You know how they say not to judge a book by its cover? Well, this is the book they were talking about. The chirpy title splashed across the blue skyscape background actually curves into a smiley-face. But, no matter; ignore the cover. Open it up and read. I mean it.
This book is not gimmicky, and it is not just somebody’s pet explanation for all human behavior. It won’t promise to solve all your problems in just three easy steps. You don’t have to take the author’s word for anything. This isn’t pop psychology, it’s psychology written for the popular audience, and there is a difference. The information here is backed up by large, scientific studies, which the author describes clearly. The advice is given with the injunction that if a technique doesn’t work for you, don’t waste your time with it. Authentic Happiness is rather like an owner’s manual for the mind. For years, whenever my friends and I have fallen to talking about mood and happiness, I have quoted this book to them. Personally, I’ve been happier since I read it.
As a manual, the book is not perfect. The first third of the book proved the most useful to me, for its descriptions of how happiness works, what really makes people happier and what doesn’t. There are some real surprises. Most kinds of childhood trauma do not make people any more likely to be unhappy as adults, for example. Expressing anger does not actually make the anger go away. Being in a good mood will make you more generous and more solution-oriented; being happy is an important part of being there for others. At the same time, being kind to others has a stronger influence on mood than pleasure does, suggesting that if you want to cheer yourself up, buying your friend an ice-cream cone gives you more bang for your buck than buying yourself one.There are also self-scored tests and various simple exercises aimed at improving happiness. I’ve used those exercises, some of them, anyway, and they work.
But much of the rest of the book is concerned with identifying one’s “signature strengths,” and while I like the idea (that if you know what you are good at and find a way to do it you will be happier), none of the options Dr. Seligman offered really sounded like me. His attempt to offer a kind of atheist’s spirituality wasn’t helpful, either—of course, I am not an atheist, but not all attempts at atheist spirituality leave me puzzled, and this one did. In my opinion, he could have, and should have, just left that section out.
The atheist’s spirituality section suggests one further weakness of the book, one that is not Dr. Seligman’s fault as a psychologist or a writer, but is important to keep in mind. As a psychologist, Dr. Seligman’s job is to understand how the mind works. He can therefor state that religious devotion is important, psychologically. People who are devoted to something larger than themselves are happier than those who are not. But what the something larger is or could be is not a matter for psychology; it’s a matter for philosophy or religion. Perhaps a good analogy would be to an auto mechanic. A mechanic can tell you how to maintain your car, but not where to drive. In this sense, the book is not a complete treatment of its subject, because what a person is devoted to is not irrelevant. But as long as you don’t expect Dr. Seligman to be a philosopher, he can be a very useful psychologist.
He has at least one other book out on a related subject; Learned Optimism. It is an older book, and Authentic Happiness re-uses a lot of its material. I expected Learned Optimism to be a more focused treatment of the subject, so I read both books, but actually the best of the earlier book ended up in the later book. Unless you really like reading (and you might; I do), Authentic Happiness is the one of the two to get.
Seligman, M. (2002.) Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to
realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York City: The Free Press.