by Martin Seligman, Ph.D.
A Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania,
whose bibliography includes fifteen books
and 150 articles on motivation and personality.
In 1996 he was elected President of the American Psychological Association.
"Happiness" is a hopelessly vague shorthand for other things, so when I began to work in positive psychology my first task was to try to say what the measurable components of happiness are. What are the workable pieces of it?
What's workable within happiness are three different kinds of lives:
The pleasant life consists of having as many of the positive emotions as you can, and learning the skills that amplify them. There are a half dozen such skills that have been reasonably well-documented. That's the Hollywood view of happiness, the Debbie Reynolds, smiley, giggly view of happiness. It's positive emotion. But, one might ask, isn't that where positive psychology ends? Isn't pleasure all there is to the positive side of life?
But there is very good intellectual provenance for two other kinds of happy lives, which, in the Hollywood/American conception, have gone by the boards. Part of my job is to resurrect them.
Eudaemonia, the good life is what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle meant by "the pursuit of happiness". They did not mean smiling a lot and giggling. Aristotle talks about the pleasures of contemplation and the pleasures of good conversation. He is not talking about raw feeling, or about thrills. Rather, when one is in eudaemonia, time stops. You feel completely at home. Self-consciousness is blocked. You're one with the music.
The good life consists of the roots that lead to what we popularly call flow. [Flow, also known as the zone, is where we are fully immersed in energized focus, complete absorption in, and enjoyment of what we are doing.] The good life is first knowing what your signature strengths are and then re-crafting your life to use them more - re-crafting your work, your romance, your friendships, your leisure, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best at.
What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot; what you get is flow, and the more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life.
There has recently been established a classification of strengths and virtues; it's the opposite of the classification of the insanities. When we look, we see that there are six virtues which are endorsed across cultures, and these break down into 24 strengths.
The six virtues are non-arbitrary: first, a wisdom and knowledge cluster; second, a courage cluster; third, virtues like love and humanity; fourth, a justice cluster; fifth a temperance, moderation cluster; and sixth a spirituality, transcendence cluster.
We sent people up to northern Greenland, and down to the Masai, in a 70-nation study in which we looked at the ubiquity of these virtue clusters. Indeed, we're beginning to have the view that they are just as much a part of human nature as walking on two feet.
With this background, I can give you some examples of what I mean by recrafting your life to use your signature strengths and getting flow. One person I worked with was a bagger at Genuardi's. She didn't like bagging, took the signature strengths test, and her highest strength was social intelligence. And so she re-crafted her job to make every customer's encounter with her the social highlight of their day. She obviously failed at that a lot, but by deploying the single thing she was best at, she changed the job from one in which time hung heavy on her hands into one in which time flew by.
So just to review thus far, there is the pleasant life - having as many of the pleasures as you can and the skills to amplify them - and the good life - knowing what your signature strengths are and re-crafting everything you do to use them a much as possible.
But there's a third way of life, a third form of happiness that is ineluctably pursued by humans, and that's the pursuit of meaning.
There is one thing we know about meaning: that it consists in attachment to something bigger than we are. The self is not a very good site for meaning, and the larger the thing that you can credibly attach yourself to, the more meaning you get out of life.
There's an enormous range of things that are larger than us that we can belong to and be part of, some of which are prepackaged. Being an Orthodox Jew, for example, or being a Republican are prepackaged ones. Being a teacher, someone whose life is wrapped up in the growth of younger people, is a non-prepackaged one.
Being an agent is a non-prepackaged one - it's a life in service of the people you see as the greatest minds on the planet. And they couldn't do their thing without your agency. You can think of agency in terms of "I'm just doing it for the money," and then it's not a meaningful life. In the pursuit of meaning, you don't wake up in the morning raring to make more money, but rather to be in service of a much larger goal. Being a lawyer can either be a business just in service of making a half million dollars a year, in which case it's not meaningful, or it can be in service of good counsel, fairness, and justice. That's the non-prepackaged form of meaning.
Being a teacher is one of the most noble of professions. Raising children, and projecting a positive human future through your children, is a meaningful form of life. Saving the whales is a meaningful form of life. Fighting against terrorists is a meaningful form of life.
Joining and serving in things larger than you, that you believe in, while using your highest strengths is a recipe for meaning.
I spent the first 30 years of my career working on misery. The first thing I worked on was learned helplessness.
I began to ask the question, who never gets helpless? That is, who resists collapsing? And the reverse question is, who becomes helpless at the drop of a hat?
I got interested in optimism because I found that the people who didn't become helpless were people who, when they encountered events in which nothing they did mattered, thought about those events as being temporary, controllable, local, and not their fault; whereas people who immediately collapsed into a heap of helplessness were those who saw the bad event as being permanent, uncontrollable, pervasive, and also their fault.
I started working on optimism versus pessimism, and I found that optimistic people got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people, that optimistic people succeeded better in all professions that we measured except one, that optimistic people had better, feistier, immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimistic people.
