We have all been sad. We have lost friends, loves, dreams, pride, positions, hopes, faith and on and on. Even periods of serious depression, like Abe Lincoln's, are not rare events. Every year, about 10% of Americans suffer depression (NIMH Depression Report, 2002). But only one third or so of depressed people seek treatment (and they wait an average of 258 days to do so). Yet, depression can be relieved. One third of all people seeing a psychiatrist are depressed and depression is the first or second most frequent reason why people are admitted to psychiatric wards. A Presidential Commission on Mental Health has estimated that 1 out of 5 of us (about 1 or 2 out of 10 for males and 1 in 4 for females) will suffer from depression sometime in our lives. That is 20% of us in an affluent country—one of the happier countries on earth; what percent of people in the poor countries suffer depression? We will soon discuss that women are twice as likely as men to be depressed; men generally get upset over jobs, women over relationships; married people in "not very happy relationships" are more likely to be sad than unmarried or divorced people. We will discuss many of these statistics later.
Some researchers believe the rate of depression has markedly increased in the last 50 years. This is based on the finding that people born in the first half of the 20th century are less likely to develop depression than people born in the second half. This rising rate of depression over time is probably also related to the age of onset of depression. For example, if you were born in the 1930’s, you were probably 30 to 35 years old when you had your first depressive episode. However, if you were born in the mid-1950’s, your first experience with serious depression is likely to have been when you were 20 to 25 (Klerman & Weissman, 1989). There is a controversy between these experts who believe the frequency and amount of depression in our population is increasing and other experts who believe we just have a better count of how many people have been depressed. I doubt if depression (and the related genes, hormones, and life experiences) has significantly increased since 1950. People have always suffered greatly from depression, certainly during WWI, the Depression, and WWII. On the other hand, one can bet that the development of new drugs and more aggressive advertising during the last 50 years (especially the last 20 years) have resulted in more and more people becoming willing to ask their doctor for help with depression, especially if that only involves asking for some pills (Metzl, 2003). See the section on gender and depression.
Depression not only happens in many lives but it may happen at any age. Recent data indicated about 12% of adult women per yearand 7% of men per year are depressed. Depression happens even in the young; about 2.5% of children and 8.3% of teenagers in the US currently have depression. It is vital to recognize that young people can get sad, lonely, self-critical and lethargic. Many parents just do not realize children, say 5 to 12, can get depressed or have a mental disorder. That means that children often do not get treatment for their problems. In total about three million adolescents in the US are depressed. Most people know teenagers get depressed but the majority of sad teens still do not get treatment. We either don’t recognize the signs of depression in children and teenagers or we don’t realize the importance of getting them psychological help until something dire happens, like drug addiction or a suicide attempt.
The same things can be said about the 20% of the elderly who report having depressive symptoms. For instance, among 85-year-old white men the suicide rate is five times the national average (NIMH, Depression & Suicide Facts). Many people believe sadness just comes with getting old, that it is inevitable. That is not true. It is true that the elderly often have diseases and physical conditions that make them unhappy but they may not be suffering a depressive disorder. Their physical discomfort could be treated (but sometimes it isn’t because old people are expected to be depressed). Therefore, for a variety of reasons, many elderly people are undiagnosed and grossly under treated.
Depression is not only fairly common in all ages, it can, of course, occasionally be very serious. Like Abe Lincoln as a young man, the misery can be so constant, so intense, and seem so endless that one wants to die--to escape the pain. As William Styron writes in his book, Darkness Visible, the word “depression” is a bland clinical label and such a wimp of a word compared to the raging storm inside the victim’s brain. Most of us non-depressives can’t truly know the torment involved; we can’t imagine it any better than a blind person can imagine a Sequoia tree. Major depression is enough to force you to stay in bed, to withdraw from others, to dwell on your misery, and to have very few pleasant thoughts.
In the U.S. one person every minute attempts suicide, half a million of them require emergency room treatment. One person every 24 minutes dies from intentional self-injury. That is a total of 30,000 each year. About 15% of those diagnosed with major depression eventually die by suicide. There are more suicides than murders in this country. According to Jamison (2000), during the Vietnam War (1963 to 1973) almost twice as many young men under 35 (101,732) were lost to suicide as were lost in the war (54,708). Even among teenagers, suicide is the third cause of death, exceeded only by accidents and homicides. An estimated 500,000 teenagers attempt suicide each year, not counting suicides disguised as "accidents" (McCoy, 1982).
Suicide is so regrettable, in my opinion, because it is a permanent, desperate solution to a temporary problem. What a loss to the world if Lincoln had killed himself. What a blow to each family in which such an unnecessary death occurs. There is a section on suicide later in the chapter.
Depression comes in many forms: temporary, chronic, cyclic, recurrent years later, atypical, and so on. There are important diagnostic distinctions made between dysthymia, unipolar depression, major depression, and bipolar depression (in order of their severity).
Dysthymia is a mild to moderate sadness or discouragement over a long period of time (2 years +). It may also involve either a loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities and pastimes. It used to be called neurotic depression. It affects about 3 percent of the population at any one time and thus is the most common form of depression. Some people become accustomed to feeling depressed. They are able to carry on but work and relationships suffer. They may think it is just part of who they are. But this type of depression is a disorder that can usually be treated successfully.
Unipolar depression is a major clinical problem, more serious than dysthymia but may or may not be as serious as Major depression. Often, Unipolar and Major depression are used interchangeably and both may just be called depression. The lifetime prevalence of depression in the US is between 4%-12%. About 70% of these patients can get some benefit from antidepressants; however 75% have a recurrence within 10 years. The symptoms of these diagnoses may include sad mood, hopelessness, tiredness, poor concentration, low self-esteem, thoughts of self-harm, poor sleep, and poor or excessive appetite. There are usually no manic spells in their history.
Most therapists consider bipolar disorders, in general, to be especially difficult to treat—they cycle between mania (including grandiosity, wanderlust, antisocial behavior, and distortions of reality, often with a schizophrenic quality) and depression. Bipolars start having difficulties earlier in life and it lasts longer; they have more relationship problems in their family and socially, more troubles at work, and have more psychological episodes, including substance abuse and suicide threats. The depressive periods of bipolars are more likely to result in death compared to other depressives. Yet, remember, many people suffering a serious bipolar disorder still manage to lead a positive, productive, fulfilling life. The manic periods may be experienced as enjoyable, even thrilling (by the bipolar and even by others sometimes but not often).
Depression comes in such a wide assortment of symptoms that diagnosticians may use the label of Atypical Depression. I mention it here so you will not assume that sufferers of depression have a predictable set of symptoms. Atypical depressives may over-eat instead of lose their appetite, over-sleep instead of being unable to sleep, may respond briefly with joy to a happy event (which many depressed people would not do), and may respond to anti-depressives differently than others, but they may be seriously depressed and dangerously suicidal.
My interest here is not so much with Bipolar Disorders or with serious, disabling or suicidal depression, usually referred to as Clinical or Major Depression. Indeed, if sadness is disrupting your work and schooling--and you are thinking of ending it all--seek professional help immediately; you need more than self-help; run no risk with your life. This "common cold of mental disorders" hospitalizes 250,000 a year, the more extreme cases. The "common cold" slows down many more of us and makes us gloomy. This chapter focuses on these less serious forms of depression: sadness, disappointment, loneliness, self-criticism, low self-concepts, guilt, shame, boredom, tiredness, lack of interests, lack of meaning in life, etc. Most of us are or will sometime be somewhat depressed or disappointed and could use self-help. Overall, depression costs the country more in treatment and lost work than heart disease.
