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Authentic Happiness: Using The New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment
By Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D
Authentic Happiness is a readable and fascinating, but somewhat academic, treatise about happiness by Martin Seligman.
The book begins with a discussion of the nun study—a study that followed nuns throughout their lives and examined factors such as longevity and health. The study found the greatest predictive factor of successful aging and life satisfaction was optimism reflected in essays the young nuns wrote about their lives when they first took their religious vows.
Those who were happy and optimistic when young tended to remain happy, healthy, and successful. Those who expressed more pessimism in their essays tended to age less successfully and tended to have less life satisfaction.
Other researchers found similar early predictive value using yearbook photos.
Seligman writes: "…yearbook photos are a gold mine for Positive Psychology researchers. ‘Look at the birdie and smile,’ the photographer tells you, and dutifully you put on your best smile. Some of us break into a radiant smile of authentic good cheer, while the rest of us pose politely. There are two kinds of smiles. The first, called a Duchenne smile (after its discoverer, Guillaume Duchenne) is genuine. The corners of your mouth turn up and the skin around the corners of your eyes crinkles (like crow’s feet). The muscles that do this, the orbicularis oculi and the zygomticus, are exceedingly difficult to control voluntarily. The other smile, called the Pan American smile (after the flight attendants in television ads for the now-defunct airline), is inauthentic, with none of the Duchenne features. Indeed, it is probably more related to the rictus that lower primates display when frightened than it is to happiness."
Follow-up studies of people with Duchenne yearbook photos showed that they tended to have more personal life satisfaction into their thirties, forties, and fifties than did people without Duchenne smiles.
Seligman tells us that "external circumstances" only have a minimal effect ("no more than between 8 and 15 percent of the variance…") on happiness. Here are a few circumstances Seligman says tend to correspond slightly with happiness:
1) Living in a wealthy democracy, rather than a poor dictatorship. Unsurprisingly, this has a relatively strong effect on happiness relative to other circumstances. Extreme poverty and dictators are a real bummer.
2) Marriage. Married people tend to be happier. "Marriage is a more potent happiness factor than satisfaction with job, or finances, or community," Seligman writes.
3) Rich social network. Seligman points out that this might not be a causal relationship. In other words, happy people might tend to build richer social networks more naturally.
What about staying healthy, getting a good education, and making more money? Seligman says none of these are highly correlated with happiness.
Also, it’s a person’s subjective feeling of health, not objective health that matters for determining happiness. Some people facing extreme illness remain happy, while other people in relatively good health feel they aren’t healthy and are depressed about it. Of course, extreme health problems have a tendency to drag us down.
I found the relationship between money and happiness fascinating. It appears winning the lottery or extreme wealth won’t make a person happy.
Seligman writes: "In very poor nations, where poverty threatens life itself, being rich does predict greater well-being. In wealthier nations, however, where almost everyone has a basic safety net, increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness. In the United States, the very poor are lower in happiness, but once a person is just barely comfortable, added money adds little or no happiness. Even the fabulously rich—the Forbes 100, with an average net worth of over $125 million dollars—are only slightly happier than the average American."
(I read an article about Jean Chatzky’s new book in which people were asked about their overall life happiness. Relative to income, once $50,000 is hit, happiness levels off. If you search google for "happiness money $50,000" you can find the full article online.)
However, a person’s obsession with making more money can lead to less happiness. Seligman writes: "…people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole …"
While external circumstances account for less than 15% of a person’s happiness, Seligman tells us that genetic disposition plays a significant role, probably contributing over 50% to a person’s characteristics.
So, why do people become unduly pessimistic or unhappy? Seligman argues that negative emotions prepare us for conflicts or for win-lose games. In contrast, positive emotions help us be more creative and helps us to build social and intellectual resources. Happiness prepares us for win-win situations.
Seligman writes: "When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being."
In addition to providing us with an understanding of happiness, Authentic Happiness provides several tests for evaluating our own happiness. Many of the tests are available online at AuthenticHappiness.org.
Seligman also offers a prescription for finding more happiness. He suggests that people are happiest when they’re using their signature strengths. Studying major religions and philosophies, Seligman has identified six admirable and largely culturally-independent strengths. They are:
* Wisdom and Knowledge
* Love and Humanity
* Spirituality and Transcendence
Seligman says that if we discover a calling, something that links to a greater good, which utilizes our signature strengths, we tend to be happy. The book also has practical advicee for using your knowledge of happiness to improve marriages and help children become more future-oriented.
I highly recommend Authentic Happiness to readers who are interested in studying happiness, who want to test their own level of happiness, or who want to attain richer, more fulfilling lives.