The quotes in this post are all by Martin Seligman, from the lecture “Ideas at the House: Martin Seligman – Well-Being and Happiness,” which can be viewed at the bottom of this post.
1) Traditional Psychotherapy Doesn’t Deal with Achieving Happiness, but with Reducing Suffering
Freud and Schopenhauer told us the best we could ever do in life was not to be miserable; that the object of human progress, the object of psychotherapy was to reduce suffering to zero. I’m going to argue today that that’s empirically false, it’s morally insidious, and it’s politically a dead end; that there’s much more to life than zero.
2) 30 Years Ago There Was No Way to Measure Happiness. Today There Is
30 years ago, the word “happiness” was a tremendously vague word. It meant very many different things to different people, and it could not be measured. But now, we have good measures of the elements of well-being.
3) There Is Higher Chance of Making Less Happy People Happier, then Already Happy People Even Happier
Technically, we call these states “positive affectivity” and they are bell shaped. That means, right now, 50% of the people in the world are not cheerful and merry. They are not smiling. It is highly genetic. It is about 50% heritable and most importantly, the best we can to with smiling, being merry, being cheerful, is to raise it by about 5-15%.
In fact, I spent most of my life working on misery and people would ask me: why didn’t I work on happiness? The reason I didn’t, there was a very influential study in the mid-1970s by Phil Brickman in which he found 14 people who had won the lottery and he was able to track their happiness.
It turned out you get very happy when you win the lottery and it lasts for about three months. And then three months later you’re back to where you were, back to your curmudgeonly self. It turns out you can’t change a curmudgeon into a giggler, but you can get those of us who are in the lower 50% of positive affectivity to live at the upper part of our envelope.
4) In Corporations: 2.9 Positive Words to Every 1 Negative Word = More Success
Barbara Fredrickson and Marcel Losada go into corporations, 60 American corporations, and they write, they record every word that’s said. And they classify the words into positive and negative words and then they relate this to how the corporation is doing economically. So, it turns out, there is a ratio of positive to negative words said that correlates with economic status of corporations. So:
- If your ratio is 2.9:1 or greater positive words to negative words, then it turns out that your corporation is making a lot of money; it’s flourishing.
- If it’s between 2.9: 1 and 1:1, it’s going along.
- If it’s 1:1, or lower, the corporation’s going bankrupt.
5) In Marriage: 5 Positive Words or Lower to Every 1 Negative Word = Likely Chance of Divorce
John and Julie Gottman, two of the leading marital therapists in the world, locked couples in an apartment for a weekend. They listened to every word that was said and computed the ratio of positive words to negative words, and predicted divorce.
- If your ratio is below 5:1, it predicts divorce: five positive things to every negative thing.
6) Five Strengths that Predict Increases in Well-Being
One month we said: “Has something awful happened to you?” on the website AuthenticHappiness.org. Within a couple of weeks, 1700 people had answered saying:
One or more of the worst 15 things that can happen to a human being had happened to them. We measured their well-being and their strengths.
Our findings were very surprising:
- First, we found that people who had one awful event, were stronger and had better well-being than people to whom none of these things had happened. These are events like rape, held captive, tortured, potentially lethal disease, and the like; death of a child; death of a spouse.
- Then we found people who had two of these events were stronger than people who had one, and people who had three.
Now, remember these people survived. They’re on our website. They’ve come to it with- stronger than people who had two. We asked the question then, this is an example of what Nietzsche told us: “If it doesn’t kill us, it makes us stronger.” It seems to be true.
Then, we asked a question: “What strengths predicted the people who would grow?”
And here are the five strengths:
…were the predictors of who would show the most increases in well-being.
7) Altruism and Philanthropy Bring Longer Lasting Pleasure
We have an exercise that we have young people do. It’s the distinction between pleasure and philanthropy.
I assign my students to do something fun next week, and to do something philanthropic, altruistic. And then, to write up what happens. And what happens, I’ll just tell you emblematically, one of my students, ah, when you do something fun like shopping, going to the movies, hanging out with your friends, it has a square wave offset. That is, when it’s done, it’s done.
When you do something altruistic, something else happens.
For one of my students, her 9-year-old nephew called her on the phone during this assignment. It was her mid-term week, and she needed to tutor him. She’d spent two hours tutoring him in fractions and she said:
“After that, the whole day went better. I was mellow. I could listen to people. People liked me more.”
Then, one of my business students said:
“I’m in the business school because I want to make a lot of money. And, I want to make a lot of money. It’s reasonable. Money brings happiness, it brings security, it brings contentment, it brings control, but I was astonished to find out that I was happier helping another person than I was shopping.”
This, it turns out, to be a human regularity; important to know that. It’s the way we’re built.