Depression is not just the experience of sadness about life events. It has far reaching impact on many aspects of life, such as low self-esteem, school failure, job failure, a lonely life-style, marriage failure, failing health (40% have chronic pain), obesity, assorted emotional problems and so on. Of course, any of these other problems may contribute to the feelings of depression too. So, the effective treatment of depression is likely to require well planned attacks on several aspects of the total situation that cause depression.
There is another aspect of the depressed situation that you should recognize. We have emotional reactions to our intense emotions. For example, we may fear having a fear response, such as panic. We may get mad at our own angry responses. Likewise, we can become depressed by our lingering depression. These secondary emotional reactions to our primary or original emotional situation make the situation more complex. Some therapists also find it helpful to strip away or deal separately with the self-critical feelings of regret or despair or shame about having depression. This separating of your despair from the basic depression can help you develop a plan to identify and cope with the basic or primary loss or failure. It is also helpful to realize that the despair and self-criticism often come from unhelpful and irrational self-evaluations, like “I’m falling apart and helpless,” “It is awful they have done this to me,” “It is never going to be better,” etc. (See Irrational Ideas in Chapter 14.) These upsetting ideas interfere with seeing solutions for coping with the primary major loss, which might involve the break up of a relationship or a major failure. The point is: effective resolution of depression is often complex.
Admittedly, there is much we (therapists, family and friends) do not know about treatment for depressed people. How to convince the hurting person to see a therapist? How to select the best therapist for a specific person? Is depression caused by “chemical imbalance” or life experiences? (Pretty clearly the answer is both.) What are the better drugs and therapy? Would you personally resist taking drugs or getting therapy? Will your family and friends encourage you to get treatment or not? Is treatment even available in your area? Will parents support their child getting medication and therapy or will they take the “pull yourself together” approach? Will parents feel guilty if a son or daughter has emotional problems and, as a result, avoid psychological treatment? Will the young person’s friends listen carefully or blow off his/her cries for help? How can the needed treatment be paid for?
This chapter tries to provide you with many “how-to-cope” ideas. For reasons you will soon realize, we will start by understanding the positive end of the continuum—happiness.
Are some people just naturally happy?
It sometimes seems like it. Were they just born with the hard wiring that makes them happy, cheerful, active, social, and optimistic? Maybe. It might have been an inherited family trait but happiness happens in other ways apparently. For instance, in many cases happy people are different from anyone else in the family; indeed, some had an unpleasant, neglectful, abusive family which they had trouble understanding but learned to tolerate. We don’t know all the ways to become happy yet. Some chronically happy people are referred to by some doctors as having hyperthymia, similar to but the opposite of dysthymia (chronic, mild depression). See Richard Freiman’s 2002 article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/31/health/psychology/31BEHA.html?tntemail).
Maybe some people just have more serotonin in their brains. Well, that sounds simple but it appears more complex than that because antidepressants increase serotonin within days but it takes weeks to reduce the depression. Research has also shown that giving an antidepressant, such as Paxil, to normal people, who are not depressed, does not increase their happiness (it did reportedly reduce their anger slightly and increase their sociability). In addition, it is common knowledge that certain illegal drugs, such as Cocaine and Ecstasy, quickly produce euphoria (these drugs, like Paxil, presumably do this by increasing serotonin and dopamine), but the positive emotions soon fade and then depression and/or apathy rapidly increases.
If you have a cheery disposition, count your blessings. Let’s look more closely at our limited knowledge about happiness.
There is a long-running controversy about the cause of depression (which means no one knows): some say our personal history or experiences (psychology) cause depression, others say brain chemistry causes depression. Both psychology and drugs relieve depression in some cases, so the treatment doesn't clarify the causes. My guess is that psychological factors play a role in almost all depressions and physiological (chemical) factors are significant causal factors in some depressions, especially the very severe cases.
Like several other human disorders, there is evidence that unhappiness runs in some families. Studies estimate that 15% to 40% of the risk of major depression results from genetic factors. Your genes may have predisposed you to be at a certain point on the happiness-depression scale, just as other genes may have predisposed you to be at a certain weight. But, most psychologists believe you can influence your weight and your mood; genes don't have perfect control. Yet, David Lykken and Auke Tellegen at the University of Minnesota suggest that we really don't have much control over happiness, pointing out that the thrill of a promotion or winning the lottery fades away in 3 to 6 months and you go back to your set point. Moreover, some of their studies have reported that happiness does not tend to be highly related, in our country, to education, income, success, type of job, or marital status. So, maybe the genes do seriously influence our happiness, but what are the possibilities of controlling our sadness?
I don't doubt that genes have some influence over your level of happiness. But, I also believe (hope?) that ways of seeking joy, being optimistic, tolerating losses, etc. are learnable skills. Some experts argue that your happiness is more under your control than your depression is. Interesting possibility but I don't think we know that much about mood control yet. In the case of both happiness and sadness, self-control will take wisdom, planning, and effort. You surely have to pursue happiness, it takes mindfulness and skills or knowledge.
What this chapter offers
In this chapter, after briefly discussing happiness, we will first consider the signs of depression: How do we recognize it? Of course, each of us feels and acts differently when depressed. There are many ways to become depressed; thus, we will consider several explanations of sadness (see index above).
Since sadness may occur in many circumstances and arise via several psychological processes, we will also consider how depression develops in several common situations: during death or loss of a loved one, when alone, when feeling low self-esteem, when pessimistic, when having suicidal thoughts, when experiencing guilt and shame, when feeling bored, tired, or without interests, and when there are no obvious causes. Each depressive situation and each psychological dynamic may require its own unique solution.
After gaining some understanding of depression, self-help approaches will be
discussed by levels:
- Behavior--increase pleasant activities, more rest and exercise, thought stopping and reduction of worries, atoning for wrong-doing, and others,
- Emotions--desensitization of sadness to specific situations and memories, venting anger and sadness, elation or relaxation training, etc.,
- Skills--social skills training, decision-making, and self-control training to reduce helplessness,
- Cognition--more optimistic perceptions and attributions, challenging depressing irrational ideas, a more positive self-concept, more acceptance and tolerance, decide on values and meaning, and
- Unconscious factors--learn to recognize repressed feelings and urges, understand sources of guilt, and read about depression.
At the end of the chapter, you should be able to select the techniques that seem most likely to reduce your sadness. Then, following the steps outlined in chapter 2, you should be able to get in control of these kinds of feelings. In general, self-confidence, an easy-going disposition, and family support lead to a better recovery from depression.
What is meant by happiness?
Considering that happiness is "the most important thing in life," according to about half of Americans, science doesn't know a lot about it. We don't even have an agreed upon definition for it. Is it having lots of fun and pleasure? Is it being good looking, popular, and intelligent? Is it feeling very lucky and gratified? Is it living a virtuous and intellectual life, as Aristotle said? Is it having a positive attitude and simply believing you are happy? Is it having lots of money? Is it when things are going well, you have gotten more than you expected, and you are having far more pleasant feelings than negative feelings? Experts often say happiness is more than just having a good time or lots of things, it involves a lasting sense of well-being, it is having a fulfilling, meaningful, pleasurable life (Meyers, 1992).
