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In a fantastic article by Seligman et al., (2004) the topic of a balanced psychology and living a full life were discussed.

In the abstract they discussed how psychology since World War II has been largely devoted to repairing weakness and understanding suffering. Towards that end, we have made considerable gains. We have a classification of mental illness that allows international collaboration, and through this collaboration we have developed effective psychotherapeutic or pharmacological treatments for 14 major mental disorders. However, while building a strong science and practice of treating mental illness, we largely forgot about everyday well-being. Is the absence of mental illness and suffering sufficient to let individuals and communities flourish? Were all disabling conditions to disappear, what would make life worth living? Those committed to a science of positive psychology can draw on the effective research methods developed to understand and treat mental illness. Results from a new randomized, placebo-controlled study demonstrate that people are happier and less depressed three months after completing exercises targeting positive emotion. The ultimate goal of positive psychology is to make people happier by understanding and building positive emotion, gratification and meaning. Towards this end, we must supplement what we know about treating illness and repairing damage with knowledge about nurturing well-being in individuals and communities.

there is good evidence to indicate that the absence of maladies does not constitute happiness

What is happiness?

The authors went on to define happiness and identified three components based on their review of the literature (while appreciating that science can no more presume to answer this question than other classic philosophical questions, such as ‘what is the meaning of life’?):

  1. pleasure (or positive emotion)
  2. engagement
  3. meaning.

Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g. by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g. by savouring and mindfulness) and our positive emotion about the future (e.g. by building hope and optimism). However, unlike the other two routes to happiness, the route relying on positive emotions has clear limits. They mentioned how positive affectivity is heritable, and they speculates that, for important evolutionary reasons, our emotions fluctuate within a genetically determined range.

we believe ‘happiness’ is a condition over and above the absence of unhappiness

The second route to happiness the authors identified involves the pursuit of ‘gratification’.

The key characteristic of a gratification is that it engages us fully. It absorbs us.

Individuals may find gratification in participating in a great conversation, fixing a bike, reading a good book, teaching a child, playing the guitar or accomplishing a difficult task at work. We can take shortcuts to pleasures (e.g. eating ice cream, masturbating, having a massage or using drugs), but no shortcuts exist to gratification. We must involve ourselves fully, and the pursuit of gratifications requires us to draw on character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humour, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence.

The third route comes from using these strengths to belong to and in the service of something larger than ourselves; something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice or a higher spiritual power. The third route gives life meaning. It satisfies a longing for purpose in life and is the antidote to a ‘fidgeting until we die’ syndrome.

Peterson et al. (2005) develop reliable measures for all three routes to happiness and demonstrate that people differ in their tendency to rely on one rather than another. We call a tendency to pursue happiness by boosting positive emotion, ‘the pleasant life’; the tendency to pursue happiness via the gratifications, ‘the good life’; and the tendency to pursue happiness via using our strengths towards something larger than ourselves, ‘the meaningful life’.

A person who uses all three routes to happiness leads the ‘full life’, and recent empirical evidence suggests that those who lead the full life have much the greater life satisfaction.

Positive emotions are increased and the pleasant life is promoted by exercises that increase gratitude, that increase savouring, that build optimism and that challenge discouraging beliefs about the past. Interventions that increase the good life identify participants’ signature strengths and use them more often and in creative new ways. Meaningful life interventions aim toward participants’ identifying and connecting with something larger than themselves by using their signature strengths. Some of these interventions can be found at www.authentichappiness.org.

We are committed to a psychology that concerns itself with repairing weakness as well as nurturing strengths, a psychology that concerns itself with remedying deficits as well as promoting excellence, and a psychology that concerns itself with reducing that which diminishes life as well as building that which makes life worth living. We are committed to a balanced psychology.


Includes extracts from the original published paper Martin E. P. Seligman, Acacia C. Parks and Tracy Steen (2004) A balanced psychology and a full life, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B; 359, 1379–1381