“Authentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman (Book Summary) - NJlifehacks
martin seligman authentic happiness

“Authentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman (Book Summary)

NOTE: If you're into the science of happiness and positive emotions, check out our latest book, The Happy Life Formula. It's all about creating more happiness in our lives so that we can become not only happier, but also healthier and more successful.

Authentic Happiness is a book on the science of happiness written by Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement.

Positive Psychology is a new domain in psychology that’s only about 20 years old. In its essence, it’s the study of human well-being. Seligman defines it as the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.

In the 20th century, psychology research was focused primarily on mental illness—depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and so on. For every 100 articles on mental illness, there was only one published on mental health.

Then, in 2000, Martin Seligman set out to change this imbalance and launched an initiative to scientifically understand human happiness and flourishing. He and his colleagues called this new branch of research Positive Psychology.

Authentic Happiness was one of the first books talking about this new science and showing us how we can apply it in our own lives to realize our potential for lasting fulfillment.

It shows us why happiness matters, what determines it, and how to create more of it in our lives.

Who Is Authentic Happiness For?

  • Anyone interested in becoming happier and more successful.
  • Anyone interested in the science of happiness.
  • Anyone interested in learning ways to fulfill his or her full potential.

1. Happiness Matters

“…feeling positive emotion is important, not just because it is pleasant in its own right, but because it causes much better commerce with the world. Developing more positive emotion in our lives will build friendship, love, better physical health, and greater achievement.”

We’ve talked about this many times on this blog. Happiness isn’t just nice to have or a dream for the future.

Rather, happiness matters right now. If you’re happy, you are more productive, build stronger relationships, are more resilient, feel better about yourself, uplift the people around you, become healthier, and so on.

Check out our article on the benefits of happiness for more on all of that.

2. What Determines Happiness? A Formula…

“Here, then, is the only equation I ask you to consider:
H = S + C + V
where H is your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control.”

The happiness formula teaches us how happiness works, showing us the variables determining whether our levels are high, medium, or low.

Your enduring level of happiness is the result of your set range, the circumstances in your life, and certain variables under your control. Let’s unpack this in more detail:

  • H: Your enduring level of happiness. It’s crucial to distinguish between enduring versus momentary happiness. Momentarily, any pleasure can jack up your happiness—flowers, a good film, a compliment, or chocolate. What we’re after, however, is enduring happiness—a feeling that our life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.
  • S: Your set range. 50% of happiness is determined by your genes. Some of us are lucky to have “happiness genes.” Others are unlucky to have “misery genes.” There’s nothing we can do about that. Your genes create a set range of happiness you gravitate toward. When good things happen, you’ll float above the set range. When bad things happen, you’ll float below the set range.
  • C: The circumstances in your life. These include fixed aspects of your life, such as your age, gender, ethnicity, income, wealth, where you grew up, and whether you’re married, divorced, widowed, or single. Surprisingly, all these circumstances together only account for 10% of your happiness.
  • V: Factors under your voluntary control. The remaining 40% of your happiness is determined by voluntary variables. In other words, by your behavior: what you do or don’t do, and how you think about various aspects of life.

The fact that circumstances have so little impact on happiness comes as a shock for most people. After all, the majority of us try to find happiness by changing those very circumstances: getting a promotion at work, moving to a new city, getting a raise, buying a bigger house, driving a faster car, getting married, getting divorced, having children, or losing weight.

Research tells us that all of these have a negligible effect on happiness. In addition, circumstances are either impossible, or oftentimes very hard to change.

Thankfully, there is a better way to go about creating more happiness for yourself.

3. The Key to Greater Happiness

“Even if you could alter all of the external circumstances, it would not do much for you, since together they probably account for not more than between 8 and 15 percent of the variance in happiness. The very good news is that there are quite a number of internal circumstances that will likely work for you. So I now turn to this set of variables, which are more under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (and be warned that none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.”

The key to happiness lies not in changing your genes (which is impossible) or changing your circumstances (which has little impact and is often impractical, or downright impossible), but in changing factors under your voluntary control—actions you take and thoughts you think.

