Authentic Happiness and Well Being Theory

Here is an interesting article which I have edited for space and relevance to my reading audience.  The article written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave for Positive Psychology News Daily will give you a greater understanding of Martin Seligman’s Well Being Theory.  If you click on the links you can find out how his theory is being applied to the area of national well-being which is, in my opinion, the ultimate greatest use and benefit of the application of positive psychology.

The topic of measuring national well-being was the subject of a recent BBC Radio 4 programme: The pursuit of happiness. One of the first questions asked was “what is happiness and can it measure national well-being?’”[Some] of you will have read Martin Seligman’s  Authentic Happiness (2002) which brought positive psychology out of the shadows and into the mainstream.

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes a compellingly simple model of happiness based on three pathways:

  • Positive emotion – leading to a pleasant life
  • Flow – leading to an engaged life                     
  • Purpose – leading to a meaningful life

In short, the Authentic Happiness model suggested that you can achieve happiness in your life by pursuing one or more of these three pathways. This means that even if, for example, you don’t experience much positive emotion in your life, you can still be happy by doing activities which engage or absorb you fully, or by finding meaning in life by using your strengths in service of something larger. This conclusion was probably quite a relief to Seligman, who freely acknowledges in the book that until relatively recently he himself had been a bit of a grouch.

Authentic Happiness – the Sequel

In the past decade or so since positive psychology was launched, hundreds of scientific experiments have been carried out which are moving the field forward. So it’s exciting to hear that the original Authentic Happiness model has also been developed to embrace two further pathways, relationships and accomplishment. This new well-being theory (aka PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) is described in Seligman’s forthcoming book, Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them.

JoyJoy 

Incorporating a relationships/ connections component makes sense on the basis that social support has been recognized as one of the most influential determinants of well-being. University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson put it succinctly: ‘other people matter.’ Students of positive psychology will already be familiar with Ed Diener and Martin Seligman’s 2002 paper entitled Very Happy People, which is often used to highlight the finding that the difference between very happy people (which means the upper 10% of consistently very happy people) and those who are average or unhappy (which means the rest of us) is their relationships and social connections.  When we are talking about national well-being, the frequency and quality of our interactions with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, as well as our experience of trusting others and feeling like we belong, are all central to our level of well-being. As the 17th Century English poet John Donne said, ‘no man is an Island.’

Including accomplishment in well-being theory seems not so straightforward, however.  Firstly there are numerous definitions of accomplishment. Do we mean accomplishment as in ‘achieving a personal goal’? Do we mean ‘competence,’ one of the three basic psychological needs in Self-Determination Theory? Or the sense of accomplishment we get from doing a good job and which makes the day seem worthwhile? Or perhaps we mean something else. Secondly, how should accomplishment be assessed? Will we use objective or subjective measures? Thirdly, if accomplishment is a suitable pathway to well-being, why not physical exercise, or eating a balanced diet?  Since the science of positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive, surely there are other equally valid pathways to well-being which deserve a place in the theory of well-being.

It’s opportune that just as the UK government sets out to measure the nation’s well-being, Marie Forgeard and her colleagues Eranda Jayawickreme, Margaret Kern, and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania publish a paper called Doing the right thing: Measuring well-being for public-policy. It gives an overview of the main theoretical perspectives on happiness and well-being and highlights Well-being Theory in particular, explaining the PERMA components as follows:

“These five elements are the best approximation of what humans pursue for their own sake …. Although individuals may sometimes pursue these elements for other ends (e.g., they may for instance think that accomplishment will bring positive emotion), many choose to do so because these elements are intrinsically motivating by themselves” (p. 97) (italics in original)

The PERMA model has the advantage of being concise, covers both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects of well-being and all five facets can be measured both objectively and subjectively. Whether this is adequate for assessing national well-being is another matter: the PERMA measures are currently being developed.

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