Claire Burgess, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University
Martin Seligman is widely credited as being one of the ‘founders’ of the movement of Positive Psychology, or at least of coining the term. Positive Psychology is essentially looking at the world in a different way to the one which Psychology typically does – instead of looking at what is wrong and trying to fix it, Positive Psychology focuses on what is right and how to do more of it, picking out the positives in any given situation. ‘Authentic Happiness’ is his guide to what Positive Psychology is and how to start thinking, and living, in this way.
Chapter 1 starts with some thought-provoking studies on positivity, such as a study of nuns which found that those which had used more positive language when writing about their vocation on average lived longer, and a more genuine smile in a yearbook photo was a predictor of greater life satisfaction. Some grand implications to draw you in, but Seligman is a researcher and lecturer in Psychology and so they have a pretty robust methodology.
Chapter 2 is essentially a bit of background on Seligman and how he got into this field. It’s an easy read and gives some interesting context.
Chapter 3 is titled ‘Why bother to be happy?’ and is aimed at the sceptics out there (which Seligman admits he used to be). It looks at some effects of living in a positive way, such as being in a positive mood making us more creative, generous and think more laterally, as well as being more productive. More studies are given to back up these ideas, and what makes this very readable is the way the studies are integrated into the text with references given in the endnotes.
Chapter 4 starts to looks at techniques you can use to make yourself ‘happier’. This includes a self-rating score of happiness (Seligman includes various scales you can use throughout the book, which are also available for free on his website). This chapter explores things such as the ‘Hedonistic Treadmill’, which Seligman sees as a barrier to happiness (essentially the idea that many people think more money/possessions will make them happier, but you soon get used to what you have and want more, so you will never ultimately be happy this way). He also explores links between various external factors and happiness – such as money, living in a sunnier climate, marriage and your social network. While he admits that some of these cannot be changed, he starts to make you think about it’s the way you perceive certain situations, not necessarily just what you have.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 look at positivity towards the past, future and present respectively. He discussed issues such as the ability to forgive, being optimistic about the future, and short-lived versus deeper positive emotions in the present. The chapters all include interesting real-life examples from either Seligman or people he has encountered, and some strategies to improve positivity in all of these areas – it is a lot to take in, and I can imagine these pages becoming well-thumbed as they are revisited, which is probably the best way to make the most of these strategies. But it’s an interesting way to explore this subject, and harks back to more ‘traditional’ Psychology by including elements such as the effect of your past, and I feel this works well to give it a more rounded approach.
Chapters 8 and 9 (‘Part 2’) focus on Signature Strengths, which are areas of character that have come from a study by Seligman and colleagues, and a desire to have ‘measurable’ areas in the field of Positive Psychology to build any interventions around. There is a self-scoring questionnaire in chapter 9 to identify your own signature strengths, this is also available on Seligman’s website (which is easier as it also scores it for you). Seligman advises that you look at your top 5 strengths, do a bit of a sanity test to see if they feel like the real you, and then use them as much as possible in your life to bring “abundant gratification and authentic happiness”. A simple, yet potentially powerful approach – and easy enough to be worth a try at any rate.
Chapters 10, 11 and 12 (‘Part 3’) focus on areas of your life and how you may use your strengths to their full advantage in each. The areas are work and personal satisfaction, love, and raising children. Again in each area there are some interesting case studies, psychological studies, and techniques that you can use. These chapters bring the previous parts of the book into a more practical realm and are some interesting food for thought.
The book concludes with a short summary and anecdote from Seligman’s life to try to put it all into perspective.
Ultimately, I would strongly recommend this book as thought-provoking and with the potential to change your outlook on many areas of life. It’s very readable and accessible, with the academic ‘weight’ given through the references in the endnotes. I read this as someone who had already ‘bought in’ to the principles of positive psychology, but I think it would also be an interesting read for those more sceptical. As with many books like this, it may not change anything about you at all, but at least it’s an interesting read and you can get an understanding of where all those annoying positive people are coming from.