Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the movement of "Positive Psychology." This new branch of research examines our ability to cultivate happiness. This ability is what Seligman calls "learned optimism" and is the basis for his bestselling book, Authentic Happiness. Seligman says that by focusing on our strengths and positive emotions as opposed to negative ones, we can bring about positive results in our lives. The traditional focus of psychology has been on pathologies and psychiatric illnesses. "For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only - mental illness."(p.xi). This focus has neglected the potential of human beings to create happiness and fulfillment in their lives. Seligman hopes that by introducing people to his "positive psychology," they may learn to appreciate and find contentment in their lives.
The first part of Authentic Happiness is devoted to introducing the idea of positive emotions. Seligman believes that a positive outlook is not accidental, it is something that can be learned.
In chapter one, positive feelings and positive character are discussed. A deliberate approach to life is encouraged that "will transcend the arbitrary purposes" (p14) of our lives. This approach involves building upon our strengths and not dwelling on our perceived weaknesses. These potential strengths are part of a well-defined list of two dozen traits that can increase a person's well-being.
This encourages a person to claim their happiness as an entitlement, as opposed to trying to find it via shortcuts such as drugs or television.
There are several things I learned from this chapter. Firstly, I learned that you reap more positive effects from carrying out an act of kindness than an act of simple pleasure. A study of University of Pennsylvania students indicated that the satisfaction derived from an act of pleasure was more transitory than the effects of carrying out philanthropic acts. Additionally, I learned that psychology has traditionally ignored the discussion of virtues, whereas philosophy and religion have devoted great attention to the topic of virtuous behavior. Thirdly, I learned the parallels between traditional psychology and muscle physiology. Physiologists study tonic activity (the resting state of a muscle) and find that it extrapolates poorly to describe how a muscle performs when in use. Psychologists have a similar phenomenon in that all the research done on a person's psychological profile may be meaningless in predicting whether a person will "rise to the occasion."
The second chapter is devoted to Seligman's description of "How Psychology Lost its Way and I Found Mine." This chapter covers an account of how the author won election to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and the resistance to his positive psychology movement by tradition-bound psychologists. He also makes the argument that optimism is a very deliberate state that one can cultivate on a daily basis.
A learned several things from the second chapter. Firstly, I learned some of the characteristics of the pessimistic world view. A pessimist sees obstacles as insurmountable, and are more likely to become depressed. They "have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive and personal." (p24). I also learned that a central tenet of population health (mental and physical) is that prevention is far more desirable and effective than cure. Finally, from this largely anecdotal chapter, I learned that Seligman was inspired by his daughter Nikki to pursue the field of positive psychology and taking charge of your life.
Chapter three, "Why Bother to be Happy" discusses the link between positive emotions and positive actions. Seligman draws a distinction between "phenomenon," that "starts a chain of events," and "epiphenomenon," that can be measured but that has no effect on other things. Of these, the author makes the point that happiness has an effect on other aspects of our life and is therefore worthwhile to cultivate.
From this chapter, I learned that emotion and sensory aspects are linked. For example, fear can stimulate a fight-or-flight response that has a very measurable physiological component. Additionally, I learned that positive psychology is supported by an evolutionary argument whereby survival is favored based upon an "expansive, tolerant, and creative" (p35) mindset. Finally, chapter three taught me about the notion of "depressive realism." This theory contends that people who are depressed are also better judges of reality, especially in terms of their own abilities, as compared to positive people.
In chapter four, "Can you make yourself lastingly happier?," Seligman uses a formula to describe the components of happiness. He contends that happiness is an aggregate of one's life circumstances, "set range" and controllable variables. The set range may have a genetic or biological basis, and is an effective 'starting point' for assessing one's happiness level. One's circumstances are very difficult to change, and play a big role in happiness. These factors include marital status and health-reported status. Finally, there are also variables that we can control that offer the greatest potential for improving our mental state.
A learned several things from chapter four. Firstly, I learned the term "hedonic treadmill," a concept I was already familiar with. The hedonic treadmill idea says that people are constantly striving to amass personal wealth, when the research says that this is not going to make you happy. "Good things and high accomplishments, studies have shown, have astonishingly little power to raise happiness more than transiently. Secondly, I learned that marital status and happiness are closely linked. Research supports the idea that married people tend to be happier people. Finally, I learned that more important to a person's real health status is how they perceive their health, and that an illness must become severe before it impacts upon happiness status.
Chapter five is entitled "Satisfaction About the past." In this chapter, Seligman tells us there are several ways to improve our mental set by feeling better about our past. One way is to release the notion that our future is dictated by our past. Additionally, you can increase your happiness by focusing on happy memories as opposed to sad ones.
A learned several things from chapter five. Firstly, I learned the acronym REACH. In terms of reconciling ourselves with the past, this refers to Recall, Empathize, Altruistically forgive, Commit, and Hold onto forgiveness. This chapter also taught me that dwelling negatively on the past will prevent us from moving forward in a positive manner. Finally, I learned that gratitude is an important component of happiness.
Optimism about the Future" is the subject of chapter six, which builds upon the controllable factors introduced in chapter five. Optimism is within our reach if we accept that adverse situations are temporary.
From chapter six, I learned that you can systematically build optimism by refuting your negative thoughts. This chapter also taught me to recognize that beliefs are not necessarily facts. Finally, I learned that there can be more than one contributing factor to an adverse result.
Chapter seven concluded Seligman's address of variables that you can control by encouraging "Happiness in the present." The author describes ways to increase one's happiness in the moment. These ways primarily focus on a distinction between "pleasures," that have a very sensory component, and "gratifications." Gratifications have a really engaging quality and allow us to completely lose ourselves in them. Pursuing the gratifications will result in greater happiness, as "the pleasures, both bodily and higher, have a uniform and peculiar set of properties that limit their usefulness as sources of lasting happiness." (p105).
Happiness in the Present" taught me that pleasures fade quickly. Secondly, I also learned that an addiction is separate from a pleasure and can be detected by noticing if one's desire for it diminishes over time (addiction). I also learned the concept of "savoring" that is designed to increase our happiness with the present moment.
Part Two of Authentic Happiness is called "Strength and Virtue" and begins with a chapter on "Renewing Strength and Virtue." The virtues that Seligman delineates are, wisdom, courage, love, justice, spirituality and temperance. These are laid out as ideals, whereas the more tangible strengths are dealt with in the next chapter.
From this chapter I learned the following: the idea of good character is the foundation of Seligman's positive psychology, and the movement relies upon a common classification system. Also, this chapter taught me that many so-called virtues are culturally relative, such as autonomy and assertiveness.
Your signature strengths" are laid out in chapter nine and have the characteristics of engendering excitement and a feeling of ownership and inevitability. Seligman says, "My formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness." (p161).
From chapter nine I learned that knowledge comes before wisdom. Also, this chapter taught me that Seligman's list of strengths can be acquired and are an important tool in creating happiness. Thirdly, I learned…