Authentic Happiness  


By Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.  

This book follows and expands on Dr. Seligman’s Learned Optimism.  Authentic Happiness covers more of the field of positive psychology; “Optimism about the Future” being just one chapter, and it updates the last decade or so of work in that field.  But, like its predecessor, this work is intended for the lay reader yet references the underlying science sufficiently to establish its basis in fact.  It continues Dr. Seligman’s focus on bringing the power of positive psychology to the great majority of “normal” folks for whom it offers the promise of increased well-being, satisfaction, happiness, and purpose.  And, I believe, it offers valuable insights for those seeking to call forth and maintain awesome schools.  

In addition to the book, Dr. Seligman and others have put up a web site,, that offers a wealth of tools for assessing various traits of positive psychology.  One must register at the site to use the tools, but there is no fee.  Included is the optimism test described in Learned Optimism and the much broader VIA Strengths Survey.  For more information, also see  

Building on Strengths  

Like the work of the Gallup organization described in Now, Discover Your Strengths, Dr. Seligman suggests that individuals have differing strengths, and that the path to the good life involves identifying, enhancing, and using those strengths in the service of a worthy cause.  However, where Gallup says they identified their set of strengths from sifting through millions of surveys and interviews, Dr. Seligman explains that positive psychology has identified a set of six virtues recognized “across every major religious and cultural tradition.”  P. 130.  They are:  

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence


These virtues can be expressed or achieved through twenty-four strengths.   


Positive Psychology







Focused on the world; ambiguity tolerant


Love of Learning

Focused on knowledge


Judgment/Critical Thinking/Open-Mindedness

“Faces facts”, adapts decisions to data rather than the reverse


Ingenuity/Originality/Practical Intelligence/Street Smarts

Finds a different path


Social Intelligence/Personal Intelligence/Emotional Intelligence

Motives and feelings, differentiation



Most mature in category, way of looking at the world makes sense to others, helps them





Valor and Bravery

Able to act in the presence of physical or psychological fear; including taking unpopular stances



Flexible, realistic, but gets it done!



Authentic, honest with others and self




Humanity and Love

Kindness and Generosity

Enjoys helping others, “tending and befriending”


Loving and Allowing Oneself to Be Loved

Deep and sustaining relationships






Loyal teammate, works for success of group


Fairness and Equity

Focuses on treating others right



Organizes activities, sees that they happen.  Attends to intergoroup relations.






Regulates desires, feelings, and actions internally.



Careful, far-sighted and deliberative.


Humility and Modesty

Unpretentious, does not seek spotlight, keeps personal successes, failures, pleasures and suffering in perspective.





Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence

Deep, automatic, and emotionally powerful appreciation for beauty or excellence in all domains.



Sees and appreciates goodness and gifts throughout life.



Expects good things and works hard toward them; goal-oriented.  Cheerful in present based on hope for future.


Spirituality, Sense of Purpose/Faith/Religiousness

Strong and coherent beliefs.  Know where you fit in universe.  Beliefs shape actions and produce meaning.


Forgiveness and Mercy

Mercy, not revenge.  Gives second chances.


Playfulness and Humor

Has a good time, laughs and sees the funny side.



Spirited, throws self into things, inspires others.


To find your top five strengths on this chart, go to  Signature strengths are those on which an individual rates high and which he or she “owns” or identifies with as being a significant part of his or her being, a part that energizes them when exercised.  

Comment:  I started to match up the Gallup list with this one, but decided it involved too much subjective judgment.  It’s an interesting exercise, however, if you want to try it.  

Here are some other points in this book that jumped out at me:  

Negative emotions signal win-lose situations (zero-sum games):

  • Fear signals danger and triggers flight.
  • Sadness signals loss and triggers hide.
  • Anger signals trespass and triggers fight.

We do not learn at our best when experiencing negative emotions.  See also, “The Anxiety of Learning.”  

Depressed persons are more accurate judges of their skill and control over situations than happy, optimistic persons.  Do we want students to become better self-assessors?  How about teachers?   On the other hand, happy people are more likely to hear and act on important information.  For example, they will change behaviors after being exposed to health risk information far more readily than depressed persons.  

Being in a good mood increases the goals one will set, persistence, and performance, friendships, romance, and creativity.  