Perhaps the definition of happiness is vague because each person's happiness is contingent on achieving his/her own unique life goals, which often involve secret hopes and dreams. This may also explain why other people are hard to understand--we just don't know how they are trying to achieve happiness. Once we understand what "makes them happy," we may have significant new insights into the other person's psyche. In our culture, we often seek happiness by removing all stress, sadness, and irritations. Of course, that is impossible over a long period of time.
There are several measures of depression, self-esteem, internal control, optimism, etc. but few ways to measure happiness. Perhaps because we all think we know what happiness is. Nevertheless, it would encourage science if we had an objective, reliable measure of happiness. Two British psychologists, Pete Cohen and Carol Rothwell, interviewed 1000 people and came up with a formula for measuring happiness:
Happiness = P + (5 X E) + (3 X H)
where P is a single self-rating from 1 to 10 of several Personal characteristics, including being outgoing, energetic, open to change, having positive expectations, and feeling in control,
E is a single 1-10 rating of health, financial situation, feeling safe, having choices, and friendships, and
H is a single 1-10 rating considering self-esteem, ambitions, support system, sense of purpose, and ability to get into “flow.”
This formula produces a number (9 to 100) which defines a person’s level of happiness but the total number is based entirely on self-ratings. Self-ratings often have little agreement with ratings by therapists, family, or friends or with objective and physiological measures. However, we usually accept a person’s opinion of how happy he/she is. Also, on the positive side, the formula clarifies the several factors that these investigators believe contribute to happiness, much in the same way Seligman (2002) does later in this section.
Many more people say they are happy than say they are unhappy, maybe because it is more socially acceptable to be positive. It is also quite possible that more pleasant than unpleasant events actually happen. Most of us consciously try to find or arrange positive events. In addition, there seems to be a natural tendency (except in depressed persons) in our memory system to forget unhappy events faster than happy events (Walker, Skowronski & Thompson, 2003). Many cognitive researchers don’t believe, as Freud did, that traumatic events are forgotten as a defense mechanism; they think unpleasant memories are just remembered less negatively because that feels better. So, from the cognitive viewpoint, the greater fading of unhappy memories is seen as healthy coping.
Another way to think about it is that being happy in a wealthy materialistic society, like ours, involves putting your head in the sand…and forgetting that a billion people go to bed hungry every night…and need medical care…and need an education…and are unhappy. So, some people would say happiness is a sickness or, at least, gross denial. No wonder we don’t know how to measure it or change it.
Another theory that would seem to discourage trying to change is the notion of individuals having a happiness set point (Lucas, Clark & Diener, 2003), much like a weight set point. We will see over and over in this chapter that both wonderful and awful changes in life circumstances can make us delighted or really down for a while, but in a couple of years our level of happiness is back to our old set point or in that general direction (it can change). Such set-points may also influence how much our feelings change in other situations. For instance, stable happy people may not react with a big surge of happiness when they get married even if it is a wonderful new relationship…but, in contrast, the usually happy people might experience a huge increase in unhappiness if faced with a divorce. Likewise, an unhappy, lonely person may be quite happy getting into a good marriage but not be very bothered by a divorce since their life-long set point is low. At least, that is a theory. And, there is a related theory that some of us become obsessed with or addicted to unhappiness (Pieper & Pieper, 2003).
All these theories have to take into account that Buddhists, practicing meditation, have been shown to be happier and less shocked, surprised, distressed and angry than other people (Dr. Paul Ekman, New Scientist magazine, 2003). There are many other mysteries—Latin Americans are much happier than Asians; Scandinavians have both a high rate of happiness and suicide; women are as happy as men but twice as likely to feel depressed. We need scientific studies to understand exactly how cultures, attitudes, belief systems or whatever produce these different levels of happiness.
Indeed, as noted in the introduction, good luck and bad luck don't influence happiness for long. For instance, big lottery winners after a few months are no more happy than the average person! Quadriplegics are no less happy than the average person! Yet, 70% to 80% of Americans are happy and 84% take pride in their work. People are considerably less happy in poorer countries and only 35% to 40% of Europeans and Japanese take pride in their work (while making the best cars, computers, TV, etc.). While America is among the happier countries, our level of happiness has not increased as our country's level of real income has grown... but our problems, such as violent crime, divorce, and depression, have soared. Also, in spite of Americans' claiming to be generally happy, 33% said they worried constantly, 40% had often felt lonely, and 28% felt worthless during the last six months (Shaver & Freeman, 1976). Over 50% said their happiness changed daily or every few days. Married couples in their 20's are the happiest; divorced women with children and unmarried males are among the more unhappy. As we will see, good interpersonal relations are crucial to many people's happiness.
Clearly, certain events, such as a party, are pleasurable to most people, but certain people, namely the depressed, get little pleasure out of many such events. You have probably had a similar experience: you have to be in the right "mood" to enjoy certain activities. So, is happiness the mood or the activity? Probably both. A big argument between philosophies is whether happiness is gained by satisfying our desires (hedonism) or by getting rid of our desires? Maybe both, again. Also, does happiness occur mostly during the striving for worthy goals or after having achieved our goals and desires? It seems that a windfall or achievement makes us happy for a short while, but we adapt to the bigger house, boat, car, income, etc., and soon start to lust for a still bigger one.
We often misjudge what will make us happy
Just in the last decade, several psychologists and economists have studied how accurately we can predict what will make us happy—Daniel Gilbert at Harvard, Tim Wilson at the University of Virginia, George Loewenstein at Carnegie-Mellon, Daniel Kahneman at Princeton, Richard Easterlin at the University of Southern California, and others. One major finding is that most of us are poor predictors of how much happiness or unhappiness a given event will generate for us in the long haul. This gap between what feelings we think we will experience and what we actually experience later is called an “impact bias.” One important cause of those affective predicting errors is that we fail to take into account humans’ remarkable capacity to adapt to (“adjust to,” “become accustomed to,” or “get used to”) major life experiences. For example, most people over-estimate how much happiness winning a million dollars, buying a BMW, marrying the prettiest girl/handsomest guy at work, etc. will bring us and for how long. We forget how quickly we get used to having those nice things. Likewise, we also underestimate the extent to which we “get used” to some major losses, such as losing a leg, losing a job, losing a spouse, losing a lot of money, losing our hearing, and so on. And, because we forget this automatic adaptation to both windfalls and serious losses, we may make poor judgments in life, e.g. we pore ourselves into making money thinking that is the way to become happy and neglect our partners and our children or we believe a $300,000 house is more important than getting an advanced degree or keeping a job that gives us genuine satisfaction and personal pride every day. Most big events we dream of and expect to produce wonderful outcomes for us will yield less sustained happiness than we hoped for. Gilbert calls this “miswanting.” In addition to getting less happiness than we expected or hoped for, we frequently just don’t know what we want, what will make us happy…or how to get it. This is not a pretty picture.
