by Martin Seligman Ph.D., April 2011

This an excerpt from Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

The Original Theory: Authentic Happiness

Positive psychology, as I intend it, is about what we choose for its own sake. I chose to have a back rub in the Minneapolis airport recently because it made me feel good. I chose the back rub for its own sake, not because it gave my life more meaning or for any other reason. We often choose what makes us feel good, but it is very important to realize that often our choices are not made for the sake of how we will feel. I chose to listen to my six-year-old’s excruciating piano recital last night, not because it made me feel good but because it is my parental duty and part of what gives my life meaning.

The theory in Authentic Happiness is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. And each of these elements is better defined and more measurable than happiness. The first is positive emotion; what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. An entire life led successfully around this element, I call the “pleasant life.”

The second element, engagement, is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity. I refer to a life lived with these aims as the “engaged life.” Engagement is different, even opposite, from positive emotion; for if you ask people who are in flow what they are thinking and feeling, they usually say, “nothing.” In flow we merge with the object. I believe that the concentrated attention that flow requires uses up all the cognitive and emotional resources that make up thought and feeling.

There are no shortcuts to flow. On the contrary, you need to deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the world in flow. There are effortless shortcuts to feeling positive emotion, which is another difference between engagement and positive emotion. You can masturbate, go shopping, take drugs, or watch television. Hence, the importance of identifying your highest strengths and learning to use them more often in order to go into flow.

There is yet a third element of happiness, which is meaning. I go into flow playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am fidgeting until I die. The pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of pleasure are often solitary, solipsistic endeavors. Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life. The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being Green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.

“Your 2002 theory can’t be right, Marty,” said Senia Maymin when we were discussing my previous theory in my Introduction to Positive Psychology for the inaugural class of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology in 2005. A thirty-two-year-old Harvard University summa in mathematics who is fluent in Russian and Japanese and runs her own hedge fund, Senia is a poster child for positive psychology. Her smile warms even cavernous classrooms like those in Huntsman Hall, nicknamed the “Death Star” by the Wharton School business students of the University of Pennsylvania who call it their home base. The students in this Masters program are really special: thirty-five successful adults from all over the world who fly into Philadelphia once a month for a three-day feast of what’s at the cutting edge in positive psychology and how they can apply it to their professions.

“The 2002 theory in the book Authentic Happiness, is supposed to be a theory of what humans choose, but it has a huge hole in it: it omits success and mastery. People try to achieve just for winning’s own sake,” Senia continued.

This was the moment I began to rethink happiness. Senia’s challenge crystallized ten years of teaching, thinking about, and testing this theory and pushed me to develop it further. Beginning in that October class in Huntsman Hall, I changed my mind about what positive psychology is. I also changed my mind about what the elements of positive psychology are and what the goal of positive psychology should be.

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