When my children were young, I did a fair amount of parenting with my eyeballs, reading books of all descriptions. One of the books that really impacted my approach was The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman.
So, while at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, I made sure to attend his session. And, Seligman is two-for-two in my book—the session was truly helpful. He shared the session with Matthieu Ricard, who among other roles, is the Dali Lama’s French interpreter.
In this newsletter are my notes on their recommendations for improving your day-to-day authentic happiness by employing simple daily practices. I hope they are as meaningful for you as they have been for me!
A New Theory of Well-Being
Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, is the Zellerback Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and serves as director of the university’s Positive Psychology Center.
This bestselling author has devoted his career to examining the opposite of what most psychologists study: not what can go wrong, but rather, what can go right—positive emotions, character traits, and institutions. He believes that many people feel they are powerless to change situations that are, in fact, changeable.
Freud and Schopenhauer posited that our highest aspiration is not to suffer, to have as little misery as possible. Psychology, then, was dedicated to minimizing suffering. Seligman believes that stance is morally, politically, and psychologically flawed. And he has developed the empirical evidence to support his claim that if we emphasize and develop the positive, we can have fuller, richer, lives.
With a foundation of belief in the value of the positive, Seligman notes that it is not enough just to talk about positive emotion; authentic happiness has several dimensions, which he terms PERMA—
- Positive emotion,
- good Relationships,
- Meaning and purpose, and
- Achievement or accomplishment.
With intentional effort, we can increase our PERMA—and this isn’t just touchy-feely, feel-good mush. The practices are evidence-based and have survived random assignment placebo-controlled testing.
In the preface to his latest book, Flourish, Seligman says “I am a research scientist and a conservative one at that. The appeal of what I write comes from the fact that it is grounded in careful science: statistical representative samples. In contrast to pop psychology and the bulk of self-improvement, my writings are believable because of the underlying science.”
And that’s why his suggested practices are credible to me, and, I hope, to you as well.
Seligman has more than 12 practices that have passed his rigid level of scrutiny, and he shared four of them with us:
1. The What Went Well Exercise (improves Positive Emotion): Our natural focus is on the negative events in life; and there is certainly benefit in learning from the bad experiences. But focusing on the negative increases anxiety. This exercise strengthens your ability to discern and hold tight to what is going well. For a week, before sleep, write down 3 things that went well and why. Actually writing or typing it is important. Next to each put a place to answer: “Why did this happen?” Do it for a week even if it feels awkward. Seligman noted that in psychotherapy, we are always doing skill building that is “like fighting against the mountain.” Sooner or later, you will wear down and give up. The PERMA practices, on the other hand, are self-maintaining– even addictive—try them, and you will sleep better and feel better!
2. The Signature Strengths Exercise (improves Engagement): Doing this practice requires knowing your signature strengths. You can complete the assessment that will give you that information at this link. You want the Via Survey of Character Strengths. When I took the test today, it took about 30 minutes.
Now think of something you do every day that you don’t particularly like to do, then do that thing you don’t like to do, using a signature strength. Here’s an example—one of Seligman’s graduate students had a job bagging groceries which she did not like. One of her signature strengths was social intelligence. She did this exercise when she bagged–connecting with each customer with the goal of making an interaction with her their best moment of the day!
3. The Gratitude Visit (improves good Relationships) Close your eyes and think of someone who years ago did or said something that improved your life. (This needs to be someone who is still alive.) Now, write a 300-word testimonial–what she did, how it affected you at the time, and how it affects you today. Then call and make the visit, but don’t say why. When you visit, read them the letter. Seligman noted that in their tests, people who did gratitude visits were less depressed and had better well-being one month later. Seligman noted that gratitude is very closely correlated with happiness.
4. Active Constructive Responding (improves Relationships) Seligman noted that marriage counseling is the worst kind of therapy because it is just teaching people to fight better! Dr. Shelly Gable of UC Santa Barbara looked instead at how married couples celebrated together, and learned that how they celebrate is more predictive of good relationships than how they fight. So, how we help others celebrate can be a powerful means for improving relationships.
