Discover More Authentic Happiness With These Key Insights from Positive Psychology

by Scott Jeffrey

OVERVIEW: This guide summarizes several key findings from Martin Seligman research in positive psychology. It provides practical methods for increasing your authentic happiness.


Our brains are wired to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.

When we feel good, we have less resistance to what is. With less resistance, things tend to flow more effortlessly in everything we do.

When we’re in a smoother flow, our team can enter a better flow state too. Less conflict arise. Greater creativity, innovation, and collaboration occur. The more content and in flow you are, the more everyone around you will flow.

I haven’t seen any research studies on the topic yet, but my bet is that leaders who flow more often, outperform their peers.

In Authentic Happiness, founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out that we have two distinct ways of experiencing happiness in the present: pleasures and gratifications.

Let’s start with pleasures.

Three Ways to Maximize Pleasure

Pleasures have sensory and emotional components like comfort, delight, ecstasy, excitement, and orgasm.

These pleasures, however, tend to be short-lived, and many of them have negative consequences.

Pleasures are an enjoyable part of life, and Seligman doesn’t suggest eliminating these sources of transitory happiness. Instead, he offers ways to maximize our experience of them.

Seligman offers three suggestions based on current research:

1) Avoid Habituation of Pleasures

Did you ever find a cookie you loved so much that you couldn’t get enough? But eventually, you had enough and lost your interest in the cookie?

Indulging in pleasures repeatedly and rapidly reduces the pleasure of the experience—something we’ve all had firsthand experience with.

This process is called habituation, and it occurs with all sensorial pleasures.

Did you ever have a song you loved so much that you listened to it over and over again? How much pleasure does that song give you now?

Seligman suggests taking a band you enjoy listening to and experimenting with listening more and less frequently. The goal is to discover the optimal time period that keeps the music the freshest and your enjoyment the highest.

Put into your life as many events that produce pleasures as you can, but increase the amount of time between these events than you usually do.

Try to locate the optimal time lapse that keeps your pleasures from having diminishing returns.

2) Savor Pleasure More Deeply

The more awareness we bring to a pleasurable event, the more pleasure we can experience.

Savoring is the act of putting conscious attention to the experience of pleasure.

Seligman offers four kinds of savoring based on the work of Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff:

  1. Basking (receiving praise and congratulations)
  2. Thanksgiving (expressing gratitude for blessings)
  3. Marveling (losing the self in the wonder of the moment)
  4. Luxuriating (indulging the senses)

There are numerous ways to promote savoring, including sharing the experience with others, anchoring mental memories of the event, and, in the case of basking, allowing yourself to feel a sense of pride for the occurrence.

3) Become More Mindful of Pleasures

Much of human activity is performed without focus or attention. Living on automatic pilot, we fail to notice a great deal in our overall experience.

Bringing mindful attention to any act is a worthy experience. In the case of our pleasures, mindfulness can elevate these experiences to have almost transcendent qualities.

Eating a piece of chocolate while you’re focusing your eyes on your computer screen produces a certain class of experience.

Eating it mindfully with your eyes closed and your full attention on the smell, texture, and sensations in your mouth and the experiences in your brain is an entirely different class of experience.

It is difficult to engage in mindful activities when we’re stressed and our minds are racing. A few slow, steady, quiet, deep breaths are helpful before you fully tune into the sensations of a pleasure.

See also: How to Center Yourself to Increase Your Focus

Differentiate Between Pleasures and Gratifications

Now, we turn our attention to the other factor in authentic happiness: gratifications.

Like pleasures, gratifications are also very enjoyable, but they don’t necessarily evoke any raw feelings like pleasures. Whereas pleasures require little, if any, thinking, gratifications often involve thinking and interpretations.

Examples of gratifications include reading an engaging book, dancing, playing a sport you love, and immersing yourself in a stimulating conversation.

With gratifying activities, time stops, we lose self-consciousness, and we become totally absorbed in the activity.

Gratifications last longer than pleasures; pleasures tend to be short-lived. Gratifications don’t habituate as easily as pleasures do.

Pleasures are about engaging the senses and feeling emotions; gratifications are about contacting a higher part of us: our personal strengths and virtues.

In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, pleasures are the satisfaction of our basic needs, especially biological ones.

Gratifications, in contrast, are the result of higher needs, like our cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.

authentic happiness martin seligman

Enter a Flow State

This is where Seligman’s research on authentic happiness intersects with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow.

In a state of flow, we generally don’t feel positive emotions. We are focused; we have a clear goal. Entering a timeless state, we are absorbed in deep, effortless activity. And perhaps most interestingly, our sense of self vanishes.

Gratifications can produce the state of flow, but unlike pleasure, gratifications require skill and effort. They also offer the possibility of failing.

While pleasures come easily, gratifications from exercising our personal strengths are hard-won. It’s no wonder we so often seek pleasure instead of focusing on growth.

A further challenge is that there are no shortcuts to gratifications. They take effort, practice, and the consistent exercising of our natural strengths.

Building these strengths requires conscious choice: Do you want to acquire them? Do you want to keep building them? And when do you want to use them?