This forgetting that we adapt to big changes in a short while may cause us to falsely assume that a big painful loss, say a broken leg or a divorce, will be far more detrimental to our long-term happiness than small daily events, like a chronic sore back or frequent marital arguments followed by the “silence treatment.” We expect big, awful problems to dwarf minor irritations or small pleasures but we forget our powerful defense mechanisms rush into action when major painful problems arise. And, we don’t have effective defenses to lessen the unhappiness brought on by continuing pain and ongoing upsetting conflicts.
Likewise, wrong predictions about what will make us happy occur for other reasons as well. Remember the discussion in chapter 4 about our tendency to concentrate far more on and to act on immediate payoffs, say enjoying a beer or rich desserts right now, and to neglect the distant consequences of ugly fat and poor health? Also, we may grossly over-estimate the satisfaction we will get in the long run from special thrills of the moment, like wearing expensive clothing, buying jewelry, driving a new sports car, or eating large, expensive meals every day, and so on. These distortions of reality just automatically happen unless we learn to use our brain to accurately take into account both immediate and long-term outcomes.
The happiness resulting from a greatly increased income or from acquiring a big beautiful house may also be diminished by the changes in your social environment. If you inherited a large sum of money or a wonderful estate, the new conditions compared to your previous ones are very enjoyable improvements. You are probably thrilled. But you are likely to start associating with people who live in the same kind of homes that you have and your new friends may have as much money as you have or more. So, if happiness is partly a function of social comparisons you make, you may soon be just as unhappy as you were in the old situation. People with more money usually want more things.
The nature of our thinking certainly influences our happiness. Most of us realize that we are prone to make poor judgments about our own behavior in certain emotional circumstances, such as when we are put on the spot socially, when we are afraid, when challenged, when feeling the need to impress others, when drinking, when horny and sexually aroused, when angry, and so on. These kinds of misjudgments about our feelings in the future—a lack of emotional self-understanding—can certainly lead to unhappy events. Dr. Loewenstein has asked volunteers if they might have unprotected sex if they were in an intimate situation that got “hot and heavy” or he asked under what conditions they might have sex with a minor. The situation and our emotional needs have an astonishing impact on what think we would do…and probably actually do. Consider for instance, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what percentage of men think they might have engaged in some sex play if they were in President Clinton’s situation with Monica. We know such sexual acts could be a temptation…and a disaster. Yet, we might coolly say to an interviewer “Oh, I’d never get in such a mess.” Yet, most of us are also well aware that we might act very differently when in a highly emotional, tempting, seemingly private situation in contrast with what we would tell a news reporter or even a psychological researcher…or a therapist. Many of us probably don’t know for certain how we would behave…or how the situation would work out.
So, how do we become consistently happy?
There seems to be so many ways to be happy and, as we will see, unhappy. Why do we know so little about this very important topic? Why haven't humans investigated it more seriously? I suspect it is because a lot of us erroneously believe we have little control over our happiness, so why bother studying it... and those of us who believe we are in control of our happiness already think we know all we need to know about it. Sad. Surely humans will in the coming decades learn to influence their own happiness to a great extent. The secret, I currently believe, is finding hard, meaningful, demanding-but-fun ways to achieve your highest values. See chapter 3. For me, a serious cultural problem may be that 75% of college students say "becoming very well off financially" is their highest aspiration--above "raising a family" and "helping others." Only 40% said that in 1970. Note that criminals, cons, deceptive business people, and drug dealers are also striving to become well off financially.
In our culture, it is commonly believed that happiness happens when you become rich, powerful, or popular. Recent research (Sheldon, Elliot, Kim & Kasser, 2001) suggests those beliefs are wrong. Their study found that meeting other needs bring more happiness. What were the most happiness-related needs? Autonomy (self-direction, being in charge of your own activities), competence (feeling and being able and effective), relatedness (having meaningful, satisfying, caring relationships) and self-esteem (accepting and feeling OK about one's self). Other research findings have also found that happiness is related to self-esteem, loving relationships, extroversion, good health, satisfying and challenging work, having exciting goals and interests, status and power (education and money), a sense of control over our good fortune and an optimistic outlook, being helpful to others, and making an effort to do new and fun things (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1990). Thus, there seems to be some research agreement about what makes us happy, but the young still yearn for extraordinary stardom and the older folks want to win the 1-in-30-million lottery. Being able, caring, and self-directed, so that we accomplish ordinary goals and have a sense of adequate mastery of common lives and relationships, has the potential of making us happy, but many of us seem to invest our hope in some highly improbable goal. The result sometimes is that we spend our lives wishing for the impossible while we merely get by at work, our relationships deteriorate, and we can't even learn to lose weight.
Waterman (1993) says there are two aspects to happiness. One is "personal expression" and the other is "hedonic enjoyment." Personal expression is self-actualization, i.e. using your talents, taking on meaningful and challenging projects, working hard and guided by your values, and feeling confident and satisfied. Hedonic enjoyment is having fun, i.e. satisfying your needs, feeling relaxed, excited, happy, content, etc., and being able to forget your personal problems. What is very surprising and perhaps quite important was Waterman's finding that the two types of happiness are highly correlated, i.e. happy people tend to achieve and have fun while unhappy people get neither. Vigorous, productive self-actualizing doesn't eliminate fun, it seems to enhance it.
Ed Diener at the University of Illinois says that life is judged happy if we have more positive experiences (an enjoyable job, loving spouse, a hobby, etc.) than negative ones on a day to day basis and, in addition, can occasionally manage to have an intensely positive experience, such as a new child, a fantastic vacation, public recognition for an achievement, etc. The frequency of positive experiences is more important, Diener says, than the intensity of occasional positive events.
The Interaction of Happiness and Depression
It is commonly thought that happiness is the positive end of the depression scale. Of course, in the extremes, great happiness and deep depression are mutually exclusive; you can hardly be in the depths of suicidal depression and be considered happy at the same time. But in the less extreme ranges, happiness and depression appear to be rather independent of each other. It is very interesting that psychologists consistently find women in general are more depressed than men, but psychological tests also show men and women are equally happy. This clearly shows that happiness is not just the opposite of depression (Myers, 1992). This also fits with common sense about happiness. That is, people know they can go out and have a good time at a party, then come home to be lonely and miserable again. Another example: you can handle some situation that is causing you to be very unhappy, but that accomplishment may not produce much happiness, just relief from the pain. You can be unhappy about some things and happy about others at the same time, much like you can both love and hate a person at the same time (Swanbrow, 1989; Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1990). In contrast, you can't be both relaxed and anxious at the same time.
We are learning more about happiness. One interesting point is that happy people tend to be decisive, healthy, creative, motivated, social, trusting, and caring, compared to unhappy people. Another is that they feel "in control" and/or have a sense of well being. As you might expect, happy people have more faith in a "higher power" than unhappy people. Among atheists and non-religious, only about 15%-30% claim to be "very happy." Among religious folks, 25% to 40% say they are "very happy." A religion helps us handle great losses (probably due to the concept of eternal life), but religious people sometimes feel less in personal control (Myers, 1992).
Religion becomes self-therapy.
We must select the illusion which appeals to our temperament and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy.
In some cases, however, religion reinforces feelings of guilt and the person becomes a martyr who feels he/she deserves punishment or needs to endure unhappiness. They may feel so unworthy that life only has meaning if they suffer great hardship and pain. Others think they do not deserve to feel good; thus, if life is going well for them, they quickly find a problem to feel badly about (see later discussion of shame and guilt). Such people focus on the seriousness of life. Overall, however, to most people religion probably gives more satisfaction than grief.
