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Book Review: Authentic Happiness By Martin E.P. Seligman

You might have thought that being a psychotherapist I would have lots to say about being happy.  This isn’t strictly true though.  Therapists, if I were to be precise, know a lot about unhappiness.  Theories abound explaining our depressions, anxieties, and problems in living.  We don’t have a particularly good grasp of happiness, which is kind of strange since this is what most of our clients are searching for.

Martin Seligman is an unusual psychologist in that he has devoted his career to researching happiness.  His book, ‘Authentic Happiness’, promises to reveal what makes a person happy and is packed with interesting research to back up his point of view.

At heart, Seligman resuscitates the idea of ‘virtue’.  If this sounds a little old fashioned then it is.  The ancient Greeks were the first to suggest that virtue was the basis of a good life, and they go back over 2000 years!

The trouble with ‘virtue’ or ‘good character’, from a psychologist’s point of view, is in the ‘operational definition’.  That is to say how to define and measure it.  After all, if you can’t define and measure virtue, then you can’t conduct research to find out if it does indeed matter.

Seligman attempt to solve this problem was to first search for virtues that all societies have in common.  He came up with the following list:

– Wisdom and knowledge.

– Courage.

– Love and humanity.

– Justice.

– Temperance.

– Spirituality and transcendence.

As an act of scholarship this is an extremely valuable list.  What Seligman does next with the list of virtues is to further refine them into a list of 24 ‘signature strengths’.  The key to happiness, for Seligman, is to work out what your signature strengths are, and find work, play and family life that let you practice them often.  To help you do this, and rate your progress towards achieving happiness, Seligman offers the reader numerous questionnaires.  If you visit the Authentic Happiness Website you can even fill them in online.  Registration is free and offers you averaged information about other people’s scores too which is fun.

This book offers more than just this theory.  The book also provides a valuable analysis of how to find happiness in your past, present and future.  Perhaps sobering for a talking therapist, Seligman argues that understanding your past is not the key to being happy about it. Rather Seligman suggests we should cultivate gratitude for the people who have helped us, and forgive the people who have hurt us.  It is in the gratitude and the forgiving that we come to remember the past as happy.  For me, this was the most valuable lesson I learnt from the book.

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