How Do We Really Find Happiness? A Critique of Martin Seligman’s Latest Book Flourish and Praise for Jeffery D. Sach’s The Price of Civilization

I was excited by Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness.  It offered a theory of happiness that made sense to me.  In Authentic Happiness  Seligman identifies three key elements that contribute to happiness:

  • Pleasant Experiences
  • Engagement and
  • A Meaningful Life

Of course we want to have fun just for the heck of it, that is, Pleasant Experiences.  But that’s not enough to make a happy life.  We also need one or more activities or endeavours that we can get totally engrossed in. That’s Engagement or Flow.

Finally, the ultimate element, or so I thought, is the notion that we need to have a project or series of projects, that are Meaningful to us.  Something we’re doing where we feel we are contributing to others outside of ourselves.  Seligman named this a Meaningful Life.

One of the reasons I liked this model was that it addresses the fact that as we in the so- called developed world have gained more and more material wealth and “stuff” we aren’t happier.

The theory in Authentic Happiness seemed to offer a really powerful explanation of this, at least by implication.  I wrote an article on this  (   in which I pointed out that accumulating more and more stuff does not lead to happiness.  What does lead to happiness is contributing to the good of others.   I saw this as a wonderful approach to changing our behaviour towards our environment.  That is, it provides a rationale for using less stuff and spending more effort just being of assistance to others in ways that are engaging for us based on our particular strengths.

So, when I saw that, in his latest book, Flourish, Seligman had added Accomplishments to his list of elements that contribute to what he calls “well being” I was alarmed.

Then when I read his rationale for the addition I was even more concerned.  He says that people’s report of their life satisfaction is 70 percent determined by the mood they are in and 30 % by how well they judge their life to be going at that moment.

I would suggest that a better way of measuring life satisfaction is to ask people how they judge the totality of their life.  Not how they see their life going at the moment.  Surely, a way can be found to measure this accurately.

A second concern or objection is that accomplishment is really part of the meaningful life element of Seligman’s original model.  If I believe that I am doing things that contribute to something outside of myself that suggests that I am achieving accomplishments.  What is more, placing accomplishment in the context of a meaningful life  is a much more desirable way to frame accomplishment as an element of well being or happiness than, for example, just winning at bridge as he suggests, even if the winner does so by cheating as he also suggests (see page 18 of Flourish).

And this gets at the heart of my concerns about the inclusion of accomplishments as a free standing element in his theory.  I fear it could lead to the type of meaningless and costly activities that create more “stuff” but don’t add to people’s sense of well being.

So when I opened Jeffery D. Sachs’ book The Price of Civilization, Economics and Ethics After the Fall and read:

 “ Our greatest national illusion is that a healthy society can be organized around the single minded pursuit of wealth.  The ferocity of the quest for wealth throughout society has left Americans exhausted and deprived of the benefits of social trust, honesty and compassion.  Our society has turned harsh, with elites …. among the most irresponsible and selfish of all. ”

 I felt I had found a voice for my misgivings about Seligman’s revision of his original theory.

Seligman’s new theory of happiness outlined in Flourish, seems to justify the pursuit of meaningless or even unethical so-called “accomplishments”.

THAT IS DANGEROUS!  We’ve seen how the unthinking pursuit of profit (i.e. meaningless stuff) has created the recent economic meltdown which has led to high unemployment and economic hardship for many.

Sachs argues eloquently that it’s that value system that is leading us away from a caring, mindful and successful society.

So let’s focus on creating Pleasant, Engaged and Meaningful lives for ourselves and others as Seligman suggested in his book Authentic Happiness.  That is an authentic path to happiness and well being!!

Career and Relationships Coach Bruce Rosove is certified as a Master Practitioner in Neuro Linguistic Programming; is an Emotional Fitness Coach and Coach Instructor; has studied Non-Violent Communication under Marshall Rosenberg; has level one training in Inner Journey Facilitation and has studied many other modalities.    

Contact him at: 613 233 8013 email:



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