The important point for the self-helper is that happiness and depression are two somewhat independent dimensions--you need to work on both decreasing depression and increasing happiness, if unhappiness is a problem for you. Yet, it seems that trying too hard to be super happy is like trying to be someone you aren't; that too may be a bad idea. Instead, "To thine own self be true" while making efforts to be happy: seek demanding, challenging work; exercise in a fun way; do several pleasurable things every day and show your happiness; nourish close relationships, and be good to others.
Finally, a Buddhist friend would tell you to learn to accept the good and the bad in life--accept and relish all of life (see irrational ideas and determinism in chapter 14). This means recognizing the 6-year-old inside each of us who wants the most attention and the biggest piece of cake. This self-centered child part sees bad events as a personal insult that shouldn't be happening, rather than as a naturally occurring event. We must come to see that our I-don't-like-it attitudes create our unhappiness, not the actual event. Why should getting just an average piece of cake make us upset when many people are literally starving and others are killing themselves by over-eating? Should everything happen because we want it to? Of course not. Happiness is based on the ability to take all the insults of life, without responding with tension, sadness, or rage. Whatever has happened was psychologically lawful. Accept it... and try to improve the future for yourself and others.
Martin Seligman’s Thesis on Happiness
Psychology Finally Attends to Positive Feelings and Traits
Martin Seligman (2002) was once best known for his research of learned helplessness, an important aspect of hopelessness and unhappiness. He became interested in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in which the patient is helped to look for evidence for and against his/her own beliefs. His focus shifted to optimism. He has in recent years become a leader of a new "Positive Psychology" movement which underscores the importance of positive emotions and traits, especially optimistic thinking, such as “I can manage.”
Positive Psychology points out that applied psychology for over 50 years has focused mainly on psychopathology--disorders people will readily pay to get rid of, such as depression, fears, anger, bad habits, psychoses, marital problems, etc. We have learned to be somewhat successful treaters in many of these troublesome areas (Seligman, 1995). All this attention was given to suffering, sickness, and treatment, and while that was commendable, it left other important aspects of life neglected, e.g., finding really meaningful lifestyles, being truly happy and satisfied with life, feeling confident and optimistic, and behaving generously, altruistically and nobly, and so on. These are important, exciting new directions for applied psychology.
For decades, psychology "bought" the Freudian notion that the major driving forces in humans were bad motives--greed, lust, aggression, etc.--and originated in our basic human nature and/or from bad parenting. Even being good and altruistic is often believed to come from our evil core, as when generous, helpful people are thought to be compensating for their immoral selfish urges, faults, fears, and sick needs. It seems more superficial and Pollyannaish when we explain some human behavior as being caused by good parenting, genuine concern for others, feelings of satisfaction and joy, a sense of responsibility, a devotion to high morals, and so on. Such positive explanations often give rise to the question, "Don't put me on, what is really going on?"
If psychologists had emphasized positive traits more, they surely would have conceptualized the causes of behavior in more positive terms. If they had focused more on positive human characteristics, they probably would have concentrated more on psychoeducational approaches, such as character development, developing a philosophy of life, learning self-control and self-help, exploring how to develop good families, friendships, work relationships, humanistic educational systems, peaceful caring nations, and so on. Seligman and other positive psychologists think enhancing our positive traits and emotions is the key to further improving human lives. Positive Psychology goes far beyond treating mental illness, in fact doesn’t have much to do with it. Positive emotions are powerful influences; they increase our social, mental, and health benefits; they help prevent problems.
Not just Seligman but a productive group of psychologists are engaging in research and theory-development about positive emotions. See the Handbook of Positive Psychology by C. R. Snyder & Lopez, S. J. (2003). Barbara Fredrickson (2003) at the University of Michigan has published a series of studies and a theory, called the “broaden-and-build” model, which proposes that positive emotions and attitudes broaden our thinking about possible solutions to problems. If we are open to new ideas, we think better. Over time this broader perspective enables us to build broadly our coping skills and confidence. Thus, positive and optimistic societies become more innovative, resilient, socially adjusted, and healthy. Seligman gives Fredrickson credit for opening his mind to the general importance of positive psychology. Psychology is currently generating considerable research that empirically documents the value of positive thoughts and emotions, e.g., Emmons & McCullough (2003) have shown that counting our blessings (being grateful) has positive impact on several aspects of our mood, adjustment, and physical symptoms.
Forces Affecting Happiness and Depression
Current research suggests a tendency towards depression is inborn so that each of us probably has a set point for depression and on a different dimension for happiness. Studies of twins and adopted children support the inheritance notion. Of course, in spite of any set point, radical changes in our lives can change our feelings. Someone important to us dies and we are saddened for months, but eventually we usually come back to our set point. Winning a multi-million dollar lottery has drastic impact on our emotions but only for a year or so, then we go back to our usual mood. Paraplegics return to their pre-accident level of happiness after a year or two. Sure, there are some terrible experiences so traumatic that some people can’t ever recover, like the death of a child or a brutal assault. In the opposite direction, a lonely person, who finds someone who really loves him/her, may be in high spirits for the rest of his/her life.
Seligman doesn’t let us forget our ever-present genetic guidance system and estimates the available data suggests that one's general level of happiness is about 50% inherited—he believes even being of good cheer is about half determined by the genes. Okay, but the genes are, thus far, beyond our control. We have to just make the most of what we were given at birth. We also have only limited control over our natural body chemistry, such as serotonin, that affects our happiness. Most people believe that life circumstances have a powerful influence over their happiness (“if I get rich, I will be happy”) but the research findings, as we have seen, suggest that our circumstances are the source of only 10-15% of our happiness. In short, our genes and our brain chemistry may be barriers to happiness…and our hopes that good fortune will bring us happiness via good circumstances may be illusions. To Seligman another approach to happiness has much more potential--he believes we have the ability to develop and use personal habits, attitudes, and traits that can increase our happiness. This is his general thesis and the basis of his self-help approach. Let’s try to understand this.
Seligman, being an academic researcher, cites a great deal of research and presents it in an interesting way, but keep in mind that he is mostly discussing the "commonly used ways to gain happiness" that are currently available to the average person. In general, he doesn’t invent new happiness-producing techniques. Remember, too, this is primitive science...just estimates of correlations between crude circumstances and happiness over large numbers of people. It is important to keep in mind, I think, that there are probably hundreds of unique ways for unique individuals to gain happiness. You don't have to be married and have children...or be educated, highly successful, and make big money...or be religious and get your hope through the promises of religion...some people can probably even be happy while being self-centered and immoral. There are many ways you can carve your own niche of happiness in the world.
Given time, often involving life-long endeavors and goals, you can certainly have some influence over the circumstances of your life, in spite of the research cited above. Yet, we all know being born with below average academic ability or given parents who belittle learning or provided a poor K-12 education, it is very hard to become a physician, astronaut, professor, etc. Much of Psychological Self-Help deals with exactly how to make some of these changes in circumstances or the environment (see the chapter indices and use the search engine on the main page to find self-change methods). Keep in mind, however, that while your life circumstances usually only determine a small part of your total happiness, once a barrier is overcome and put behind you, such as poor education, self-doubts, or shyness and a lack of friends, it is no longer a barrier and your unhappy circumstances in the past may even become an asset.
