Foundations of Positive Psychology

The “Science of Happiness”

We think a “happy” or “fulfilling” life is something worth aspiring to. While it is a seductive concept for some, most of us understand that greater wealth is not necessarily consistent with a happy or fulfilling life.

However, we also know that we need to have “enough”. We think your financial and lifestyle objectives need to be reasonably matched, or else stresses will emerge. “Not enough wealth” to achieve your objectives is clearly a problem. But “too much” wealth also signals inappropriate management.

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Given a need for balance between wealth and lifestyle objectives, what is a “good life” and how can you make it even better? It is only in the past 10 or so years that a true “science of happiness” as a branch of psychology has emerged. Called “Positive Psychology”, Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is a champion of this growing field of research. We have drawn heavily on his book, “Authentic Happiness”, to distill its key messages.

Opinions and anecdotal evidence about how to lead more satisfying lives have been around forever. In fact, some of the longstanding views of ancient philosophers and the major religions about what makes us happy have now been confirmed with scientific rigour. On the other hand, the validity of other views has come into question.

Seligman notes that the first serious research into happiness begun about the mid 1960’s. In his 1967 paper, “Correlates of Avowed Happiness”, Warner Wilson found that happy people exhibited a number of attributes. These people were:

  • Well paid i.e. money
  • Married;
  • Young;
  • Healthy;
  • Well educated;
  • Of either sex;
  • Of any level of intelligence; and
  • Religious.

This list would appear to sit pretty well with conventional wisdom regarding happiness. However, more recent research suggests basing your search for a better life on the above list could be taking you in the wrong direction.

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With regard money, once a minimum level of wealth is achieved the link between money and happiness is tenuous at best. Seligman also notes:

“Materialism seems to be counterproductive [to happiness]: at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole...”

Married people tend to be happier than unmarried people, but the direction of causation is unclear – do people become happier when married or do happier, more social people tend to get married?

There does not appear to be clear links with either age or health and happiness. If anything, older people appear to be more satisfied with life than younger people, but with less intense emotional highs. Subjective health (i.e. how you view your state of health) rather than objective health (i.e. how your doctor assesses your health) is a better guide to happiness.

Also, the research now indicates that attributes such as education, climate, race and gender do not have any clear direct links with happiness.

Finally, there is a relationship between happiness and religion. But is it religion, the community and social aspects of religion, or something else that is driving greater happiness. The early research did not provide any guidance.

So the conventional views on what makes us happy give little help in how you can purposely live a more satisfying life. What does Positive Psychology have to say? The following article summarises the key findings.

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