I had an epiphany. It changed my life, and I hope it's changed the course of psychology. I was in my garden with my five-year-old daughter, Nicky, and to make another confession, even though I've written a book about children and have worked with children, I'm no good with them since I'm time-urgent and task-oriented.
I was weeding, and Nicky was throwing weeds into the air, dancing, singing and having a wonderful time - and I shouted at her. She walked away, puzzled, and walked back and said, "Daddy, I want to talk to you."
I said, "Yeah, Nicky?"
And she said, "Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday" - she had turned five about two weeks before - "I was a whiner? That I whined every day?"
I said, "Yeah, I remember - you were a horror."
"Have you noticed since my fifth birthday, Daddy, I haven't whined once?"
And she said, "Daddy, on my fifth birthday I decided I wasn't going to whine any more. And that was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."
In that moment, three things happened to me. The first was I realized that Nicky was right about me, that I had spent more than 50 years being a nimbus cloud and I didn't have a theory about why it's good to be a grouch. Some people talk about depressive realism, the idea that depressed people see reality better, but it occurred to me that maybe any success I'd had in life was in spite of being a grouch, not because of being a grouch, so I resolved to change. You haven't known me long enough, but people who have known me for that span of time know that I'm now a sunnier person and deploy my critical intelligence less. I'm better able to see what's right, and I'm better at suppressing my falcon-like vigilance for what's wrong.
The second part of the epiphany was that I realized my theories of child rearing were wrong. The psychological theories of child rearing which the last two generations have been raised with are remedial. They basically say that the job of the parent is to correct the kid's errors, and somehow out of the correction of errors an exemplary child rises. But if you think about Nicky, she corrected her own error, and my job was to take this extraordinary strength she had just shown, see into the soul, name it - social intelligence - help her to live her life around it, and to use it as a buffer against troubles.
If you think about your own life, your success has not been because you've corrected your weaknesses, but because you found out a couple of things you were really good at, and you used those to buffer you against troubles. In the Bible it's called letting the good overwhelm and push out the bad.
So the second thing I realized was that with any program whose aim is to correct what's wrong, the best it can ever get to is zero. And yet when you lie in bed at night you're not thinking about how to go from -5 to -2; you're generally thinking about how to go from +2 to +6 in life. And there was no science for that. All of the science was remedial, only about correcting the negatives.
That led to the third, final, and most important part of the epiphany: I realized that my profession in social science generally was only half-baked. The part that was fully-baked was about victims, suffering and trauma, depression, anxiety, anger, and on and on. I'd spent my life on that and we knew a lot about it. We can make miserable people less miserable.
But the part that was half-baked was about what makes life worth living? What is happiness? What is virtue? What is meaning? What is strength? How are these things built? So it became my mission in life, from that moment in the garden, to help create a positive psychology whose mission would be the understanding and building of positive emotion, of strength and virtue, and of positive institutions.
I've spent a fair amount of my life asking questions about drugs and psychotherapy and their effects. Let me tell you how I summarize their effectiveness and then what I think the implications of that are for positive psychology.
First, it's important to know that in general there are two kinds of medications. There are palliatives, cosmetics like quinine for malaria, which suppress the symptoms for as long as you take them; when you stop taking quinine, the malaria returns at full force. Then there are curative drugs, like antibiotics for bacterial infection. When you stop taking those the bacteria are dead and don't recur.
What are the "therapeutic" and drug prospects for positive psychology? Are we likely to find drugs that work on the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life?
The answer is probably yes for the pleasant life. That is, there's a neuroscience that's relevant to the positive emotions, and people are beginning to pin down some localization within the brain.
There are also recreational drugs - antidepressants don't bring pleasure, but recreational drugs do. I've never taken Ecstasy or cocaine, but I gather that they work on pleasure as well. At any rate, a pharmacology of pleasure is not science fiction, and I expect that as positive psychology matures our drug company friends will get interested in it. There are shortcuts to pleasure, and if you play with the relevant neural circuits, those are shortcuts.
Flow, however, doesn't have shortcuts. When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers, Julian Jaynes, a peculiar but wonderful man, was a research associate at Princeton. He was given a South American lizard as a laboratory pet, and the problem about the lizard was that no one could figure out what it ate, so the lizard was dying. Julian killed flies, and the lizard wouldn't eat them; blended mangos and papayas, the lizard wouldn't eat them; Chinese take-out, the lizard had no interest. One day Julian came in and the lizard was in torpor, lying in the corner. He offered the lizard his lunch, but the lizard had no interest in ham on rye. He read the New York Times and he put the first section down on top of the ham on rye. The lizard took one look at this configuration, got up on its hind legs, stalked across the room, leapt up on the table, shredded the New York Times, and ate the ham sandwich. The moral is that lizards don't copulate and don't eat unless they go through the lizardly strengths and virtues first. They have to hunt, kill, shred, and stalk. And while we're a lot more complex than lizards, we have to as well.
There are no shortcuts for us to reach flow. We have to indulge in our highest strengths in order to get eudaemonia. So can there be a shortcut? Can there be a pharmacology of it? I doubt it.
The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it's unlikely there'll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it's impossible that there'll be a pharmacology of meaning.
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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