Beyond Authentic Happiness - 10 reasons to doubt Seligman by Tim LeBon

Are you researching positive psychology or looking for a review of Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness? Are you looking for a critique of Authentic Happiness? Have you read Authentic Happiness and are wondering if you are alone in having some unanswered questions for Seligman? If so, read on.

As a practising philosopher and life coach with a long-standing interest in happiness, I read Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness enthusiastically. I enjoyed reading the book- Seligman summarises much of the positive psychology literature eloquently, and he has  interesting original ideas (for instance about signature strengths). But if this book is the bible for a whole movement, and is going to spawn disciples, research grants, and coaching programmes then I think that it is worth asking some serious questions about some of Seligman's major claims. Here I give my 10 reasons to doubt Seligman, and suggest that we need to go beyond Authentic Happiness.

  1. The ambiguity of “positive” in positive psychology

    Positive psychology’ is ambiguous. It is ‘positive’ in both its aims (the good life rather than just overcoming difficulties) and methods (positive thinking etc). Yet the two don’t necessarily go together. You might need to look at, and even embrace, life’s difficulties to achieve the good life, as Nietzsche proposed. A positive mental attitude can be useful in overcoming stress but  if you want to lead the good life, isn’t there a  also good case for a :-

    1. realistic rather a positive attitude (as in cognitive therapy)

    2. Sometimes , looking the past to discover what existential psychotherapists called "sedimented" outlooks and cognitive therapists "rules for living" and "core beliefs".  As Stephen Covey puts it , ‘you cant put new wine in old bottles’.

You might go further and wonder whether psychology should just be concerned with the dizzy heights of the best life possible. Seligman himself finds himself wondering if positive psychology is just for people at the top end of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Can Seligman’s book help you if you haven’t attempted to overcome your weaknesses, and worked through past difficulties?

  1. Insufficient evidence for Seligman's proposed interventions

    Authentic Happiness is written by a noted psychologist and is informed by much psychological research. But do the research findings presented actually always provide strong evidence for the claims being made? For example, the two anecdotes that start the book succeed in grabbing the reader’s attention, but how relevant are they? Sister Cecilia was cheerful in her youth and alive at 98, whilst sister Margueritte wasn’t so cheerful and died at 59. What does this give us, except perhaps an extra reason to be cheerful (as if we needed it)? College students who smile a genuine, radiant (‘Ducchenne’) smile are found to be happier later in life. But maybe radiant graduates have a genetic steersman making them happier.  My point is that there is a need not just to show links between happiness and health or other benefits, but to show that specific interventions (including those made in later life) lead to lasting benefits.  

  2. Problems with self-tests

    Are the self-tests (e.g. for signature strengths) really valid? Seligman himself concedes that that most people think they are better than average drivers. If you are mistaken in your belief that (e.g.) you have good judgement and are open-minded, then the book could lead you to use more of what is really a signature weakness rather than  a strength..

  3. Conservative bias of some recommendations

    Seligman says ‘the key is not finding the right job, it is finding a job you can make right through recrafting’ (p. 170). This seems needlessly conservative. Maybe you are in the wrong job. Why not look for a job that is valued by others, valued by yourself and looks for the appropriate use of your signature strengths? Imagine your signature strength is a sense of fun, and you have followed the family trade of being an undertaker.  Should you start using your sense of fun in your work? Or consider  a change of careers? 

  4. Are signature strengths so important?

    If the strengths are learnable and improvable, why concentrate on your signature strengths?’ Shouldn’t you focus on strengths appropriate to your situation in life (e.g. as a parent) or the ones that help others most. Perhaps one should aim to be ‘good enough’ in each of the strengths and virtues?

  5. Is it relativistic?

    Seligman’s team’s cross-cultural study assumes that there is wisdom to be found in most cultures, which runs the risk of  endorsing  a debatable form of relativism. What if the demands of twenty-first century life require virtues not found in ancient cultures? What if the most important virtues aren’t ubiquitous?

