Tag Archive for psychotherapy

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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Male: The Gender Of Extremes.

Men have produced some of the most spiritually transcendent philosophies the world has ever seen. Christ, Buddha and Mohammed all lived at the dawn of history yet still remain revered by many. These were not just great thinkers, but great human beings.  But not all men are like this. The male gender has also produced some of the worst rogues on record. Two of them, in the shape of Hitler and Stalin, in the 20th century alone.

One theory is that whilst women converge to the mean on the spread of the population, men tend to have a broader spread across the population. The “average” man and woman may be the same, but the differences in spread accounts for why more men are to be found at the extremes.

Take intelligence as well documented example. On average, men and women are equivalent when it comes to IQ. Because women tend to converge to the mean, this means that in the “super intelligent” section of IQ, there is four times as many men as women. It also means that in the “super unintelligent” sector of IQ, there are also four times as many men as women. As a consequence, more men are either super intelligent or super unintelligent compared to women.

This difference in spread of IQ may help to account for why there are so many Nobel laureates who are men, but also why there are so many men in prison. Indeed illiteracy is phenomenally high in the prison population, which is, of course, a population of mainly men. Arguably you need a degree of literacy in order to participate and succeed in modern society, and indeed, defend oneself against the state. As a result there are more men who are ill equipped to succeed and prosper in society than women.

These patterns have not just been found in IQ but in other measures of personality. This does not restrict itself to psychological scores but can be seen in other areas of experience.  Take education as an example.  Girls are more likely than boys to be good all-rounder’s.  Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be good in certain provinces of learning but bum out completely in other areas of learning.

Men, so it seems, are more likely to be found at the extremes of behaviour. As a gender, we seem to have evolved to be specialists rather than generalists.  Why this might be so, however, is an open question.  My best guess is that much of behaviour evolved as a ‘sexual ornament’ to attract a mate.  The selection pressures to develop unique talents were therefore higher for men than women.  But because you can’t be extremely good at everything, this means that men are consequently extremely bad at other things.  This might create a pressure in sexual selection toward the extremes of ability/inability in men.  But it’s just a thought.

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About Happiness

“Happiness is an imaginary condition formerly often attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and children to adults.”

Thomas Szasz cited by Lorie, P. and Mascetti, M.N. (1986)  The Quotable Spirit – Divine, mystical and inspirational quotations.  Macmillan Publishers Ltd.: London.  p.26.

In therapy, clients often present because, in one way or another, they consider themselves to be ‘unhappy’.  When asked what they want from therapy, they often say they want to ‘be happy’.

What the quote above highlights, however, is that happiness is a slippery concept.  Rarely, if ever, can we declare our current felling state as one of ‘being happy’.  Perhaps the nearest we can achieve is to look back over our lives and attribute particular periods as being ‘happy’ ones.

But were those times really ‘happy’?  If we were to examine our happy experiences of the past more closely, we would find those periods to include other emotions like disappointment, frustration, anger or sadness.

Even when looking to our past, then, our periods of happiness seem to evaporate with closer examination.

Why, then, is happiness so illusive?

One reason, I think, is we look towards happiness as a destination … something we need to work towards, a way of being with the world that we need to achieve … something that is marked by the absence of other, less pleasant emotions.  We want to be rid of our anxiety, depressions and disappointments, and replace them with something different.

Viewed in this way, however, happiness just becomes something that, like Szasz points out above, is attributed to other people, or times and places in our lives, but never now.

If we examine our experience closely, however, our feeling states are always mixed.  We feel fear and anger and upset and resentment etc., at all times of our lives.  There are few, if ever, truly ‘happy’ moments.

What does this teach us?  My view is that happiness is way to travel, it is not a destination.  Our experience will always be filled with ‘negative’ emotions.  Simply turning away from them … or worse, wishing them away to a future without them, is ultimately futile.

It is only in accepting, feeling and experiencing our world as it is, can we come to live ‘happy’ lives.  Happiness, in other words, is not somewhere we have been, or plan to go, but it is something we do  … furthermore, it is something we do despite our difficult circumstances.

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