Dr Martin Seligman is one of the gurus of positive psychology, the study of what makes people happy, and what doesn't. Currently he's in Australia conducting research, and an article of his in the Sydney Morning Herald is illuminating.
He starts with the following points:
- When surveyed, people want their children to be happy, or, as Seligman sums it up, have wellbeing. But when asked what they want their children to learn at school, their answers can be summed up as "accomplishment" - to learn discipline, to achieve. he comments that the two lists are totally different.
- He then points out, what is well known, that accomplishment doesn't lead to wellbeing. After all "almost everything is better now than it was 50 years ago: there is about three times more buying power, houses are much bigger, there are many more cars, and clothes are more attractive. .... there is more education, more music, more women's rights, less racism, less pollution, fewer tyrants, more entertainment, more books, and fewer soldiers dying on the battlefield." Despite this, Australians are no happier than they used to be, and there is greater incidence of depression and suicide.
- So something is wrong with our thinking, and our education.
Seligman offers evidence that happiness can be taught and learned, and that happier people perform better in life. And he is teaching it, in a program aimed at both teachers and pupils at the prestigious Geelong Grammar school. He thinks all schools should teach and apply the principles.
Studies show that we can be happier if we aim for three things:
- positive emotion through pleasurable experiences,
- more important is to be "engaged" or well occupied with things that interest us, especially our work, and
- most important is building our lives around something that is meaningful, a cause we believe is more important than ourselves.
It is therefore no wonder that people who are generous and forgiving, people with good relationships (especially a good marriage), people happy in their work but not driven by it, people who do voluntary work, and people with a religious faith, tend to be happier than people who seek self-gratification through material wealth.