Happiness: Capitalizing on Our Strengths and Virtues

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Let's wrap up this series on happiness with one more look at Martin Seligman's 2002 book, "Authentic Happiness." Dr Seligman, as you recall, is the founder of "positive psychology," which seeks to answer the hardly ever-asked question of "what goes right?" We are already overfamiliar with the things that go wrong.

    A very important - indeed crucial - key to happiness, Dr Seligman explains, is building on our strengths and virtues. These are embedded in the old-fashioned concept of "character." The new social science of the early twentieth century, however, banished that notion, along with other Victorian-era artifacts. Instead, behavior was explained away as the result of environmental forces beyond a mere individual's control.

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    Thus, for example, crime rises from urban squalor, and the solution lies in building healthier and nurturing environments. In this context, looking into the issue of character is seen as morally-laden and judgmental. This has had the unfortunate side effect of creating a certain no-fault status to all manner of things we do wrong. You can make a good argument that our view of mental illness suffers from this form of myopia.

    Meanwhile, character went underground, disguised as "personality." Dr Seligman is all for reviving character.

    With his colleague Christopher Peterson, Dr Seligman explored 200 works of literature that dealt with virtue. These included: Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido, The Koran, Ben Franklin, the Upanishads, and a lot more. Reports Dr Seligman:

    To our surprise, almost every single one of these traditions flung across three thousand years and the entire face of the earth endorsed six virtues.

    These comprised:

    • Wisdom and knowledge
    • Courage
    • Love and humanity
    • Justice
    • Temperance
    • Spirituality and transcendence

    From there, Seligman and his colleagues identified 24 character strengths, clustered around the six virtues. Thus, under the virtue of "wisdom and knowledge," we have the character strengths of "curiosity/interest in the world," "love of learning," "judgment/critical thinking/open-mindedness," "ingenuity/originality/practical intelligence/street smarts," 'social intelligence/personal intelligence/emotional intelligence," and "perspective."

    "Courage" would include valor and bravery and integrity while "love and humanity" would include kindness and generosity. The other virtues are filled in with various strengths. As Dr Seligman explains:

    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.

    Thus, the key to a good life (and authentic happiness) is using one's signature strengths all the time. This translates to such things as "recrafting your job to deploy your strengths and virtues." This not only makes work more enjoyable, but may transform routine work into a calling (which Dr Seligman defines as a passionate commitment to work for its own sake).

  • You can test yourself for your signature strengths by going to Dr Seligman's Authentic Happiness site.

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    All this may sound pie-in-the-sky to you right now, particularly if you are in a bad depression or are just coming out of one. But I ask you to reconsider the conventional wisdom:

    Modern psychiatry is based on prescribing meds to 1) get us out of crisis and 2) to avoid relapsing into crisis. Psychiatry is very good at its first objective, but is a notorious underachiever at its second. The very few long-term studies we have indicate that at best our meds delay the time to relapse. Eventually, we crash or flip, hopefully with less frequency and intensity. But crash and flip we do.

    Obviously, other things need to change, such as organizing our lives in a way that is less likely to bring on depression and other forms of psychic crisis. My guess is that we tend to elude happiness far more than happiness eludes us. Happiness is right there, in front of us, but opening our eyes and making the necessary personal changes requires hard work and effort. I do not purport to be adept at the practice, but to the money question - Am I better off now than I was, say, three years ago? - I can truthfully answer yes.

    But I still have my work cut out for me. Be happy, and Godspeed ...

Published On: August 26, 2010