Pursuing happiness: You’re doing it wrong

Martin Seligman - FlourishIn Flourish, Martin Seligman announced the big goal of positive psychology, the science of happiness: to have 51% of people “flourishing” by 2051.

But what does it mean to flourish?

In the book, Seligman explains just that – and debunks the be-all-end-all concept of happiness that he and so many of us have been subscribing to. Happiness is not the goal we’re all seeking.

How come people have children, even though studies show that having children doesn’t bring more happiness? How come we love the feeling of flow, even though we lose track of time and don’t feel much of anything? Are all introverts less happy because our moods are generally lower? Why do so many people achieve great success and find they aren’t happy?

Seligman’s framework explains these and many other questions. Instead of pursuing the single goal of happiness, he says, we pursue these five things:

  • Positive emotion: Momentary feelings of pleasure, glee, satisfaction, etc.
  • Engagement: Flow, or being fully immersed in what we’re doing.
  • Accomplishment: Mastery and success.
  • Relationships
  • Meaning: Belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.

He selected these five criteria because we choose them for their own sake, and they all contribute to well-being. In this new framework, our 24 character strengths can play a role in all these areas.

Seligman explains that this list isn’t meant to be a guide for achieving happiness; it’s simply an observation of the goals people do pursue. But I can’t help but see it that way.

If you had to rank these five areas of your life in order of satisfaction, what order would you put them in? Mine would be achievement, relationships, engagement, positive emotion, and meaning. What areas are you neglecting or putting off?

Some people say that trying to be happy is making us miserable. If that’s true, maybe it’s because “happy” is too generic. It’s hard to wake up and say, “I’m going to be happier today,” but it’s easier to wake up and say, “I’m going to have more positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, or accomplishment today.” As Yogi Berra said, if you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.


Positive psychology lists 24 character strengths. What are yours? 

Martin Seligman - Authentic HappinessWhat are your weaknesses? What are your strengths? Which question is easier to answer?

For me at least, weaknesses are easy to identify – in-your-face failings that confront us every day. I am too anxious, perfectionistic, and rigid. I can be stubborn, cranky, and detached. 

The whole field of positive psychology was created on the idea that this is a larger pattern: as a society, we knew how to make people less unhappy but not happier. As part of the solution, psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson devised a complete categorization of the 24 character strengths. Together, they fall into six categories – six virtues – that are nearly universal across cultures: wisdom, courage, humanity and love, justice, temperance, and transcendence. 

Assessing your strengths isn’t just a fun personality test – although it is absolutely a fun personality test. The whole focus on strengths comes from their connection to happiness: for Seligman, exercising your strengths makes you feel happy and authentic, closer to the “ideal you” you always imagined. A bar of 80% dark chocolate may be pleasurable, but strengths are the stuff of long-lasting gratification. 

If you’re curious, you can take a test of your strengths here. But the machine doesn’t know you best: according to Seligman, your top strengths also have to feel authentic and powerful to you. You have to delight in exercising them, and feel energized afterward. Being prudent was one of my strengths, but exercising caution and carefulness usually makes me feel nervous. 

My top strengths that felt most authentic were perseverance, honesty, and judgment. If I have a job to do, I’m going to do it well and on time – no question. I strive for honesty in my relationships and delight in one-on-one, heart-to-heart conversations about ideas and feelings. And I love to take in new information, weigh it and synthesize it, and come up with my own opinions. 

What are your character strengths?


Curiosity: You are open to new experiences and thrive in situations of uncertainty. You aren’t easily bored. 

Love of learning: You are the type of person who loves school, reading, and museums. You’re probably an expert in something, just because you love it. 

Judgment: You think critically and are open-minded to different perspectives. You can weigh facts objectively, without your feelings getting in the way. 

Ingenuity: You are creative and street smart. If you want something, you’ll find unique and original ways to get it. 

Perspective: You are wise, and people come to you for advice. 


Valor: Despite fear, you can face difficult physical and emotional challenges. 

Perseverance: You’re industrious, finishing what you start. You meet or exceed expectations, but don’t give yourself unattainable goals. 

Integrity: You are honest and transparent in word and in deed. 

Zest: You feel passion, inspiration, and energy when embarking on a new day or new activity. 

Humanity and Love 

Kindness: You enjoy making others happy, even if you don’t know them well. 

Loving and being loved: You have strong relationships, where you can accept and give love.

Social intelligence: You are aware of the feelings and motivations of others and of yourself, and you can use that information to handle social situations well.


Citizenship: You work well in a group and respect your team members and leaders. 

Fairness: You have a strong sense of morality and believe in treating people the same, without regard for your feelings or prejudices.

Leadership: You successfully organize activities and treat group members equally. 


Self-control: You can regulate not only your actions but also your emotions. 

Prudence: You think long-term, weigh your options, and exercise caution. 

Humility: You’re modest and don’t seek attention. You don’t see your accomplishments as special. 

Forgiveness: You forgive and give people second chances. You aren’t vengeful and don’t hold a grudge.


Appreciation of beauty: You recognize beauty and excellence, and it awes you. 

Gratitude: You’re thankful for other people and circumstances. You don’t take things for granted.

Optimism: You have hope and expect good things, so you plan for a happy future.

Spirituality: You have strong beliefs and a sense of purpose. You understand your place in something larger, whether it’s religious or not. 

Humor: You’re funny, and you enjoy making others laugh. 

Is the point of using your strengths just to achieve happiness? At the end of Authentic Happiness, Seligman makes a intriguing suggestion. He personally doesn’t believe in God the creator, but he can envision a world where we are (in essence) creating God. The march of society is a march toward perfect knowledge, perfect power, and perfect goodness. To find meaning, he believes, each of us can see ourselves as contributing to one of those three domains.