External factors account for less than 15% of variation in happiness.  Given that, to the extent they matter, happiness seems to be enabled and supported by:

  • Adequate income for basic needs (strong effect)
  • Marriage (strong effect, but perhaps not causal)
  • Rich social network (strong effect, but perhaps not causal)
  • Religion (moderate effect).

Happiness is virtually unaffected by:

  • Increases in income beyond adequacy
  • Health
  • Education (oops! But there are other considerations.)
  • Race
  • Geographical location.

In contrast, internal factors have a significant impact on happiness levels.  These factors relate to satisfaction with the past, present, and future.  Gratitude and forgiveness create satisfaction with the past.  Optimism, faith, trust, confidence and hope create satisfaction with the future.  In the present, pleasures (sensory with strong emotional component) and gratifications (fully engaging activities that produce “flow”) can produce happiness.  Satisfaction with the past, the future and the present can all be increased through conscious, deliberate actions and changes in thinking.  Dr. Seligman gives examples in each area.  

High-flow teenagers have hobbies, engage in sports, and spend a lot of time on homework.  In almost every way, they measure as having greater psychological well-being than their low-flow peers.  They go on to college, have deeper social ties, and their later lives are more successful.  Low-flow teenagers hang out at malls and watch television a lot.  

As one who left the practice of law to find better outlets for my then dimly-understood strengths, I found the discussion of why so many lawyers are unhappy (pp. 177-184) very interesting. Especially striking was the observation that studies at the University of Virginia Law School (where I went!) showed that, contrary to almost every other undertaking, more pessimistic law students outperform their sunnier peers.  

In the chapter on love (Chapter 11), Dr. Seligman first notes that the ability to love and the ability to receive love are different.  He tells of a champion bridge player, Bobby Nail, who had severe disabilities and physical frailty whom he had the privilege of playing with for several days.  He describes how this man was able to radiantly accept help as he was carried into and out of the venues, and could make those helping feel wonderful about themselves.   

Dr. Seligman describes research in the field of marriage and intimate relationships that shows:  






Secure Adults


Parents as available

High self-esteem and few doubts, likable, good-hearted and trusting.


Seek intimacy with a good balance of dependence and independence.

Admit it when upset and seek constructive ends.

Avoidant Adults


Mothers as cold, rejecting, unavailable.

Suspicious, lack confidence.

Try to keep their distance from those they love; stress achievement over intimacy.

Do not disclose, neither show nor admit anger.

Anxious Adults


Fathers as unfair.

Feel they have little control, lack understanding and find others unpredictable and puzzling.

Cling, fear rejection, and discourage autonomy and independence

Flaunt distress and anger, then become too compliant and solicitous when threatened.


Raising Children (Chapter 12)  

Dr. Seligman admits that little has been done in the field of positive psychology in this arena.  He therefore shares the actions of he and his wife (also a psychologist), including:  

  • Sleeping with babies
  • Synchrony (mimicking) games
  • Toys that promote flow (interactive at wide range of levels)
  • “No” reserved strictly for dangers and limit setting, not inconveniences
  • Unconditional love, affection, ebullience and warmth, but
  • Save PRAISE for real success, and callibrate it to the scale of the success
  • Chores – match to strengths; good predictor of future positive mental health
  • Best Moments – recalling good and bad things from the day.  Non-depressed adults average 2 positive to 1 negative thought.  Children should be higher.
  • Pre-view tomorrow (at about age five)
  • Dreamland – focus on happy picture, say it repeatedly while falling asleep, intend to dream about it.
  • In rare circumstances, make a deal:  immediate and significant positive (highly desired toy) for promise to change unwanted behavior, with clear, meaningful, and significant consequences for that positive on first and second breach of promise (temporary, then permanent loss of toy).  No more than twice per childhood, and only as a last resort.

A children’s strengths survey is available at


Meaning and Purpose (Chapter 14)

Dr. Seligman ends this book, as he did Learned Optimism with thoughts of the philosophy, even theology, of authentic happiness.  He brings in the work of Bob Wright in NonZero to suggest that biology inexorably moves toward more complexity, and that human society is inexorably moving through history toward more positive-sum, win-win cultures.  He suggests we stand at “an inflection point after which the human future will be much happier than the human past.”  P. 255.  Dr. Seligman notes that his “theological” thoughts are not intended for and will be unsatisfactory for those with secure religious orientations.  But, for agnostics and atheists, he offers some tentative ground for meaning outside the personal.