Seligman divides the factors under your voluntary control into three buckets:

  • Variables that improve how we feel about the past. By appreciating the good events in your past, and forgiving yourself and others for the bad events, you create feelings of satisfaction, contentment, fulfillment, pride, and serenity.
  • Variables that improve how we feel about the future. By learning to think in more optimistic and hopeful ways, you create feelings of faith, trust, confidence, hope, and optimism.
  • Variables that improve how we feel in the present. By maximizing the satisfaction you get from fleeting pleasures and engaging in flow activities, you create feelings of joy, ecstasy, calm, zest, ebullience, pleasure, and flow.

Good feelings about the past, the future, or in the present are different and not necessarily linked. It’s entirely possible to feel happy in one sense, but miserable in the other two.

For example, you may feel satisfied and proud about the past, but sour in the present and pessimistic about the future. Or you may experience many pleasures in the present, but be bitter about the past and hopeless about the future.

Depending on your particular strengths or weaknesses, you can create your own happiness-boosting regimen. If you’re holding grudges about the past and you feel that it’s making you miserable, then that’s something you may decide to work on. Or if you’re pessimistic about the future, you may decide to engage in activities that have been shown to boost your optimism.

The highest level of enduring happiness is achieved by feeling happy about all three aspects: the past, future, and present.

We now discuss each aspect and various ways to improve in it in more detail.

4. Happiness About the Past

“There are three ways you can lastingly feel more happiness about your past. The first is intellectual—letting go of an ideology that your past determines your future. The hard determinism that underpins this dogma is empirically barren and philosophically far from self-evident, and the passivity it engenders is imprisoning. The second and third V’s are emotional, and both involve voluntarily changing your memories. Increasing your gratitude about the good things in your past intensifies positive memories, and learning how to forgive past wrongs defuses the bitterness that makes satisfaction impossible.”

So there are three ways to feel lastingly happier about your past:

  • Realize that the past doesn’t determine the future. This deterministic view engenders passivity and victimhood. Realize that you have a lot of control about your future. You can become happier, healthier, and more successful. Unless you accept that, you’ll always feel resentful, guilty, or sour about the past.
  • Deliberately practice gratitude about the good things in your past. This amplifies the appreciation you experience for the good events of the past. You can practice gratitude by writing down things you’re grateful for or by writing a gratitude letter to a loved-one.
  • Forgive the past. This lessens the power of bad events to embitter you and can transform negative emotions of anger or resentment into positive emotions of compassion, love, warmth, or understanding. Seligman recommends a process called R.E.A.C.H. to practice forgiveness.

These are the three voluntary variables for changing how you feel about the past.

5. Happiness About the Future

“There is a well-documented method for building optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing pessimistic thoughts. Everyone already has the skills of disputing, and we use them when an external person—a rival for our job, or our lover—accuses us falsely of some dereliction. ‘You don’t deserve to be a vice-president for personnel. You’re inconsiderate, selfish, and the people who work for you cannot stand you,’ your rival accuses. In reply, you trot out all the reasons she is wrong: the high ratings the staff gave you last year, and the skill you showed in turning around the three most difficult employees in the marketing department. When, however, we say the same accusing things to ourselves, we usually fail to dispute them—even though they are often false. The key to disputing your own pessimistic thoughts is to first recognize them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable.”

Happiness about the future involves emotions like faith, trust, confidence, optimism, and hope.

These emotions are determined in large part by your interpretations and thoughts about the world. If you think you’ll completely mess up your exams next week, you’ll feel miserable. If you think you’ll do well, you’ll feel optimistic.

The strategy Seligman recommends for improving our thoughts and feelings about the future is to recognize and dispute our pessimistic thoughts. Next time you’re facing an adverse event in your life, listen closely to your beliefs, observe their consequences, and, if they’re negative, dispute them vigorously.

That’s a voluntary behavior for positively changing how you feel about the future.

6. Happiness in the Present: Pleasures vs. Gratifications

“Happiness in the present moment consists of very different states from happiness about the past and about the future, and itself embraces two very distinct kinds of things: pleasures and gratification.
The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers call ‘raw feels’: ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort. They are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking.
The gratifications are activities we very much like doing, but they are not necessarily accompanied 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, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, they involve quite a lot of thinking and interpretation, they do not habituate easily, and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues.”

