Why humans want more than happiness

Since Martin Seligman launched the positive psychology movement, his methods have attracted a global following. Julian Baggini asks him, is he now turning his back on the quest for happiness?

Martin Seligman has every reason to be a happy man. Back in 1998, he used his presidency of the American Psychological Association to promote the idea that psychology should not just be about solving problems, but creating better mental health in everyone. Since then, the rise of ‘positive psychology’ has been all but unstoppable, with Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) its key text.

Authentic happiness, Seligman argued, required three things: positive emotion, engagement with the world and others, and a sense of meaning and purpose. He proposed ways of achieving this blessed state, even setting out a gold standard for measuring it: life satisfaction, the score between one and 10 people give themselves for how satisfied they are with their lot.

And so, the ‘science of happiness’, as it is often called, became more and more influential, spawning dozens of bestsellers and even being called on by governments eager to improve the ‘gross domestic happiness’ of their citizens.

But Seligman was not happy. That was only in part because, as he admits, he himself has low ‘positive affectivity’, as a not naturally cheerful nature is called in the jargon. He also wasn’t happy with happiness itself. Instead of positive psychology being about living a rich, full life, as he intended, it was perceived as a pure ‘happyology’ – all about achieving a cheerful mood. So now, in his book Flourish, happiness is out and wellbeing, or ‘flourishing’, is in.

The three elements of authentic happiness have grown to the five components of flourishing: positive emotion, engagement,positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. PERMA, for short.

I went to Seligman’s home town of Philadelphia to talk to him about what lies behind this change of heart and mind. Having read Flourish, with its bold claim to be ‘a visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing’, I expected to find a man without any doubts, supremely confident, perhaps to the point of arrogance. That’s certainly how many of my predecessors had judged him. Instead, I found a more cautious, modest Seligman, one who says Flourish is ‘just a work in progress’. So, just how far has that work already come?

To read the full interview, pick up our May issue, out now