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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