Authentic Happiness

 
by Alice Vliestra, Ph.D.
 
 
Over the last 30 years, a big change impacting relationships, has been a need to be ‘happy.’ With this, has come a new positive psychology that focuses on positive emotion, strengths, and virtue. But how does this lead to relationship success? Does it really lead to a good life?
 
When one is going on a trip, one needs a map. A map gives a picture of where one is going and helps keep track of the progress that has been made. It provides a vision for the journey.
 
In the same way, it is hard to experience relationship success without a vision to guide it. One way to envision success is to look at what you might do on one ‘ideal’ happy day.
 
On an ‘Ideal’ happy day what would you and your partner most enjoy? Would it include buying things to feel happy, pampering yourself, and eating chocolates?
 
Or, would it include moments of appreciating beauty, generosity, humor, teamwork, and participating with something bigger than yourselves?
 
What about the obstacles? Would they be experienced as frustration or moments to use strengths and rise to the occasion?
 
In the search for contentment, researchers have found that once basic needs are met, further health, wealth, good looks, and status contribute little to ‘subjective well being.’
 
‘AUTHENTIC HAPPINESS’
 
In contrast, Martin Seligman (2002) argues in his new book, ‘Authentic Happiness,’ that to be truly and authentically happy, one has to move beyond simple pleasure. In a truly happy day, life also needs to be productive, have meaning, and utilize our strengths.
 
He explains, positive emotion without character leads to emptiness and depression. We want to feel we deserve the positive feelings.
 
Beyond pleasure and how we feel lies ‘gratification’ — the enduring fulfillment that comes from developing our strengths and putting them to use.
 
BECOMING OUR BEST
 
According to Seligman, we are gratified when we have opportunities to be our ‘ideal self,’ that is, the best of us, in small ways, in our daily life. Then we feel we are living up to the ideals that we hold most dear. Continuing to exercise strengths produces a deep inner satisfaction. When others see this as well, we feel validated and work harder not to disappoint others’ faith in us (Seligman, 2002).
 
He cites how this principle underlies one of the most astonishing discoveries in the research literature on romance. New couples frequently have ‘romantic illusions.’ They fixate on strengths and ignore obvious faults. These perceptions, however, often change over time. For example, what originally was seen as ‘strong beliefs’ can later be seen as stubbornness.
 
It is often thought that the happiest couples avoid the romantic illusions, sparing them from false expectations.
 
Dr. Sandra Murray found the opposite result. She had volunteers rate their romantic partners on various strengths and failings. Once the partner rated the person, Murray invited the person’s friends to do the same ratings. Then Murray compared the discrepancy between what the partner believed as strengths and what the friends believed as strengths. The greater the discrepancy, the greater the illusion.
 
In Murray’s studies, the happiest couples were not the most realistic. Instead, the happiest couples were those that were the most positive. The larger the romantic illusion, the better the odds. Why?
 
Seligman argues that the positive illusions challenged the couples to live up to their ideals and became self-fulfilling. They provided buffers against hassles and allowed for more forgiveness of small transgressions.
 
While dramatically evidenced in couples, there is an underlying principle that applies to other relationships as well. We experience more happiness and joy by rising to the occasion, using our strengths, and bringing out the best of ourselves and others, than by continuing to focus on correcting weaknesses.
 
So what makes for a truly great day? I’d say enough of life’s pleasures to meet basic needs spiced with opportunities and support to bring out best of us.
 
 
Reference: Seligman, M. Authentic Happiness:
New York: Free Press, 2002
 

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