I feel strongly drawn toward the goal of wisdom, as I read, write blog posts, and get lost in conversations. Engineers or programmers, he says, may be drawn to create products and services that give us more control over our environment. Priests and nonprofits, I imagine, strive to make the world better. Once you know your strengths and your purpose, the next step is to take an honest look at your life to see if you’re living as powerfully, authentically, and meaningfully as possible. 

I’m doing an experiment to become an optimist. Does anyone want to join? 

Seligman - Learned OptimismFor the past month, I’ve been doing a gratitude experiment: I committed to journaling about three things I was grateful for every day, one of the most widely cited happiness-boosting techniques there is.

I happened to be reading Learned Optimism just as I was searching for my next monthly experiment. Learned Optimism is one of the pivotal texts of positive psychology, penned by its father and pioneer, Dr. Martin Seligman. My reaction to his pages and pages of research, and the simple genius of his theory of optimism, was (in short): I’m on board. Let’s do this. 

Research has shown that becoming an optimist can alleviate depression and help prevent relapses. Optimists are more productive than their pessimistic peers, persisting through obstacles and making up for any deficits of intelligence or skills. Optimism boosts your immune system, protecting you from infectious diseases and decreasing the likelihood of breast cancer relapse. Optimistic sports teams tend to improve year-to-year, and optimistic athletes perform better, particularly in crunch time. Optimistic politicians tend to win elections. Shall I go on? 

So my next experiment is to follow the steps Seligman outlines to become an optimist. And yes, I need to become an optimist – according to the test in the book, I am moderately pessimistic.

My question is: does anyone want to join? I’ve already recruited my brother. (You can take the test first to see if you’re a pessimist.) The steps, while requiring inordinate levels of self-awareness, are simple. Here they are: 

Step 1: Observe how the voice in your head influences your life

For a few days, try to catch yourself reacting to adversity, failure, or disappointment. You’ll want to record three things:

A: the adversity. Make your description factual.
B: the belief, or the voice in your head. What do you tell yourself about that adversity? This is your opinion, and it may well be false.
C: the consequence. How did the belief make you feel or act?

Do this five times. For example: 

A: I felt stressed for the nth day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this all the time? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.

Step 2: Learn to distract yourself from the pessimistic thoughts

In the short term, start by distracting yourself from pessimistic thoughts. Try these four techniques: 

  • Startle yourself: Ring a loud bell, look at a notecard with the word “STOP” on it, or snap a rubber band on your wrist, while yelling “STOP” in your head. 
  • Shift your attention: Pick up a small object and examine it in as many ways as you can, tapping, tasting, smelling, and feeling. Really study it. 
  • Write down your pessimistic thoughts. 
  • Schedule a time later to think about them.

Step 3: Learn to dispute your pessimistic thoughts

Try to be aware when you react negatively to a setback or failure – when you hear those pessimistic voices in your head. Then, start arguing with them. 

To do that, look for evidence that contradicts your beliefs. Look for alternate causes of the failure that are less devastating. Ask yourself: even if this belief is true, what’s the worst that will happen? How likely are the different consequences? If the belief is true but destructive – it distracts you or makes you feel terrible – vow to drop it and remedy the situation later. 

We’ve already learned the ABCs; now it’s time for the ABCDEs. For example:

A: I felt stressed for the nth day in a row.
B: This is becoming a habit. Am I going to feel like this every day? Now I’ve ruined my day.
C: I felt even more stressed and sad.
D (the dispute): I may feel stressed, but it’s not as bad as earlier this week. I’ve taken steps to try to reduce stress, and I have a plan to deal with it when it bubbles up. It’s not entirely my fault if my upbringing and schooling have given me perfectionistic tendencies. The last time I felt stressed for weeks in a row, I was able to get over it and feel more relaxed most days. Just because I feel a little stress doesn’t mean my day is ruined – I had a great workout, wrote a nice article, and attended a webinar, so I was very productive.
E (the “energization,” or the new consequences): The stress subsides a little, and the future doesn’t look as grim.

The heart of pessimism is that you believe bad events are permanent, pervasive, and personal – they will be long-lasting and affect all areas of your life, and they’re your fault. A sentiment like “I’ve ruined my life” or “I always cave under pressure” or “I’m a terrible person” – in response to one error or shortcoming – encompasses all three aspects. When you dispute yourself, you want to create explanations that are temporary, specific, and external, keeping the failure contained in the short term and in one specific area of your life, and acknowledging the role of other people and of chance. For example, you might say “This hiring manager doesn’t know what he’s looking for,” or “I’ve had a lot on my plate this week.”  

Step 4: Get a friend to “insult” you

Sometimes it’s hard to dispute the ideas in your head, but it’s much easier to dispute the cruel comments that someone else makes. Recruit a willing friend or family member to spend 20 minutes telling you all the nasty, unfair, pessimistic things you tell yourself. In the process, it’s your job to argue back and debate them – disputing the way you did in step 3. It should be easier than disputing yourself. 

(As suspected, my significant other confirmed that he was incapable of spending 20 minutes calling me lazy, unproductive, messed up, and boring. My brother, however, said it would be a breeze and promptly launched into “You’re a terrible girlfriend [blah blah blah].” Thanks, bro.) 

If you’re interested in doing your own optimism experiment, send me an email! I’d love to hear about your experience, and you’re welcome to guest post about it on my blog. But mostly, I want to know if and how it works for you. I’ll be reporting back in a month.