President of the American Psychological Association from whom he has also received two Distinguished Scientific Contribution awards. Past presidents include William James, John Dewey, Abraham Maslow and Harry Harlow.

Seligman has authored 200 academic articles and twenty books, including: Helplessness (1975, 1993), Abnormal Psychology (1982, 1995) with David Rosenhan, Learned Optimism (1991), What You Can Change & What You Can't (1993) and The Optimistic Child (1995).

He is married and has seven children. ©2015 All rights reserved.
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