Does Lasting Happiness really Lie in Using our Signature Strengths?

What if living ‘the good life’ was in fact, startlingly simple – and lasting happiness within reach of us all?

According to psychologist and founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, it is – and it is.

In his bestselling book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman offers a blueprint for becoming lastingly happier, predominantly through exercising our signature strengths in the key life areas. This, he says, is how we build authentic happiness and abundant gratification.

This post summarizes the ideas in Seligman’s book.

A happiness formula 

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Seligman offers the following equation for happiness:

H = S + C + V.

‘H’ is our enduring level of happiness, ‘S’ is our set range, ‘C’ the circumstances of our life and V the factors under our voluntary control.

For obvious reasons, the book deals mostly with ‘V’ – factors we can control!

Varying the variables

Though we don’t often consider it, we have positive (and negative) emotion about the past, present and future – as separate categories.

And they aren’t necessarily the same: we can feel optimistic about the future, without feeling contentment and satisfaction about our pasts.

To experience more positive emotion, we need to address our emotions about the past, present and future Click To Tweet

Part of becoming lastingly happier is about addressing what is stopping us from experiencing positive emotion about past, present and future.

rewriting the past

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The key practices for generating positive emotion about the past are gratitude and forgiveness:

Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past, and overemphasis of the bad ones, are two key culprits that undermine serenity, contentment, and satisfaction. Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by, and rewriting history by forgiveness loosens the power of the bad events to embitter (and actually can transform bad memories into good ones).

How grateful are you? Are you holding onto any unforgiveness? These are the things that are standing in the way of a positive experience of the past.

So to recap, the two ways you can feel more positive emotion about the past.

  • Intellectually letting go of the ideology that past controls the future. Seligman says: “The hard determinism that underpins this dogma is empirically barren and philosophically far from self evident, and the passivity it engenders is imprisoning.”
  • Voluntarily changing memories through increasing gratitude and practicing forgiveness. 

optimism about the future

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(Test your optimism at the University of Pennsylvania’s online portal – you’ll also find a bunch of other questionnaires related to happiness.)

There is an interesting distinction in Authentic Happiness between the explanatory styles of optimistic individuals and those prone to pessimism.

It seems that we either interpret good and bad events as having ‘permanence or non-permanence’, and ‘pervasiveness and non-pervasiveness’. And these two styles govern our ability to generate hope and the other positive emotions associated with the future.

The permanence dimension determines how long a person gives up for – with permanent explanations for bad events producing long-lasting helplessness, and temporary explanations producing resilience. The pervasiveness dimension determines whether helplessness cuts across many situations or is limited to the original arena.

So say I am fired from my job tomorrow. If I am a victim of the pervasiveness dimension, I’ll feel like a failure across my life.

Seligman suggests several practices for improving optimism about the future, when you are a pessimist.

  • recognizing and disputing pessimistic thoughts. Seligman says the key is to first recognise them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, whose mission is to make you miserable.
  • learning to argue with yourself through examining the evidence, considering the alternatives, analyzing the implications of your negative interpretations – and their usefulness.

If you are really pessimistic, I suggest reading Seligman’s other book, Learned Optimism. 

Happiness in the present – the pleasant life versus the good life 

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The ‘pleasant life’ might be had by drinking champagne and driving a Porsche, but not the good life. Rather, the good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification. This is something you can do in the main realms of your life.

This is the central point of Authentic Happiness. Seligman shows us how we misguidedly pursue the things that will bring us positive feeling. He says there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking momentary pleasures, but they aren’t the passport to lasting happiness.

We can increase pleasure found in the 'raw feels' through savoring and mindfulness Click To Tweet

The upshot is do less chasing of ‘raw feels’ – orgasm, comfort, thrills – and more pursuing of gratifications.

The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components. They involve little, if any, thinking. The gratifications are activities we very much like doing but they are not necessarily accompanies by any raw feelings at all. Rather the gratifications engage us fully, we become immersed and absorbed in them and we lose self consciousness. Enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, and making a slam dunk are all examples of activities in which time stops for us. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, they involve quite a lot of thinking and interpretation, they do not habituate easily, and they are under-girded by our strengths and virtues.

Also:

When we engage in pleasures, we are perhaps just consuming. They are not investments; nothing is accumulated. 

Before you get all upset: Seligman isn’t saying we shouldn’t pursue raw pleasures! He is just saying that despite the reliable delight they bring, we’d be fools to build our lives around them. They fade rapidly once the stimulus disappears, and we become accustomed to them very quickly, meaning we require bigger and bigger doses for the same boost (this depressing phenomenon is called habituation).

squeezing out the pleasant 

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That said, Seligman helpfully suggests practices for improving the momentary happinesses too: 

  • optimally spacing pleasures to counter the force that is habituation.
  • savoring – through sharing with others; memory building; self congratulating; sharpening perceptions; and getting immersed in the experience. 
  • mindfulness. 

It is through these practices that a pleasant life is found. 

Okay – what about a good life?

Increasing gratification through exercising signature strengths

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The key practice for uncovering more gratuitous pastimes is knowing what your strengths are. So self-awareness comes in handy again. 

Pursuing gratifications begins with an honest assessment of your signature strengths. Before you freak out telling yourself you don’t have any, Seligman identifies 24 strengths – and you definitely, categorically have some. Again, I refer you to the Penn test center (it’s the link to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths).

We all have top strengths, and of those, a few signature strengths Click To Tweet

You will identify your top five strengths. Seligman believes that some of these will feel authentic to you, but one or two may not be the real you. He says that we each have several signature strengths that meet the additional criteria of generating a sense of ownership and authenticity when we display them, as well as excitement and a rapid learning curve when we first practice the strength. Here are the other characteristics he identifies:

  • a yearning to use the strength.
  • continuous learning of new ways to use it.
  • a feeling of inevitability in using the strength.
  • using it invigorates rather than tires you.
  • you create and pursuit personal projects built around its exercise.

After that, Seligman’s advice is simple:

Herein is my formulation for the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness. Figure out how to use them in your life. 

Authentic Happiness ends with some advice on using those strengths in the mansions of your life. 

Summary – a strategy for lasting happiness

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To build lasting and authentic happiness, the positive psychology way:

  1. Rewrite the past through gratitude and forgiveness. 
  2. Generate positive emotions about the future through learned optimism. 
  3. Increase present moment happiness by savoring pleasant experiences and pursuing gratification through the exercise of your strengths in your personal and working life.

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