Learn Your Natural Strengths

Seligman outlines two characteristics of what he calls strengths:

  1. A strength is a trait, a psychological characteristic that can be seen across different situations and over time.
  2. A strength is valued in its own right. The strengths are states we desire that require no further justification.

This second characteristic highlights another important difference between gratifications and pleasures; unlike pleasures, gratifications are undertaken for their own sake, not for any positive emotion they may produce.

Based on his research, Seligman offers 24 different strengths that are measurable and acquirable:

Judgment / Critical Thinking
Love of Learning
Bravery / Valor
Honesty / Integrity
Social & Emotional Intelligence

Self-Regulation / Self-Control
Appreciate for Beauty & Excellence
Hope / Optimism
Humor / Playfulness
Spirituality / Faith

Reviewing the above list, do certain strengths stand out in your mind?

For a more detailed description of each of these strengths, click here.

Discover Your Personal Strengths

Do you want to discover your natural strengths?

You have two options:

  1. Register for a free account on the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness website and take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths.
  2. The VIA Institute on Character offers the survey on their website as well.

These are not the same test. The VIA Institute assessment has half as many questions and takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. The University of Pennsylvania assessment takes closer to 25 minutes to finish.

Apparently, they are both scientifically validated.

Play to Your Signature Strengths

Seligman suggests that each of us has a set of core strengths, what he calls signature strengths.

Your signature strengths are the top five strengths from their survey.

Discovering your natural strengths can be an instructive process. It may clarify what you already know about yourself or highlight strengths you aren’t conscious of.

It can also suggest where to best invest your time to increase your gratification (i.e., experience more authentic happiness).

But I also found it equally helpful to see what strengths ranked low on the list for me. If you have a tendency toward perfectionism or “being good” in all that you do, you may also find it helpful to see what ranks at the bottom of your strength list.

Although we may aspire to possess a high proficiency in all 24 strengths in order to master every valued human virtue, the reality of our humanness provides a more realistic point of view.

For me, the experience led to greater self-acceptance of my shortcomings and a renewed interest in developing my actual strengths.

Capitalize on Your Signature Strengths

How does Seligman suggest you increase your level of authentic happiness?

Use your signature strengths every day in the main areas of your work and life.

Once you know your top five strengths, take each strength and ask the following:

  1. Where am I using this strength now in my work?
  2. What are three to five ways I can use this strength more consciously in my work?

Next, you can answer the same questions in relation to your home life.

The more effort you invest in developing skills in your strength areas, the more gratification you will experience in the present.

Stop the Pursuit of Authentic Happiness

Now, pause for a moment. Take a gentle breath and consider: how happy do you feel as you read this?

If you’re not feeling happy, how do you feel about that?

Survey your feelings carefully and be honest. (And if you’re feeling happy, please keep feeling happy.)

We have a cultural bias toward happiness. The prevailing belief is that we’re supposed to be happy most of the time, and when we’re not, something is amiss.

Back to my question: If you aren’t feeling happy as you read this, do you notice any tension in your body?

Do you feel any mental or emotional distress? Not feeling happy is one thing; how we relate to unpleasant feelings is something else.

The tension we often feel is based on an underlying assumption: that we should be happy.

But why? Why should happiness be the aim or ideal in our everyday human experience?

Life is filled with difficulties, trials, upsets, and pain. There’s a great deal of suffering within the human experience. Is it reasonable to expect to be happy most of the time?

(By the way, authentic happiness researchers have found that we each have a different happiness set point. For example, roughly 25 percent of people are naturally happy; they are born this way. Another 25 percent of people tend toward depression and pessimism.)

Could our collective bias toward happiness be an attempt to repress the darker (but equally real) side of life?

Could this collective repression help explain why America is one of the most depressed nations in the world?

Find Contentment Instead of Happiness

In Spontaneous Happiness, Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that it would serve us to replace the ideal of happiness with contentment.

Contentment is a general feeling of “okayness” with life. With contentment, we are able to more easily accept what is, to be okay with whatever we’re experiencing, positive or negative.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to find ways to increase our level of pleasure, happiness, and optimism. That’s what this guide is about.

Optimistic people with positive feelings, for example, are 50 percent less likely to have a heart attack or get sick.

It is also fruitful to improve our emotional states by learning how to consciously work with negative emotions.

But knowing that it’s okay to be down, depressed, anxious, and afraid is important, too.

We reduce our suffering when we accept whatever we are feeling.

Acceptance of what we’re experiencing also gives us more internal resources for shifting into a more positive space.
It feels more like authentic happiness. That, at least, has been my experience.

Finally, let’s end this guide with wise words from the late mythology expert Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth:

“The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you really are happy—not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call, ‘following your bliss’.”

Further Reading

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment
by Martin Seligman

Paperback | Kindle | Audio

Seligman is considered the father of the positive psychology movement. What I appreciate most about this book is that Seligman provides practical methods for increasing one’s level of happiness based on decades of research in the field.

Seligman demonstrates that lasting fulfillment is found not in fleeting pleasures but in cultivating our natural strengths. Perhaps you’ve heard about the research on the benefits of maintaining a gratitude journal? This book is one of the first I’m aware of that highlighted this research.

Authentic Happiness made my list as one of the 10 best books for personal development.

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