When Happiness Isn’t Enough

A Penn prof used to just want to be joyful. Now, not so much

A few years ago, Penn psychology professor Marty Seligman was a happy man. After spending decades studying the dark side of the human psyche, he’d risen to the top of the happiness heap on the success of a movement he founded called “Positive Psychology.” “I think we’ve spent billions of dollars on relieving suffering,” he told Philly Mag’s John Marchese back then, “and I’ve paid my dues about that. But that’s not all there is.” What there also was, Seligman explained in his book Authentic Happiness, was … you know. Happiness.

Alas. Upon further reflection, Seligman has decided that happiness isn’t enough, either. It’s too fleeting an emotion; “Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful moods,” he says in his new book, Flourish, “so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology.” You’re going to have to work a little harder than that for your life to be worthwhile. He’s now identified five vital components of the satisfying life, according to this New York Times piece: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

What brought Seligman to this pass? The realization that happiness is all in one’s head; flourishing requires connecting with the people and the world around you. Well, that and bridge. His obsession with the card game was detailed in a long article in Penn’s alumni magazine in March. Seligman found himself wondering why he would devote so much time to something of so little real consequence. His conclusion: For him, the game satisfies that need for engagement, what he calls flow, the sense of surrendering to the stream—even if that’s as fleeting as happiness.