Can you build... happiness?

There was huge excitement in Dublin when the father of positive psychology came
to town to tell us what truly will make us contented, writes Elizabeth O’Neill

How many people think of happiness this way, an afterthought once the day’s routine is over and you contemplate doing it all again tomorrow? Or do you spend money pursuing pleasure or time practising mindfulness or yoga? Most people crave happiness and others pursue it relentlessly as something that exists outside of themselves. Everyone has different triggers to elicit a sense of well being. So how do you define and measure such a subjective state?

Around 16 years ago Professor Martin Seligman developed positive psychology which set out to do just that, measure well being. For the previous 30 years of his career, he was the one who thought it was ‘the froth on the cappuccino’.


He says the reason he thought this way was due to a study from the 1970s by a colleague who measured the life satisfaction of 14 lottery winners and found that your happiness levels rise for three months before returning to the baseline of happiness. He adds, ‘I, like many psychologists, thought wellbeing was unmovable, like your waist line. You could diet but five years later you’re going to weigh more than you did anyway’.

I’m at a lecture in Trinity College that’s full to capacity and there’s definitely an air of excitement from the assembled crowd. My lecture neighbour, Stephen, a child psychologist, tells me he’s travelled all the way from Tralee to hear Prof Seligman deliver his talk, ‘Positive Psychology: Past, Present, Future’. Stephen explains the significance of Seligman’s developments. It’s a simple but dramatic change in perception from looking at what’s wrong to fostering what’s right.

As Prof Seligman explains, up until the 21st century, psychology was concerned with curing ills, because, for Freud, happiness was the absence of pain and suffering. As befits his thesis, Seligman substitutes happiness for the more robust term of ‘wellbeing’, because he believes mental health is more than the absence of illness. He believes you can create a muscular fitness for your mental health. You can build well being.

Youth, beauty and (once basic needs are met) increased wealth are not the recipe for happiness. Regardless of the constant bombardment of images of the rich, famous and beautiful, deep down we know these things are fleeting, and, worse, meaningless. What has been shown is that a lasting happiness comes from having a large repertoire of friends.

A 2002 study from Seligman and his colleague, Dr Edward Diener, found the characteristic shared by those with the highest happiness levels was ties to friends and family.

For Prof Seligman, this is a small part of the overall picture. His definition of wellbeing is spread across five fundamental elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. He calls this PERMA. Working on these areas over time can increase happiness. This comes with a caveat, however. Prof Seligman points out our baseline or default happiness setting is 60% genetic and changeable by up to only 20%. But that’s still change, right? He also says the elements are weighted according to your own values.

“People often ask me, ‘is there any one number to tell me how I’m doing in life?’ Unlike GNP in economics, there is no satisfactory number. We all view PERMA differently.”

For example extraverts will find it easy to have more positive emotion due to sociability, while introverts will find it easier to engage, which really means to focus and get in a ‘flow’ where time stands still, increasing a sense of well being.

In his 2004 TED talk, Prof Seligman talks of three kinds of happy life it’s possible to have, different because they are built on different interventions. The first is the pleasant life, which is focused on pleasure and positive emotion. However, as earlier stated, pleasure is fleeting.

The second is the good life, where the focus is on flow, being truly engaged and it involves intense concentration. He believes this is achievable if we use our highest strengths in all situations, but especially those we find most difficult. You may wonder what your highest strengths are? Well, you can test yourself at Seligman’s website,

During his lecture, he tells us of the most challenging part of his colleague’s day. It was his hour-long walk home through a rough part of town. The colleague’s highest strength was humour and playfulness, so he devised a game. He would rollerblade home and make it his personal Olympics and try to best himself daily. After six months this became his favourite part of the day.

Prof Seligman says: “In general, we found that when people know their highest strengths and use them over six months or a year their life satisfaction increases.”

Millennia ago it was Aristotle who coined the saying that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. He said, “for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy”. He realised happiness is not a given, it must be worked on, but for him, the highest goal was the meaningful life.

For Prof Seligman, this is the most venerable of his three versions of a happy life.

He says: “it consists of knowing what your highest strengths are, and using them to belong to — and in the service of something — larger than you are.”

Meaning is purpose beyond and outside of yourself, or belonging to something bigger. When your belief in your work rises, productivity also increases.

Ultimately, what positive psychology espouses is that you can lead a combination of all three happy lives if you are willing to work on them. In the future, Prof Seligman would like wellbeing to be thought in the classroom.

In the 1970s the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan adopted a new measure of prosperity — Gross National Happiness. Prof Seligman has been working with educators in Bhutan to teach wellbeing. Eight thousand children have been involved in the project which so far shows that as wellbeing goes up (yes it can be taught), so does academic test scores.

For Seligman, notions of wellbeing are pervasive, so much so, he sees it as a political issue. He says the future of good government is building not just infrastructure but the well being of citizens.

In the future could GNH replace GNP as a measure of a country’s prosperity? When you consider the Human Development Index calculates global development rates using life expectancy, education and income, any notion of wellbeing as a measure of prosperity is a long way off. Also, given most of the world lives on less than $10 a day, not always meeting basic needs, measures of global well being do seem utopian.

For now.


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