“I’ve met people who said that Mother Teresa was a miserable cuss — she did her work even if it brought no smiles and satisfaction.”
Martin Seligman has a history of having his words taken out of context.
Within his field, the psychologist is known as the “father of positive psychology” but throughout his life, his work has often been misconstrued. The Bush administration used Seligman’s findings on “learned helplessness” to help inform their policies on interrogation and torture. Currently, the military is using his research on depression and happiness to help outline a treatment response for PTSD.
Love him or hate him, Seligman’s work has made some of the key assessments on human nature recognized in the last decade.
Taken out of context, his quote on Mother Teresa seems like a diss nearing blasphemy. But his point was not to insult the world’s most beloved humanitarian nun.
Seligman’s latest work, Flourish, is the psychologist’s attempt to force a field concerned with happiness and wellbeing to move beyond feelings. It is a bold amendment to the work he is most known for, Authentic Happiness, which for millions has served as a how-to on personal fulfillment.
So why has Seligman changed courses with his work?
“I thought that the correlation between being depressed and happy would be -1.0. In lay terms, that means they’re opposite; you can’t be both. There are about 20 studies and the correlation is only -0.2. There’s plenty of room to both be depressed and have high positive emotion — and not be bipolar…even if you [are depressed], you don’t get consigned to the hell of unhappiness. You can have meaning, accomplishment, engagement and good relationships…Happiness or subjective well-being is just one of the ends we want in life.”
Now, the father of positive psychology is asking a question that looks beyond happiness:
“What else do we choose to do, what else north of indifference is there, for people who are free, that they might do for its own sake?”
It is an interesting question, one that few of us every truly get to ask ourselves. What do we do solely for it’s own sake? Removing happiness from the equation leaves meaning, accomplishment, engagement and good relationships–all things that benefit a greater purpose than just our own. If Seligman’s hunch is right about living a fulfilling life, then it is the things we do without seeking a feeling that will bring us what we’re looking for.
Today, seek out ways to give yourself without seeking something back. In lending ourselves to the world, we may find exactly what we need.