The Psychologists Happiness

Martin Seligman was the president of the American Psychology Association. He’s written a few best sellers, one of which sits next to me as I write this entry. “Authentic Happiness” is the title. The book blew my mind a few times when it addressed a few psychological misconceptions which alone are worth the price of the book. It surprised me to learn that at least according to statistics and surveys, most people are happier than most people think, even people in dire and difficult circumstances. Also, people usually return to their general level of happiness. Tragedies to do strike, but even after great difficulties, people usually return to their happiness setting or pattern of happiness.

The biggest “aha” for me was finding out that the modern and largely American concept of the value of venting emotions is based on a flawed model. The idea is that people hold emotions like liquids in a plastic bag. If the emotion doesn’t get bled out one place, it will come out another. But psychological studies invalidate this. The expressing of emotions actually tends to increase them. So if you express a lot of anger, you just get angrier. If you express a lot of happiness, you get happier. Suppressing anger can be healthy. This is a gross simplification of the results of the study, I recommend looking up the book for a greater understanding of the science behind it. I’m sure there are times when it is healthy to communicate anger, but the clear message I got from the book and which is confirmed by personal experience – it is healthy to hold back angry feelings because they tend to fade. It reminds me of the bible passage, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” Of course, humans tend to express and feel more emotions than just anger, so it might also be worthwhile looking at something similar to this list of emotions – dailyrx has published or similar webpages, as varying anger levels may not be the only thing that could be healthy or unhealthy for a particular individual.

Yet with all these benefits and messages, what most inspired me to blog about the book was the scientific implication of the God concept. Seligman relates his own journey through the field very nicely in the first chapter, about how Psychology had been focussed on problems, broken people, on mental illness. Seligman found his mission in life when he faced the facinating topic of learned helplessness and discovered that it challenged the psychological models in use. His breakthrough was realizing that they didn’t have a model of happiness and psychological health.

At the core of psychological health he believes are several virtues that are common to all the main world religions:

  • Wisdom and knowledge
  • Courage
  • Love and humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Spirituality and transcendence

Seligman doesn’t philosophize much about God in his book, it’s not a theological treatise. But he does write a little in his final chapter. His ideas aren’t developed, it’s an interesting chapter because of the personal way he relates his thoughts through story, and it’s interesting because it raises questions about God, meaning, and purpose. Having spent time with scientists and engineers most of my life since college, I well know that the God concept itself is very suspect in that arena. Seligman seems intrigued by the idea that it could be valuable again in science.

We can go to the moon, we can split atoms, all based on a greater grasp of the material laws. But how meaningful really is any of that, if life has no meaning to us individually and as a culture. Isn’t it interesting that the core values that make life meaningful are virtues common to the world religions, the very heart of where mankind has encountered a Creator, the Buddha, Enlightenment, or whatever one calls the core origins of our universe?

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2 Comments

  1. Hi – I really liked that post. There was a Japanese psychologist a few years back who said something similar. All I remember was his metaphor that emotions are like playing a record – by revisting bad feelings, we tend to wear grooves that make it all too easy for us to slip back into them. He was saying, if you feel sad, don’t wallow in it in you jammies eating ice cream – that doesn’t make you feel better!

  2. Thanks Susan. It’s been a year since you wrote the comment, but the book still is sinking in. A similar theme is present in the recent book I found on the counter of Kinkos/Fedex – “Happy for No Reason”.

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