Happiness in the present consists of two things:

  • Pleasures. These are immediate, short-lived, and sensory experiences. Once the stimulus disappears, the pleasant feelings fade. We become accustomed to pleasures very quickly (this is called “habituation”), requiring bigger doses to deliver the same kick. Common pleasures are sugary foods, video games, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends.
  • Gratifications. These are activities that put you in flow state. Time stops, you are fully immersed in the activity, you are in the zone, and you are free of disturbing thoughts and emotions. Common gratifications are sex, mountain biking, reading a captivating book, or being in a deep conversation with someone.

The main difference is that pleasures don’t lead to any lasting happiness, while gratifications can create happiness-producing afterglows that last for hours or days. When a movie is over, the pleasure you got from it is over as well. When you help people in need or go rock-climbing, the satisfaction you get from those activities lasts much longer.

Gratifications create lasting happiness; pleasures don’t.

On the flipside, pleasures are easy to attain while gratifications take effort—at least in the beginning. Going for a run takes effort; playing video games doesn’t. Reading a book after a hard day’s of work requires effort; switching on the TV doesn’t.

While a healthy dose of pleasures is fine, spending too much time on them is futile for multiple reasons. For one, many of us mistake pleasure for happiness—we believe feeling good in the moment is what counts. Unfortunately, this means we keep occupied by chasing momentary and fleeting pleasures while never realizing that it’s the gratifications that would truly make us happy.

Another issue with pleasures is that they can lead to addiction and depression. The average state of someone watching TV is mildly depressed. Online gaming addiction, food addiction, and smartphone addiction are all the result of getting hooked on the feeling of momentary pleasure.

If we want real happiness, we’re better off focusing on gratifications rather than pleasures.

Choose the book over the television, exercising over hanging out, engaging in a hobby over playing video games, and learning about healthy nutrition over stuffing yourself with tasty foods.

7. Stop Looking For Shortcut to Happiness

“The belief that we can rely on shortcuts to gratification and bypass the exercise of personal strengths and virtues is folly. It leads not just to lizards that starve to death, but to legions of humanity who are depressed in the middle of great wealth and are starving to death spiritually.
Such people ask, ‘How can I be happy?’ This is the wrong question, because without the distinction between pleasure and gratification it leads all too easily to a total reliance on shortcuts, to a life of snatching up as many easy pleasures as possible.”

Ordinary English doesn’t distinguish between pleasures and gratifications.

We say that we like cookies, a warm shower, or certain songs (all pleasures) just like we say we like playing tennis, reading a fiction novel, or helping kids in need (all gratifications).

We mistake pleasure—fleeting, oftentimes empty positive emotions—for happiness. As a result, many of us rely on shortcuts: drugs, chocolate, television, video games, spectator sports, or shopping, to name a few. The problem is, those shortcuts don’t make us happy and spell trouble when we over-rely on them. Knowing that is a necessary step toward a future of greater happiness.

Before we move on, let me restate the major takeaway: The key to greater happiness lies in toning down the pleasures and getting more gratifications in your life.

8. Strengths & Virtues: The Key to Getting More Gratifications in Your Life

“The pleasures are about the senses and the emotions. The gratifications, in contrast, are about enacting personal strengths and virtues.”
“The gratifications come about through the exercise of your strengths and virtues…”

Okay. This needs some explaining…

Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, or the Stoics argued that happiness is achieved through the exercise of virtue. It’s about actualizing your potential to become as good a human being as you can, not about obtaining wealth, external goods, or pleasure. Sound familiar?

They say that happiness is the natural byproduct of being and acting like a good, virtuous person—kind, loving, compassionate, and so on.

When Seligman and his colleagues studied all the major religions and philosophies, they found that the same six virtues were shared in practically all cultures across the millennia. Those six virtues are: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

The promise is that when we act in accordance with these virtues, happiness (in the form of gratification) will follow. For example, when we act with justice—e.g., through acts of fairness, loyalty, good citizenship, or humane leadership—we experience the afterglow of happiness.

You’ve undoubtedly experienced this countless times in your life: when you act like a good person—you help someone in need, do something kind for your sibling, stay disciplined on your nutrition regimen, or face your fears with courage—you feel good afterwards. In other words, acting with virtue leads to happiness.

