Positive Psychology takes you through the countryside of pleasure and gratification, up into the high country of strength and virtue, and finally to the peaks of lasting fulfillment: meaning and purpose (Seligman 2002, p. 61). According to Seligman, we can experience three kinds of happiness: 1) pleasure and gratification, 2) embodiment of strengths and virtues and 3) meaning and purpose. Each kind of happiness is linked to positive emotion but from his quote, you can see that in his mind there is a progression from the first type of happiness of pleasure/gratification to strengths/virtues and finally meaning/purpose.
The Pleasant Life: Past, Present & Future Seligman provides a mental “toolkit” to achieve what he calls the pleasant life by enabling people to think constructively about the past, gain optimism and hope for the future and, as a result, gain greater happiness in the present. Dealing with the Past Among Seligman’s arsenal for combating unhappiness with the past is that which we commonly and curiously find among the wisdom of the ages: gratitude and forgiveness. Seligman refers to American society as a “ventilationist society” that “deem[s] it honest, just and even healthy to express our anger.
He notes that this is often seen in the types of therapy used for issues, problems and challenges. In contrast, Seligman extols the East Asian tendency to quietly deal with difficult situations. He cites studies that find that those who refrain from expressing negative emotions and in turn use different strategies to cope with the stresses of life also tend to be happier (Seligman 2002, p. 69). Optimism about the Future When looking to the future, Seligman recommends an outlook of hope and optimism.
Happiness in the Present After making headway with these strategies for dealing with negative emotions of the past and building hope and optimism for the future, Seligman recommends breaking habituation, savoring experiences and using mindfulness as ways to increase happiness in the present. The Role of Positive Emotion Many studies have shown that positive emotions are frequently accompanied by fortunate circumstances (e. g. , longer life, health, large social networks, etc). For example, one study observed nuns who were, for the most part, leading virtually identical lifestyles.
It seemed that the nuns who expressed positive emotions more intensely and more frequently in their daily journals also happened to outlive many of the nuns who clearly did not. Another study used high school yearbook photos of women to see if the ultimate expression of happiness (a smile) might also be used as an indicator as to how satisfied they might be 20 years later. When surveyed, those who were photographed with genuine, “Duchenne” smiles were more likely to find themselves, in their mid-life, married with families and involved in richer social lives.
In short, positive emotions are frequently paired with happy circumstances. And while we might be tempted to assume that happiness causes positive emotions, Seligman wonders, instead, whether positive emotions cause happiness. If so, what does this mean for our life and our happiness? The Good Life: Embodying the 6 Virtues & Cultivating the 24 Strengths The strengths and virtues [… ] function against misfortune and against the psychological disorders, and they may be the key to building resilience (Seligman 2002, p. xiv).
Virtues One notable contribution that Seligman has made for Positive Psychology is his cross-cultural study to create an “authoritative classification and measurement system for the human strengths”. He and Dr. Christopher Peterson, a top expert in the field of hope and optimism, worked to create a classification system that would help psychologists measure positive psychology’s effectiveness. They used good character to measure its efficacy because good character was so consistently and strongly linked to lasting happiness.
In order to remain true to their efforts to create a universal classification system, they made a concerted effort to examine and research a wide variety of religious and philosophical texts from all over the world (Seligman 2002, p. 132). They were surprised to find 6 particular virtues that were valued in almost every culture, valued in their own right (not just as a means to another end) and are attainable.
These 6 core virtues are: 1. wisdom & knowledge 2. courage 3. love & humanity 4. justice 5. temperance 6. pirituality & transcendence Strengths For Seligman, the strengths are the “route” through we achieve virtues in our life. Seligman clarifies the difference between talents and strengths by defining strengths as moral traits that can be developed, learned, and take effort. Talents, on the other hand, tend to be inherent and can only be cultivated from what exists rather than what develops through effort (Seligman 2002, p. 134). For example, many people consider musical ability as more or less inherent and can only be strengthened.
On the other hand, one can cultivate the strength of patience, which can lead to the virtue of temperance Seligman provides a detailed classification of the different virtues as well as a strengths survey that is available on his website: www. authentichappiness. org. Seligman sees the healthy exercise and development of strengths and virtues as a key to the good life – a life in which one uses one’s “signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.
The good life is a place of happiness, good relationships and work, and from this point, Seligman encourages people to go further to seek a meaningful life in the continual quest for happiness (Seligman 2002, p. 161). The Meaningful Life Meaning & Flow Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, inauthenticity, to depression and, as we age, to the gnawing realization that we are fidgeting until we die (Seligman 2002, p. 8).
Here Seligman states, rather dismally, that there are no shortcuts to happiness. While the pleasant life might bring more positive emotion to one’s life, to foster a deeper more enduring happiness, we need to explore the realm of meaning. Without the application of one’s unique strengths and the development of one’s virtues towards an end bigger than one’s self, one’s potential tends to be whittled away by a mundane, inauthentic, empty pursuit of pleasure.
Seligman expands on his contemporary and colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work in the area of flow to explain, in part, what he means by the meaningful life. Investing oneself into creative work creates a greater sense of meaning in life and accordingly, a greater sense of happiness. Altruism Seligman goes one step further than Csikszentmihalyi by exploring the experience of flow and loss of consciousness that is involved in acts of altruism and acts of kindness. Kindness [… consists in total engagement and in the loss of consciousness (Seligman 2002, p. 9).
The exercise of kindness is a gratification in contrast to pleasure. As a gratification, it calls on your strengths to rise to an occasion and meet a challenge, particularly in the service of others. How can we use our strengths and virtues to achieve a meaningful life? One example could be a gifted martial artist who experiences great pleasure in perfecting her skills in karate and winning prizes in tournaments.
Yet then she discovers that one autistic child she is teaching shows signs of enormous improvement. This makes her feels so good that she opens a class for children with special needs. Seeing these children overcome their challenges gives her still greater happiness. Finally, she becomes so absorbed about the happiness of these children that she forgets about her own happiness! This situation enables her to enrich the lives of others while engaging her own strengths and virtues.
Courtney from Study Moose
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