Seligman on happiness: authentic or by definition?

I’m almost done with Martin Seligman’s well-known book of positive psychology, Authentic Happiness (2003). It’s been a very good read — although I was familiar with many of the relevant research findings, from my various internet travels (and Barking Up The Wrong Tree in particular), Seligman puts it all together and lays it out in a way that makes thinking about happiness much less muddled. Although I wasn’t excited to take a quiz that revealed my strengths (and, by extension, weaknesses…), this was a solid end-of-the-year/beginning-of-the-year choice: sciencey and self-helpy in equal proportions.

Seligman does well basically to refuse to engage in the endless philosophical debate over what happiness is, exactly. And he does seem to have taken seriously, and largely accomplished, his goal of providing a descriptive account of the constitutive elements of happiness and how to achieve and sustain them. In other words, Seligman does not suggest that the body of evidence regarding happiness necessarily has normative force for all readers; you may have some reasons — prudential and/or moral — not to do some of the things that conduce to happiness. (For example, you may have a principled commitment to retributive justice such that you reasonably choose not to forgive some wrongdoers in your life, even though research shows that forgiveness is an important element of happiness).

However, I’m worried that Seligman’s descriptive task goes notably off the rails towards the beginning of the book, in the midst of a cursory discussion of positive emotions. Seligman describes his friend Len who, despite “having made it big both in work and play,” remains “constitutionally at the low end of the spectrum of positive affectivity” (p. 34–35). Although Len is a high achiever, his achievements don’t do as much to make him feel as great, good, joyful, etc. as they would for most other people. Yet, Seligman maintains that, like Len (who eventually finds a compatible spouse for his “chilly” personality), “a person can be happy even if he or she does not have much in the way of positive emotion.”

This will come as welcome news to anyone who, like Len (and Seligman), finds himself on the low end of the positive emotion scale. But why believe it’s true? To claim that happiness doesn’t require much positive emotion is to commit to one particular — and controversial — normative conception of the best kind of life for a human being. Seligman has, in essence, defined away the possibility that happiness consists primarily in the positive emotions. It may be true that we can’t change where we fall on the positive emotion scale, and that it’s better to focus on what we can change than what we can’t. But Seligman’s statement is quite strong: happiness is ultimately independent of how much positive emotion one experiences. This entails a thick, normative, and controversial account of happiness; a matter that ought not to be settled by postulation.

Without having given it too much thought, I have the following pretheoretical view: Positive emotions either aren’t an important part of the good/flourishing/happy life for a human being, or they are. If they aren’t, then why pay special attention in the book to people who don’t experience many of them, and point out their ability to partake in other facets of the good/flourishing/happy life (e.g., achievement)? On the other hand, if positive emotions are an important part of the good/flourishing/happy life for a human being, then those with low positive affect have reason to want them, apart from the other facets of the good/flourishing/happy life they may have achieved, even if this is a difficult or even impossible task.

For those who tl;dr-ed, here’s the gist: Seligman claims to be providing a descriptive account of happiness, and not a normative one. However, in his extending the umbrella of happiness by definition to potentially cover those with somewhat or even drastically low positive affect, he makes important assumptions about the happy (or “good,” or “flourishing”) life for a human being. This isn’t necessarily bad or wrong, but it isn’t value-free.

In my opinion, it is better to keep the positive affectivity and achievement/satisfaction/etc. components of happiness entirely distinct, calling neither by itself “happiness,” for the sake of conceptual clarity. More on this later, maybe.

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5 Comments

  • I’m a bit confused. Did Seligman’s survey conclude that positive emotion is or is not a significant determinant of happiness, and what about the size of the effect?

    I say this because it seemed your review indicated that this was a value-judgment on Seligman’s part, but I could just as easily see it as an input (effective or not) into happiness.

  • pamela j. stubbart wrote:

    I should go back over this. But my current best understanding is that Seligman basically sets aside positive emotion/affectivity as a constituent of happiness because, even though it *seems* like feeling good/great/joyful is an important part of happiness, people vary widely in how much of those they feel even in the same circumstances, and — here’s the value judgment — even the low positive affectivity people are in fact leading lives filled with objective goods, like achievement, that we ought to count as “happy.”

    This is not a bad position — it’s near Aristotle’s, and clearly defensible. But I want to take the harder line that, individual differences or not, if positive affect is an important component of happiness for humans, then the low positive affect people are missing out on something good and worth wanting, even if their lives are still going well on other dimensions of happiness (construed broadly).

    Does that help at all?

  • Perhaps there is another distinction that needs to be made between happiness and contentment. Happiness and contentment can go hand in hand, but needn’t necessarily. Contentment implies a sort of acceptance of where you are when you are, which allows the channel of happiness to flow more freely in the emotionally “positive” sense.

    Happiness itself is a misleading term because it is posited on a polarity–it isn’t sadness. Contentment is the opposite of discontent, but it doesn’t necessarily imply the “extreme positivity” connoted by the term happiness.

    Hence, if I were to say Jim is a very content person, but I wouldn’t say he is necessarily happy–that utterance would make sense to you. If I said Jim isn’t a very positive person, but he is happy, somehow that makes less sense probably because of the polar nature of happiness.

  • Pamela, that does help. That distinction is particularly important if Seligman (or other’s using the same argument) conclude that prescription antidepressants are snake-oil from their perspective.

    If positive affect is important for happiness, then these drugs can increase happiness in low positive affect individuals. If positive affect is neither here nor there, then the drugs are a sham, or they’re peddling something other than happiness.

  • pamela j. stubbart wrote:

    That’s a good point about the antidepressants, Jeff. In fact I think that differences of opinion as to what happiness consists in may often underlie people’s differences of opinion about them. In some sense, everyone’s right: in terms of positive affect, ADs can make people’s lives much better; in terms of meaningfulness or satisfaction, not so much (unless the new, higher level of positive affect facilitates people’s reaching of other goals — career, family, etc).

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