Positive reactions and attitudes towards the past, the present, and the future may be more modifiable for most people than actual life circumstances. Let’s review Seligman’s (2002) work to learn more about this.
Seligman’s Suggestions for Increasing Happiness
Note: the next several pages offer a detailed summary of Authentic Happiness and a critique. If you are into serious and long-term work on building happiness, you might be well advised to read and work through the book itself, rather than read my summary. Hopefully, my overview will put Seligman’s suggestions into perspective, and then you can apply the more hopeful specific techniques from several sources.
His book, Authentic Happiness, begins by reviewing the benefits of being happy, much like the research I’ve just summarized. An optimistic, happy person has a better chance of being more productive, having more friends, a satisfying marriage, better health, and a longer life (of course, those end results contribute to one’s happiness, so there is a chicken and the egg question here). Happy people are not the most realistic, e.g. they over-estimate their skills and the control they have in dealing with problems; they see themselves as above average in intelligence and social ability. Seeing yourself favorably, even if wrong, contributes to happiness, I suppose, but other research shows optimists are not happier and more successful than pessimists (Chang, 2000).
No one would deny that great contributions to the world have been made by very unhappy people. So, sad feelings may have some merit and contribute to doing good in many lives. Indeed, people with bipolar disorders often enjoy the “highs” on their hyperactive days. They are often more creative than us ordinary folks. Some therapists believe that chronically happy and overly joyful people might be prone to become hypomanic (impulsive and overactive) if they “go over the edge.” Certainly, strong negative and strong positive feelings can both motivate us powerfully. Some historians and anthropologists believe that positive feelings helped our species evolve, just as fears and envy surely did. Given the choice, however, most of us as individuals would prefer a productive life without being depressed or manic. And no one would deny that many important contributions have been made by happy, enthusiastic, able, well adjusted people with lots of friends.
Which life circumstances change our happiness level and which don’t?
Here is some important research we need to know:
Relationships--a close, lasting, caring love relationship is for many a wellspring of happiness. Having good friends also gives most people continuing pleasure, too. A quarrelsome relationship can be the cause of much lasting unhappiness. Being lonesome continues to be unpleasant year after year. Maintaining a loving partnership is one of the surest way to happiness—40% of married people say they are “very happy” (that is a little higher than the usual estimates). Only 25% of unmarried, divorced, separated and widowed say they are “very happy.” Remember they have suffered a significant loss.
Religion--religious people tend to be a little happier and more satisfied with life. And why not, since they have a relationship with God, maybe a special sense of purpose, the promise of a wonderful life after death, and a facilitated social life? The more fundamentalist the religion, the more optimistic the believers tend to be, and the higher level of hope they tend to have.
Money—while, in general, people living in a wealthy, free country are clearly happier than people in a poor country, making a lot of money is usually an ineffective way to achieve happiness. In fact, once we get into a materialistic mode of acquiring “things,” the result is often less happiness, maybe even compulsiveness, competitiveness, boredom, or meaninglessness in the long haul.
Negative feelings--one might think that avoiding negative emotions and situations might make our lives happier, i.e., filled with more joy, but that is not necessarily true. Some people don’t have many feelings, positive or negative. Other people have lots of negative feelings and lots of positive feelings. Indeed, women have about twice as much depression as men…and they have about twice as much joy. So, holding down or escaping unpleasant feelings might help a little to be happy but it isn’t a sure-fire powerful tool.
Most other situations in life have relatively little to do with happiness. That includes age, health, degree of education, climate you live in, race, and gender. You can’t change most of these things anyway. Thus, it is easy to see that gaining happiness by changing your circumstances is a hard way to go. Only 25% or so of us achieve a really good, lasting, loving relationship (in spite of the 50% “very happy” ratings at any one time mentioned above). Perhaps only 10% or 15% of us worldwide can arrange to live in a wealthy democracy. Getting religion if you don’t have it is hard, it can’t be forced. Likewise, reducing negative feelings requires psychological skills and methods.
A little summary: According to Seligman the role of circumstances in happiness is quite limited: education, income, and climate don't influence happiness very much; feeling healthy, avoiding trauma, and developing hope through religion only contribute moderately to happiness; however, important life conditions include achieving a good marriage and living in a wealthy democracy. OK, but what about other life circumstances, such as raising a healthy, happy family? Having a successful career one is very proud of? Living an altruistic life devoted to helping others? What about being the best mechanic or a loved teacher in your town for 50 years?
More promising routes to happiness
Seligman obviously doesn’t think “trying to change your circumstances” is the best way to become happy. Instead, developing new personality traits, different outlooks, and more positive attitudes offer more hope because they may be more under your voluntary control.
Starting from the great virtues identified by philosophers over the last 5000 years, such as wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and transcendence, Seligman tries to help each person discover their own unique strengths or virtues. He calls these individual traits your “signature strengths.” Much of his book focuses on teaching you to nurture your positive natural traits or virtues, so you can live “the good life” and experience authentic happiness in work, love, and child rearing. To his credit, he has also developed a Web site (http://www.authentichappiness.org) which supplements his book. The site offers rating scales which are automatically scored, explained, and stored in your personal test folder. The ratings measure and provide norms for several of your traits or characteristics, such as your Signature Strengths (listed later), happiness, positive and negative feelings, optimism, close relationships, and so on. If you decide to take Seligman’s book seriously, please also make use of these rating scales. Note: he openly states that he intends to use your test scores in his future research…I feel confident that he will hold your information in confidence and deal with your disclosures respectfully.
Seligman has a very different understanding of psychopathology than the Freudian psychodynamic psychotherapists who see childhood trauma as the usual cause of adult unhappiness and disorders. Seligman believes childhood experiences—abuse, neglect, divorce, parent’s death—are over-rated causes. Many current therapies reinforce people feeling victimized by the past; after treatment they feel imprisoned and embittered by mistreatment as a child. But the new Positive Psychologists say childhood experiences just don’t have that much impact on adult unhappiness, so the bad feelings don’t need to be dug up in therapy. They prefer the Cognitive Therapy approach rather than uncovering the past in great depth. They admit, however, that if bad past experiences are remembered over and over, ruminated about, and expressed as terrible events, these thoughts could cause depression. The assumption is that awful experiences will fade away if they are out-of-mind and not re-lived. Therefore, the cognitive approach (see my chapters 5, 6 and 14) is different from many insight therapies (see my chapter 15). Remember—probably the majority of psychologists believe bad, traumatic childhood experiences often have a lasting impact, just as the good positive experiences recommended by Seligman might.
His next three chapters focus on developing healthy attitudes towards viewing and accepting your past, being optimistic about the future, and increasing your pleasures and gratifications in the present. His Web site (http://www.authentichappiness.org) starts you thinking about how you actually see the past by giving you three tests: Satisfaction with Life Scale, The Gratitude Survey, and a Transgression Motivation scale which measures your need for revenge. Your story of your life is really your cognitive explanation of your life. What if, as Seligman argues, childhood experiences have little to do with your adult life? What if the genes have much more powerful influence than a critical mother, a distant father, abuse, your parents’ divorce, a death of a parent, etc.? The dwelling on childhood in therapy would be pretty much a waste of time! The Cognitive Therapy view is that every emotion is the result of our recent thoughts. Examples: a thought that we are going to mess things up causes anxiety and feelings of insecurity; the thought that someone is going to screw me over causes anger; the thought that my lover may be interested in someone else causes jealousy, resentment, and fear of loss. So, effective treatment involves changing your thinking about your past in the direction of appreciating good events in your past and understanding (with some forgiveness) the wrongs done to you. How can you do this?
