I’ve just finished reading a book called “Authentic Happiness” by Martin Seligman. I think it is a great book, and worth a read. It is not a superficial “self-help” book, Dr Seligman is a highly respected psychologist and academic, and for most of the book works with rigorous research to identify the main ways that you can, with some effort, make yourself lastingly happier.
What interests me about the book, and persuaded me to write a post about it, is that most of the findings are extremely closely aligned to a Christian approach to happiness, even though Dr Seligman has “wavered between the comfortable certainty of atheism and the gnawing doubts of agnosticism my entire life …”
Dr Seligman divides up lasting happiness into the past, the present and the future, and provides suggestions for increasing happiness about each of those times in our lives. In order to be more happy about our pasts, he recommends that we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for the good things, and forgiveness for the bad things, that have happened to us.
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his loves endures forever.” Psalm 106:1.
“… Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:20.
“A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offence.” Proverbs 19:11.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22.
Regarding the future, Dr Seligman recommends that we teach ourselves to be more optimistic. He says that “Positive emotions about the future include faith, trust, confidence, hope, and optimism.”
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Hebrews 11:1-2.
To increase our happiness in the present, Dr Seligman focuses on two things – pleasures, and the use of personal strengths to experience gratifications. Pleasures are transitory and involve positive emotions, gratifications are activities that we like doing, that create “flow” for us.
Dr Seligman advises that, in order to maximise happiness through pleasures, we need to savour them, and be mindful of the present instead of racing through life. Also he warns about “habituation,” the lessening of pleasure caused by repeating a specific type of pleasure too often or too frequently, starting to take it for granted. This approach to pleasure is much more in line with the Christian approach (even though he credits Buddhism for savouring and mindfulness).
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Ecclesiastes 3:1,4.
Lastly, regarding our own unique strengths:
“For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body … But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” I Corinthians 12:13,18.
We all have our own God-given personalities, traits, and strengths.
For me, this book fell at the last hurdle. The topic is “The meaningful life, using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” While Dr Seligman acknowledges that the Christian faith provides meaning for a lot of people and does not object to it, he steps away from the academic rigour he uses in the rest of the book to propound his own opinion of how God fits into the scheme of things. By his own admission, he is not an expert in this field (“I do not read the theology literature.”), he deals shallowly and dismissively with fundamental questions such as free will and pain and suffering, and he has nothing solid with which to back up his ideas.
This in itself is fine, everyone is entitled to their point of view, but I was disappointed that Dr Seligman chose to include this type of opinion in a book, the majority of which is subject matter that rightly accords him the status of a deep expert. His last chapter was not of that quality.
More generally, this seems to be quite a regular occurrence – very clever academics writing expertly on their own topics, but then weaving their own, normally atheistic, views on faith and religion into their text. I think it is difficult but important to weed out their inexpert theology from their expert science.