  6. Has Seligman left out some important strengths?

    The links between the virtues and strengths is a key part of Seligman’s argument. It would be good to ‘see his working’. On the face of it, some strengths seem to be put under the wrong virtue (why isn’t honesty under justice, and why is leadership classified under justice?). More importantly quite a few strengths , are missing, including :-

    1. Proactivity, initiative, vision, thinking win/win, creative thinking, beginning with the end in find

    2. Self-awareness, Serenity

    3. Logical thinking

    4. Overcoming challenges and difficulties

  1. Does using signature strengths really lead to happiness and the good life?

    Seligman’s grandest claim is that using signature strengths leads to happiness and the good life. He has two reasons for saying this. First, ‘the argument from flow’ , 1 argues that if you use the signature strengths you will experience flow that is an important part of the good life. If the link between exercising signature strengths and flow is right, then this argument succeeds in linking signature strengths with an important element of happiness. But is flow all there is to happiness? And is happiness all there is to the good life? One thing that seems to be left out is helping others, and a purpose or meaning to your life (unless that happens to be your signature strength!).2 The second argument, ‘the argument from virtues’ is that the good life means living according to the virtues, and so leading a life that uses your signature strengths will lead to the good life.3 But surely using a few strengths is only part of the good life, not all of it. One could imagine some very bad lives which nevertheless incorporated (for example) self-control, ingenuity and social intelligence.4

    9.Are the “strengths” always strengths?

Are forgiveness, optimism and gratitude always good traits? Exercising may make  you feel good right now, but might there not be a cost to each? Forgiveness may, in the long run, encourage more transgressions (if you know your partner will forgive you having an affair, aren’t you going to be more likely to have one?). Optimism can stop you taking wise precautions. Seligman admits this to be the case with lawyers, but shouldn’t we all have a bit of realism rather than optimism in any risky situation? Even gratitude may have a cost in terms of your self-esteem.

  1. Why “authentic”?

    Why is the book called authentic happiness? Some might say that its recipe recommends the very opposite of authenticity. “Rescript your past, reframe your partner’s faults positively and deliberately see your faults as temporary, specific or as not your faults at all? “ Can such self-manipulation (such might say self-deception) really be described authentic?

In my view, these are serious questions for Seligman’s overall project. It is perhaps its very ambition and somewhat grandiose claims that leave Authentic Happiness so open to these objections. I am no opponent of Seligman or positive psychology – but to advance as a scientific and philosophically serious discipline, these questions need to be answered.

Fancy a good read: Buy Wise Therapy  by Tim LeBon


                                                                                 ©Tim LeBon 2006-7


         More free resources on practical philosophy &  psychology at Tim LeBon’s site

1The name for the argument is mine, not Seligman’s. It is not stated explicitly, but would run something like this:

The argument from flow

  1. Flow, absorption and engagement (‘the gratifications’) arise when you exercise your signature strengths.

  2. Flow is an important element of the good life – gratifications are an important element of happiness in the present, and it builds up psychological capital

  3. Therefore exercise your signature strengths to enjoy flow and therefore happiness in the present and psychological investment for the future.

2In the philosopher’s James Griffin’s terminology, Seligman’s theory is very ‘state of mind’ orientated rather than ‘state of the world’. If you experience flow, you have a great sense of satisfaction, and a feeling that everything is going sell. However this may not match what is actually happening in the world – if your feeling is based on a misconception of what is happening (e.g. your flow comes from time spent with your partner who unbeknown to you is having an affair)., or an unacceptable notion of what is of value (e.g. you get flow from torturing animals).

3) Again, the name for the argument is mine, and it is not stated explicitly in the text.

The argument from virtue

  1. To lead the good life you need to have a good character (this is given as a ‘core assumption’ of positive psychology on page 125).

  2. Despite apparent differences in ideas about what constitutes good character, research suggests 6 virtues are ubiquitous (if not universal). (p. 133).

  3. It’s helpful to identify strengths that are both more tangible and more measurable than the virtues, and are in fact parts of the virtue (p. 133). Seligman's group identified 24 signature strengths of character that help achieve the six virtues.

  4. Leading a life that uses the strengths you are best at will bring about virtue and the good life

4Which is why many ancient philosopher (e.g. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) argued that you needed all the virtues to be virtuous. The really dangerous criminal is not the completely non-virtuous person. Personally, I’d prefer terrorists not to be self-controlled, brave or socially intelligent.