Completing the Satisfaction with Life Scale and the Gratitude Survey on Seligman’s Web site should get you started thinking more positively about the past. These additional exercises are recommended: Start keeping a daily diary in which you describe three to five things that happened to you that day that you appreciated. Your joy, happiness, and life satisfaction should increase because you are thinking more about good happenings. Another suggestion is to write up a one-page description of someone who has made an important contribution to your life. Arrange to take some time face to face with this person, express your gratitude, actually read your testimonial to them and give them a copy, and spend some time discussing the events, your feelings, and their feelings. The idea is to learn to appreciate and savor the good parts of your life.
This may be one of the weakest parts of Seligman’s approach. The experiential and experimental bases for his therapeutic suggestions are primarily brief classroom exercises, short experiments using students, or old humanistic exercises. It seems to me that this is a flimsy basis to suggest such brief experiences will change the life-long habits of being unappreciative and emphasizing the negative. Being more appreciative and grateful in a class assignment may be good beginnings but much longer efforts to change spread over many more areas of your life will be needed to permanently change your basic personality from negative or positive.
Likewise, negative thoughts, angry resentments, prejudice towards groups, thoughts blaming others, and the urge for revenge (he has another rating scale for that) can’t be undone in a short while. Seligman, himself, enumerates several reasons we are reluctant to give up our bitter thoughts about the past. Moreover, he has repeatedly emphasized the power of genetic inheritance in influencing these powerful behavioral/emotional reactions and then seems to suggest in his book that these reactions can be overcome by briefly “re-writing your history,” i.e., by reconsidering, forgetting, forgiving or suppressing your bad memories. He gives one example of how a psychologist (Worthington, 2002) forgave someone—a person who had killed his mother. It is a good example of understanding (by a professional specializing in forgiveness) forming the basis for forgiveness. I certainly believe the research findings that forgiveness training (done in the laboratory) leads many subjects to reporting less stress and anger later. However, it may be different in highly complex real life. Unlike a psychologist, such as Worthington, a critical, resentful, vindictive person has years of habits of thought to overcome and erase. In that case, becoming understanding and mellow is likely to be a huge, long project with repeated backsliding. As another of Seligman’s books suggest, science has not concluded that changing oneself is simple and easy, such as just a couple of self-change methods done in a group (Seligman, 1995).
Perhaps several other self-change methods, applied over months in several areas, would also contribute to appreciating and accepting the past. Consider these additional methods: Understanding Behavior, Dealing with Anger, Understanding and Forgiving, Relaxation Methods, Empathy Responding, Cognitive Therapy, Determinism, Stopping Bad Memories, Self-understanding, and How to be Happy.
In the next step towards happiness, Seligman attempts to brighten our future outlook, like the past, by increasing our positive emotions—hope, optimism, self-confidence, and enthusiasm for things to come. You can measure and understand your optimism-pessimistic beliefs on his Web site. More importantly, if you study the test results carefully, you can see that when you feel optimistic you tend to believe good events have permanent or frequently repeated causes. For example, good actions and events may be seen as due to your own consistent personal traits that have considerable influence. Those conditions will keep the good times coming. Likewise, if bad events are seen as being caused by temporary, passing causes limited in scope, such as an accidental happening, the reactions of a stranger, a coincidence, or bad luck that day, you have more hope things will be different next time. A pessimist would see a good event as just a fluke, won’t happen again, and "I had nothing to do with it." In contrast, optimistic hope is based on seeing good life events as caused by personal traits or by lasting, broad causes which I can perhaps influence. And, an optimist sees unhappy events as having temporary, specific, possibly controllable or unlikely-to-happen-again causes. The next task—a daunting one—might be to reduce your pessimistic thinking and expectations.
Pessimistic, negative thoughts can be challenged by gathering the facts—are these thoughts really true? As we have seen, it helps to look for multiple causes for bad events and ask yourself if changeable, specific, non-personal causes are responsible. Have you instead concentrated on the most dire possible cause? Even if your negative thinking is true and is the outcome truly awful events…is the negative thought useful or does it just cause more trouble? Can less scary explanations be found? Maybe the bad events don't have to happen again. This disputing of one’s own negative or pessimistic thoughts is a demanding, difficult process. We can change our thinking but it is seldom easy. This is why therapists are needed in many cases, especially serious ones.
This is good advice as far as it goes, but it is flimsy guidance for making major changes in the infinite thoughts that flit through our minds minute by minute. Moreover, having hope for the future rests on more than reducing pessimism and having hopeful fantasies. What about developing reasonable, doable, testable, exciting plans for the future, as in further education, interesting and gratifying careers, fulfilling social-community service, etc., etc.? What about plans for improving relationships? What about carefully thinking through a set of values and goals you would love to accomplish during your life—actions you feel would be morally laudable and spiritually deeply satisfying? What about testing your ability to analyze problems and make real changes? Proving to yourself that desired changes can be made and self-improvements are not pipe dreams should build your confidence in your self-change skills, your sense of mastery, and change your future. (See Chaper 3: Values and Morals.)
After learning to feel better about the past and more positive about the future, Seligman turns to increasing happiness in the present. He distinguishes in a meaningful way between pleasures (eating, having sex, having fun, relaxing, doing exciting things, having enjoyable feelings, being mindful, savoring life) and gratifications (engaging in satisfying activities that absorb our attention and make us feel proud or like a good person). Gratifications might include reading/studying hard, doing excellent work, having meaningful conversations, completing an important even difficult task, helping someone, doing the right thing, etc., i.e., not highly exciting but satisfying activities. Both pleasures and gratifications make important contributions to our happiness but many pleasures soon lose their thrill, so don't overdo having fun and space your fun out over time.
Like Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi (2003) emphasizes in his new book that a very important part of happiness is a worthy, ethical job which is satisfying, challenging, and where you can get into “flow.” Remember that flow is quietly gratifying and often demanding, pushing our abilities to the limit. Also, be mindful that we often choose the easy way and pleasure over gratification; there are powerful commercial and cultural inducements to maximize the fun we have. Some people feel a desperate need to just have fun much of the time. However, for most people, it is their productive, altruistic activities using their good traits and personal strengths that give us the most satisfaction, i.e. gratification, in life. When you are nearing death, would you be more likely to say "I wish I had partied harder, drank more beer, goofed off more, and done more to have fun?" or say "I'm really glad I showed genuine concern for so many people during my life, that I really worked to develop my good qualities as fully as possible, and used so much of my time, morals and strengths to help others in need?"
