Authentic Happiness

A book review

Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman is a book for the causal intelligent reader who wants to improve their lives. You don’t need any specialist knowledge in psychology but you do need to be able digest some information about the studies that Seligman uses to support his ideas. It’s also for someone motivated to put his ideas into practice and so hopefully improve their quality of life.

Martin Seligman is one of the founders and leading lights in the new positive psychology movement. This book will give you an excellent introduction to this field. Seligman gives convincing arguments based on research as well as practical tips on how to develop lasting happiness, find meaning in your life and to understand your own strengths and weaknesses.

This book falls somewhere between a self book and a text book introducing this topic. Though there is a danger of falling between two stools I think here this works. I found the support from studies increased my confidence in his advice and the practical exercises and tips stopped the book being theoretical.

Authentic Happiness will provoke you to think about your happiness in many ways. How satisfied are you with your life? How optimistic are you? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your character? There are tools included to get you evaluating yourself and practical exercises such as writing letters of gratitude and forgiveness. Seligman will get you thinking about your work life, your love life and your family life. You can also work through a questionnaire with your children to get to know their strengths and weaknesses too.

Seligman describes the research well so that it doesn’t appear too academic. Seligman writes well and often draws the reader in with some personal stories. Authentic happiness has some great advice that could well transform the way you look at your life.

Thoroughly recommended!


What is Positive Psychology?

Positive psychology is a new school of psychology

Positive psychology is a relatively recent movement in psychology that focuses on the positive side of wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment.

A basic premise is that is large proportion of our happiness is within our control. We can choose what we think, what memories we dwell on and how we speak and these influence our outlook and our happiness.

Positive psychology has its roots in the humanistic psychology of Maslow who discussed self actualisation and the positive thinking aspects of cognitive psychology.

The focus has been on research into such topics as hope and optimism, heroism and also character strengths and virtues with an aim to map out such characteristics and explore their origins.

Positive psychology moved out of purely academic circles and came into popular consciousness with the publication of Authentic Happiness, where one of its founders Martin Seligman outlined some simple keys to happiness.

Positive psychology has many practical applications

Finding meaning in your life

Positive psychology as outlined in Authentic Happiness isn’t as selfish as it might first sound. Seligman doesn’t just look at hedonistic pleasure but also sees the value of contributing to others and finding meaning to your life.

Because it acknowledges the importance of finding purpose and vision for your life this means that positive psychology has a healthy view of spirituality and of the importance of being a positive role model and contributing to the needs of others.

In his more recent book Flourish Seligman discusses how there is more to life than happiness. He points out the importance of finding meaning and purpose in life.

Developing character strengths

Positive psychology is about developing character strengths. Research into character strengths has led to the identification of 24 key character strengths under 6 main headings.

Wisdom and Knowledge that includes

  • curiosity – having an interest in the world
  • love of learning
  • open-mindedness – not making snap judgement but not just accepting everything either rather open-mindedness is about getting the relevant information before making a decision
  • ingenuity – being original and being practical – ‘street smart’
  • social intelligence – understanding people and situations – emotional intelligence
  • perspective – seeing the bigger picture

Courage including

  • valour – being brave i.e. acting when you are scared
  • perseverance – working diligently and working hard – keeping going
  • integrity – being genuine and honest – being authentic
  • zest – enthusiasm and passion


  • kindness – being generous to others
  • loving – caring for others and allowing yourself to be cared for and loved


  • citizenship – loyalty – doing your duty – working as a team
  • fairness – equity
  • leadership


  • self-control
  • prudence – discretion or caution
  • humility – modesty


  • appreciation of beauty – appreciating excellence not just in art or nature but in any area
  • gratitude
  • hope – being optimistic or future minded
  • spirituality –about having a sense a purpose – it doesn’t have to be about religion or faith
  • forgiveness – showing mercy
  • humour

Life coaching

Positive psychology also has had an important influence in the growth of life-coaching. Coaching applies such principles as encouraging people to achieve their goals and to find purpose and meaning to their lives. In this way coaching is different from counselling or therapy that often focuses on solving people’s problems such as their anxieties or addictions.

This has been applied to areas such as education, parenting and management. This focus on positivity has helped many people deal with their stress and it has also helped them develop their character, build more loving relationships, be better parents and find satisfaction in their work.

Becoming Authentically Positive

This is my story.

It is about how I have maintained a positive outlook even though I was often critical of positive thinking and self help ideas.

I trust that my story gives you a little insight into why I am now so impressed with positive psychology.

I have maintained a positive outlook

Over the years I’ve maintained an optimistic outlook on life. I believe this is good and helpful. Slowly I’ve overcome my shyness. I’ve built up my confidence and security in my relationships with others. I’ve learnt to keep my thoughts focused on the positive and not to dwell on negative experiences. I would also like to think that I’ve been a positive influence on others.

I have also resisted the temptation to spiral into self pity – usually! I am now more at ease with myself than I was in my earlier years. Yes, I build my self esteem but not by any techniques of positive thinking but by keeping my optimistic outlook with plenty of realism and gradually the humility that I aspired to. In my family life I have found that these help me to be the husband and father that I want to be.

I’ve been critical of positive thinking

Since studying psychology at university I’ve been aware of issues related to self esteem. Very early on I became very critical of some of the positive thinking approaches to building your self image. They just sounded selfish and self indulgent and quite unrealistic. I also believed in serve others and putting them first so I struggled with the idea of thinking of myself too positively, even though I often came over more arrogantly than I would admit.

My introverted personality type and tendencies to be melancholic have produced their own issues. I have learnt to cope with the stresses of life that always keep coming but I never really found the self help type approach very useful. I wasn’t comfortable making affirmations I knew not to be true. Often I find myself more concerned with helping others than dwelling on my own problems.

I’m impressed with positive psychology

Over the past couple of I have developed an interest in the relatively new school of thinking called positive psychology. I started with Martin Seligman’s accessible book Authentic Happiness before moving onto some others. What impresses me is the way that they take the idea of being positive and developing character strengths without hyping it up into unreality or selfishness as a lot of positive thinking exponents have done in the past. In fact he sees attitudes such as humility and cautiousness as positive strengths to develop.

As someone who, like many of us, is still working on my diet and sometimes on keeping my temper I have found positive psychology’s ideas about developing self control helpful. In positive psychology the idea of positive thinking often equates to hope and optimism. I am learning to be aware of when optimism can bring about a positive outcome by building a healthy confidence. This is the real value of encouragement.