When someone tells us of a good thing that has happened to them, we can respond in an active or passive, and a constructive or destructive fashion. When your spouse comes home and tells you he or she was promoted, an active/ destructive response is “Do you know what tax bracket that will put us in? Passive/ destructive is “What’s for dinner?”
An active-constructive response has the greatest positive impact, and it has a constructive script.—“What great news! Let’s relive that moment– where were you? What did he say? How did you react? We should go celebrate!”
So the practice is, for a week, listen carefully each time someone shares good news. Go out of your way to respond in an active constructive way. The key is to help the person relive the positive event or emotion. Seligman noted that this is another self-maintaining practice, but it is not one that comes naturally to most of us. Intentional practice will help you become better at this practice with double benefit — “people like you better, they spend more time with you, and they share more of the intimate details of their lives. You feel better about yourself, and all this strengthens the skill of active, constructive responding.”
To learn more about Seligman’s latest research, check out his website. It is full of free assessments, articles, and information.
Money Can’t Buy Happiness…Unless It is Spent on Another
Matthieu Ricard’s comments come from his experiences of forty years as a Buddhist monk. But Ricard is not one-dimensional: he is also an artist, a photographer, and an author. Most of the proceeds of his work go to humanitarian causes.
Ricard notes that, when we wake up, we don’t think, “I would like to suffer all day.” We generally think that something better is coming down the road. For him, despair is not seeing any improvement coming in the future. The desire of all conscious beings is to get rid of sorrow and achieve some happiness.
Yet Ricard believes that there are things that look like well-being, but need to be distinguished: well-being as a way of being, as distinct from a pleasurable experience. Happiness that comes from outside can provide pleasure, but true well-being comes from inside. So we are not talking about the thrill of buying a new car or a new designer handbag, but rather altruistic love, inner peace, and inner strength that creates a deep reservoir of well-being. This kind of happiness suffuses all states–You can experience sadness and still have genuine well-being as a way of being.
Some people try to build a bubble of self-centeredness, thinking “I will focus on my own happiness.” Selfish happiness doesn’t work because failure and successes get magnified — You feel miserable and are miserable with others. This approach is dysfunctional because it is at odds with reality—genuine happiness comes through and with others.
The meditative state that brings the most positive result is compassion. It functions because it is in harmony with reality. It recognizes the fundamental motivation of all to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Genuine happiness is not a reward for good behavior; it is a result of living a compassionate life. We have a biological urge to care, and we can extend that through training.
We know that high levels of skill require persistence and practice. We can’t get kindness and compassion without that kind of practice.
Ricard suggested the following exercise to build compassion and therefore authentic well-being: Sometimes we have magic moments – focus in on what made them special. Tune into the feelings you experienced at that moment — harmony, no inner conflicts…. Then, cultivate those feelings. As a starting point for practice, recall a genuine moment of unconditional love, like you have for a child. Matthieu said, “That feeling has a different fragrance. Identify those qualities, then don’t let it go. Hang on to it–bring it to mind, keep it there. If it goes, bring it back, in a clear, stable, and vivid way. Maintain it. If you do regularly it will become part of yourself.
Ricard noted that short reflective sessions performed frequently were much more effective than an occasional long effort. Do this practice every day– don’t expect swift results, but genuine gradual change.
So, there you are–some quick notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival, that I hope will prove genuinely helpful to you. If you are interested in reading more, below are lists of Seligman’s and Ricard’s books:
Martin Seligman’s major books:
Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman
Matthieu Ricard’s major books:
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard and Daniel Goleman
The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life by Jean-Francois Revel, Matthieu Ricard, John Canti and Jack Miles
The Great Medicine That Conquers Clinging to the Notion of Reality: Steps in Meditation on the Enlightened Mind by Shechen Rabjam and Matthieu Ricard