From here on Seligman’s book is devoted to recognizing your own good character traits, building strengths and virtues, and using them optimally in life’s three great arenas: work, love, and raising children. That is a good formula for happiness but there is a great need for more research about this approach:
1. Seligman measures each person's 4 or 5 more important "signature strengths" by using self-ratings, which are notoriously inaccurate (but better than nothing!). See his Web site (http://www.authentichappiness.org). Often individuals don’t know themselves that well, they exaggerate their strengths and deny their faults. They don't realize other valuable skills; they may think certain weaknesses are strong commendable traits. A review of the specific signature strengths Seligman tries to measure will help you recognize what characteristics we are talking about—and how poorly a couple of self-ratings would measure them: Wisdom. Curiosity. Love of learning. Open-mindedness. Good judgment. Practical intelligence. Social-emotional intelligence. Courage. Bravery. Industriousness. Honesty. Loving. Accepts love. Generous. Fair. Loyal. Leadership. Temperance. Self-control. Cautious & prudent. Modest. Transcendence. Appreciate beauty. Respect excellence. Gratitude. Optimistic. Sense of purpose. Forgiving. Sense of humor. Zest for life. These are great traits but they are often not accurately measured. Much better tests can and will be developed if objective items and ratings by others are also used.
2. Seligman focuses only on the rated strength of current strengths. What about strengths and values that the person doesn’t have now (and would rate low) but would very much like to develop and use in the future?
3. Seligman puts very little emphasis on the individual actually developing (growing) his/her desired traits, strengths and values. Surely learning desired skills and increasing traits, like practical intelligence, industriousness, fairness, self-control, gratitude, optimism, etc. should be part of increasing one’s level of happiness.
Consider your career: it is an important part of your life for 30 to perhaps 50 years. Seligman’s prescription is to make it your "calling." A calling involves using your best strengths and virtues to achieve excellence in such a way as to be personally fulfilling, respected by others, and a significant contribution to society. The concepts of dedicated involvement and flow are very important. He gives encouraging examples of people who have converted their job into a meaningful mission. Changes at work are sometimes possible but for many of us major changes in the nature and goals of our work are impossible to make. We have to make a living and the person paying us expects specific outcomes. As an example, careers in law are discussed by Seligman partly because it is the highest paying profession while lawyers are often unhappy. He says they tend to be suspicious pessimists thinking a lot about avoiding assorted catastrophes that might strike their clients or them personally. The life of a lawyer is generally not filled with doing good and stamping out injustice in the world as they might have thought when they chose the career. More often they are expected to make money, which is often a cynical, selfish, ultimately unhappy pursuit.
Love is another big area of our lives. David Myers (2000) writes "there are few stronger predictors of happiness than a close, nurturing, equitable, intimate, lifelong companionship with one's best friend." To understand your relationships better, Seligman provides a Close Relationships Questionnaire by Chris Fraley and Phil Shaver at (http://www.authentichappiness.org). From an early age, we tend to be secure, avoidant, or anxious with others; secure is better. But how do you cultivate feeling secure? It is common in a romantic relationship to see your partner more positively than his/her friends do, called the "romantic illusion." Seeing, valuing, and appreciating your partner's strengths and good points are an important part of a happy relationship. So, dwell on their positive traits, not their faults. View the partner’s displeasing acts as being caused by temporary factors (he/she is tired or in a bad mood, not he/she is always a grouch). Nice acts can be seen as due to his/her permanent traits (he/she is caring and bright). Communication skills, especially empathy responding and "I" statements, are vital parts of a relationship (see Useful Skills. Much advice and many useful references are given in Love, Marriage & Sex.
Many people will tell you that raising a family was the most important part of their lives. Seligman has definite ideas about childrearing. Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox and Gillham (1996) wrote a book, The Optimistic Child. Seligman and his wife, both psychologists, have earnestly tried to apply positive psychology while raising their children. They believe that a child with lots of positive experiences and emotions will inquisitively explore the world and, as a result, learn to master problem situations and develop their strengths. He offers eight techniques for rearing happy children: 1. Sleep with the baby. 2. Give them a sense of mastery through games and play. 3. Say no seldom and yes a lot. 4. Praise worthy accomplishments, not easy ones. Avoid punishment. 5. Avoid sibling rivalry by giving each lots of attention. 6. Focus bedtime rituals on positive experiences—“my best time today” or priming for a pleasant dream. 7. Offer future rewards for self-improvements. 8. Make New Year’s resolutions about adding desired behaviors, not about stopping bad habits. There are hundreds of books about parenting and Family Relations and Child Care.
Overall, Authentic Happiness is theoretically well grounded in Positive Psychology principles. Sometimes his practical advice seems inadequate to meet the challenge. This is especially so if the child or parent has depressed/pessimistic genes…what do we do then? Seligman acknowledges the power of the genes and then seems to disregard their presence. See Optimism and Pessimism by Ed Chang (2002). Yet, Seligman delves into so many aspects of happiness and optimism that the final result of reading his book may be fairly effective in increasing many individual's happiness. The tenor of the sweeping Positive Psychology movement has a little bit of the same feel as the Self-Esteem movement. It goes without saying, of course, that the chapters of the book as well as the whole movement should be empirically evaluated to see how well it increases happiness and/or decreases depression. In general, Seligman's suggestions are as good as we can make today.
OK, so winning lots of money only lifts your spirit for a couple of years. Contrary to the “jolly fat people” notion, getting fat doesn’t make most of us jolly. Reportedly, women with breast implants have a higher suicide rate than other women, so perhaps having a nice body won’t remove our psychological troubles. Getting into religion may help but the research data isn’t entirely clear on that. Is anything a good bet to bring us more happiness? Well, there are a few ideas but they aren’t easy to create for yourself and not sure fire even after much effort: (1) Become able to manage your own life doing meaningful things that interest you. (2) Learn to feel truly competent in your major activities. (3) Develop close, meaningful, mutually satisfying relationships. (4) Come to feel good about yourself and the life you have built for yourself.
Finally, David Myers (1993) summarizes several ways to seek a happy life:
1. Don’t make the mistake of believing that being a big success will automatically make you happy. Being a genuinely caring person with good friends is a much better way.
2. Learn to control your time and your behavior. Have a Daily-To-Do List.
3. Act like a happy person—smile, greet people, be outgoing and optimistic, even if you are a little down (Fleeson, Malanos & Achille, 2002). Acting sour and unhappy keeps you feeling that way.
4. Find respected tasks to do that use your talents and challenge you to do your best…flow!
5. Every day do exercises you enjoy to the point of “working out.”
6. Learn to thoroughly rest. Get plenty of sound sleep. An alert, relaxed body feels good.
7. Attend to friends, loved ones, and the people you are privileged to serve.
8. Also, empathize with and respond with help to strangers in need. Happy people are sensitive and giving.
9. Take time each day to remember people and institutions who have helped you. Count your blessings. Express your graditude.
10. Join caring groups that support your being your best self and give you hope.
Sad to say, we can’t suggest how to be happy much better today than Aristotle did 2300 years ago:
“The good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s facilities in conformity with excellence or virtue—this activity must occupy a lifetime…one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”
There are hundreds of Pop (not Positive) Psychology books and Web sites about getting happy. They will help some people but there is little research to back them up. There are a couple of research-oriented psychologists who seem to be paralleling Seligman: Baker (2003) and Niven (2000). Stevens (1998) also has a book and a Web site, You Can Choose to be Happy, which is primarily an ad for the book but it does offer selected sections for free. Another Web site is for kids, How To Be Happy.