In a previous post I wrote about Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his book on Authentic Happiness (Seligman, 2003).
Seligman has written a new book, updating his theory and adding a wealth of research data to back it up (Seligman, 2011). The main thrust of this book is to move away from the vague notion of happiness, to the more precise notion of well-being. In so doing, he has added aspects to his previous model that make for a more complete list of activities that, if pursued, can support a more fulfilling life.
The theory outlined in Seligman’s first book was that “Authentic Happiness” was made up of three elements: positive emotion, engagement and meaning. Seligman described three “lives” that might be “chosen”, in parallel, in the pursuit of authentic happiness. These were the “pleasant life” (a life led in pursuit of positive emotion), the “engaged life” (a life led with significant amounts of time in ‘flow’) and the “meaningful life” (a life with higher purpose).
Seligman’s revised theory has well-being, rather than happiness, as the primary aim and distills this into 5 elements, the first three being the same as for happiness: positive emotion, engagement and meaning. He then adds accomplishment (the achievement of things, particularly when it is “just for the sake of it”) and relationship (particularly in the form of “doing a kindness”, again “just for the sake of it”).
Seligman explains that happiness is “one dimensional” in that it is simply about feeling happy and notes the subjective measure in its assessment. On the other hand, well-being is about both subjective and objective measures, the latter being particularly evident in the assessment of relationship and achievement. He goes on to state that “well-being cannot exist just in your head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course of life is to maximize all five of these.”
Not only does well-being theory have more elements than happiness theory, it also has a more robust underpinning of the 24 strengths and virtues highlighted in Seligman’s original work. In happiness theory, these strengths and virtues contribute only to engagement. In well-being theory, they underpin all five elements.
This update by Seligman is profound in its potential for understanding human well-being, or “flourishing” as he calls it. It is also simple to understand. Of course, in real life application, like any personal development, effort is needed to learn and apply the skills that support well-being. Seligman writes at length about determination, persistence and even “grit”. He isn’t saying the search for well-being is easy, but he is saying it is possible, we know what it looks like, and that it can make a significantly positive impact on our lives.
Seligman’s new book is definitely worth reading. It is also worth taking a look at the Authentic Happiness website where you can access the questionnaires covered in both of his books.
I look forward to following Martin Seligman’s ongoing work and to building his theories and practical applications into my consulting portfolio. I also feel motivated to continue to utilise this thinking and research in my own, ongoing personal development journey.