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Book Forum: Positive Approaches   |    
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
MARK F. LENZENWEGER, Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:936-937. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.5.936
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By Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. New York, Free Press, 2002, 319 pp., $26.00 (paper).

Authentic Happinessby the psychologist Martin Seligman chronicles the voyage of personal growth and discovery that led him to become an organizing force in what he terms the new "Positive Psychology" movement, which he describes as "a supplement to negative psychology, not a substitute" (p. 289). Seligman, whose previous scholarly contributions have included the concepts of learned helplessness and biological preparedness, has written this volume for the educated lay reader. There is much to recommend this fresh and vibrant narrative that interlaces a good deal of material from Seligman’s personal and professional life with his enthusiasm for a focus on positive emotionality, growth, and vitality in human existence. The volume is filled with self-rating scales that he says are relevant to assessing aspects of the self and character central to Positive Psychology discussions, and this alone will make the volume appealing to the public. The psychometric integrity of these scales, however, is not really addressed in the volume. Seligman also expresses his views on effective parenting and raising children, another feature that will make this volume appeal to the public.

Seligman’s emphasis on encouraging people to live in the present for the positive and to make strides to enhance themselves is indeed commendable, and his effort to tie these exhortations to the empirical psychological science literature on emotion is equally laudable. Few would question Seligman’s endorsement of the likely benefits of a Positive Psychology, but this book leaves one with a sense that the study of positive emotion and health is somehow newly discovered and that those who actively pursue the study of positive emotion are doing their science in a qualitatively distinct manner.

Regarding the concept that the study of positive emotion and health is a new discovery, Seligman writes, "All in all, the relation between negative emotion and positive emotion is certainly not polar opposition. What it is and why this is are simply not known, and unraveling this is one of the exciting challenges of Positive Psychology." The study of emotion—indeed, the continually emerging and exciting discipline of affective neuroscience—has long held a focus on the relatively orthogonal nature of positive and negative affects and their associated underlying neurobiology and integrated neurobehavioral systems (1, 2). Regarding the notion that a science of Positive Psychology is being conducted in a manner that suggests a qualitatively different approach (with some presumed increment in fruitfulness), Seligman writes,

So Positive Psychology researchers do not meet in the cheerless rooms of universities or hotels, we do not wear neckties, we do not have much in the way of a preset agenda, and we underschedule. We meet each January for a week in Akumal, a modestly priced vacation town in the Yucatan. (p. 277)

It is not entirely clear what this should mean to a reader, who might profit from knowing that most of the advances in the study of positive and negative emotion still occur in the psychology laboratory and are based on the use of rigorous psychometric measurement, advanced techniques (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, neuropharmacological probes), and time-consuming methodologies (e.g., longitudinal study).

Authentic Happiness covers such a wide range of topics that only a few can be addressed here, and, as is necessarily the case with a volume written for an educated lay readership, one must brook the liberties taken with the presentation of scientific data to convey central ideas and themes. For example, in Vaillant’s longitudinal study of college men (3), the absence of alcohol abuse, depression, and heavy cigarette smoking most effectively predicted successful aging. Although "mature defenses" played some role in determining a "happy-well" outcome in these men, it was not the cardinal predictor (compare with Seligman’s statement on page 10).

One concept that I would like to have seen developed more fully in this monograph is that of authenticity. Despite the use of the term "authentic" in the title and its description as a "strength" (p. 147), Seligman seems to have largely missed an opportunity to explore this important concept in depth for defining optimal human existence and experience. Moreover, I should imagine that Positive Psychology would be interested in the fact that many contemporary psychodynamic therapeutic approaches (such as those of Sullivan, Kohut, Fairbairn, Winnicott, and others), while initially directed at the alleviation of negative emotional states, actually have as their goal the development of an authentic experience of oneself that is built on the genuine (i.e., not false) experience of emotion and interpersonal relations as well as an integrated and real experience of meaning and purpose. In short, contemporary psychoanalysis, in some quarters, seeks to allow individuals to come to know themselves and to be themselves with authenticity. Importantly, in this view, genuine experience concerns not only that which is positive in our emotional lives but also that which is negative (i.e., authentic sorrow and anger). Indeed, the search for authenticity in human experience, in all emotional realms, is the goal of optimal development.

In reflecting on the immense tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Seligman (p. 287) authentically shares his reflections on this horror in a candid moment, yet ends with, "I apologize for this endnote, and have no idea how it will read in years hence, but it is emotionally necessary for me now." This moment captures what is, to my mind, implicit in most of the discussion of Authentic Happiness and is more important than a mere focus on the positive and the power of expectancies—namely, the importance of authenticity for a vital and genuine human experience.

Tellegen A: Structures of mood and personality and their relevance to assessing anxiety, with an emphasis on self-report, in Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders. Edited by Tuma A, Maser J. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985, pp 681–706
 
Depue R, Lenzenweger MF: A neurobehavioral dimensional model, in Handbook of Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Edited by Livesley J. New York, Guilford, 2001, pp 136–176
 
Vaillant GE, Mukamal K: Successful aging. Am J Psychiatry  2001; 158:839–847
[PubMed]
 
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References

Tellegen A: Structures of mood and personality and their relevance to assessing anxiety, with an emphasis on self-report, in Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders. Edited by Tuma A, Maser J. Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1985, pp 681–706
 
Depue R, Lenzenweger MF: A neurobehavioral dimensional model, in Handbook of Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Edited by Livesley J. New York, Guilford, 2001, pp 136–176
 
Vaillant GE, Mukamal K: Successful aging. Am J Psychiatry  2001; 158:839–847
[PubMed]
 
+
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