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.