Now, the issue with virtues is that they are too abstract to be studied. That’s why Seligman and co. focused their attention on the routes by which virtues were achieved. They called these routes strengths, and ended up cataloguing a total of 24 character strengths, including bravery, love of learning, kindness, and fairness.

If you use the strength of “bravery,” you act with the virtue of courage. If you use the strength “love of learning,” you act with the virtue of wisdom. If you use the strength of “kindness,” you act with the virtue of humanity. And so on.

signature character strengths

Let’s bring this back to our discussion: The key to happiness lies in getting more gratifications in your life. We achieve these gratifications by acting with virtue, or, put differently, by using one of the 24 character strengths.

Every human being possesses all 24 strengths. However, we all differ in how strong we are in the different strengths. I may be great at the strength “love of learning” but weak in “fairness.” You may be great at the strength “kindness,” but weak in “bravery.”

Figuring out in which strengths you’re strong or weak is crucial. While using any of the 24 strengths leads to gratification and happiness, using your top strengths is even more effective at doing that.

To find out what your top strengths are, you’ll need to fill out the VIA Character Strengths Survey. This takes about 20 minutes, but I highly recommend it. As you’re about to learn, it holds the key to your happiness.

9. Your Signature Strengths

“…go to my website (www.authentichappiness.org) and take the VIA Strength Survey. The twenty-five minute exercise rank orders your strengths from top to bottom and compares your answers to thousands of other people. Immediately after taking it, you will get detailed feedback about your strengths.”
“I believe that each person possesses several signature strengths. These are strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if he or she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting. Take your list of top strengths, and for each one ask if any of these criteria apply:
  • A sense of ownership and authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • A feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
  • A rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced
  • Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
  • A sense of yearning to find ways to use it
  • A feeling of inevitability in using the strength (“Try and stop me”)
  • Invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the strength
  • The creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around it
  • Joy, zest, enthusiasm, even ecstasy while using it
If one or more of these apply to your top strengths, they are signature strengths. Use them as frequently as you can and in as many settings.”

Seligman’s number one message from this book is: If you want greater happiness, figure out your signature strengths and use them every day in the main realms of your life.

That’s the core message.

So, head over to the VIA Character Strengths Survey, fill it out, and check your top strengths for Seligman’s signature strength criteria.

If you’re curious, my top strengths are: honesty, social intelligence, self-regulation, love of learning, judgment, perspective, and forgiveness.

Of these, however, I would classify only the last four as signature strengths.

10. The Pleasant Life, the Good Life, the Meaningful Life

“In the hope that your level of positive emotion and your access to abundant gratification has now increased, I turn to my final topic, finding meaning and purpose in living. The pleasant life, I suggested, is wrapped up in the successful pursuit of the positive feelings, supplemented by the skills of amplifying these emotions. The good life, in contrast, is not about maximizing positive emotion, but is a life wrapped up in successfully using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification. The meaningful life has one additional feature: using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are. To live all three lives is to lead a full life.”

Three kinds of lives we can live:

  • The pleasant life is all about pursuing positive emotions about the present, past, and future.
  • The good life consists in using your signature strengths as often as possible to obtain authentic happiness and abundant gratification.
  • The meaningful life adds one more component to the good life: using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you.

Together, these three can lead us to the full life, which consists in experiencing positive emotions, deriving gratification from our signature strengths, and using them in the service of something larger.

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this book, you'll probably enjoy other books about happiness. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. This is easily the most complete book on the science of happiness out there.
  • The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. This book details some of the benefits of happiness, resulting in what the author calls "the happiness advantage."
  • The Happy Life Formula by Nils Salzgeber. This is my own little book on the science of happiness and how we can harness it to create happier, healthier, and more successful lives for ourselves.

And if you want more summaries like this one, check out Blinkist for instant access to 2,000+ summaries of the best nonfiction and self-help books ever.

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Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • Tony W says:

    I always believed a great attitude was key to overall happiness but I often found it difficult to force on a “stiff upper lip” (as the British say).
    This book seems to lay out an actionable plan to cultivate a better attitude to improve lasting happiness.

  • nirosha says:

    Thanks very much Nils, for the detailed explanation.

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