Martin Seligman’s work in cognitive psychology has been focussed primarily on therapies based on cognitive theory as opposed to the more traditional purely theoretical outlook of the approach. Though cognitive therapies for emotional disorders like depression, such as those of Beck and Ellis were gradually becoming popular, he believed that they were primarily focussed on reducing the impact of negative emotions on a person’s lifestyle and self-image rather than focussing on the pursuit of happiness itself.
He originally developed a theory of ‘learned helplessness’ which we’ll focus on more in another article, but it basically posed that eventually, as an increasing number of bad things happen to us we will just allow them to and will not act to prevent them, since we develop the feeling that it is not worth trying any more. This is believed to be one of the many faulty cognitions responsible for the onset and maintenance of depression. He believed that rather than simply trying to take away these negative thoughts, therapy should attempt to promote positive ones. He didn’t just want to remove disorder, but to aid the pursuit of happiness across the population and he believed that to do this, we would should not focus on the removal of things that make us unhappy, but should try and work out what it is that makes us happy.
He noticed from his research that those who tended to be happiest seemed to get on well with others and have good social relationships. He questioned this, since not all people enjoy the company of others, as some people are introverted, so surely it can’t be that only introverted people lead sad lives. He then realised that not all of these people were happy directly because of their relationships with others, but often these relationships were simply important in achieving a higher life goal. He believed that there were three potential goals in life. These were to live a good life, a pleasant life or a meaningful life.
Those who did simply enjoy the company of others and liked meeting up with other people were achieving the pleasant life directly from this socializing. The good life, which involves improving on oneself and doing well in one’s personal life was perhaps not directly impacted by relationships with others, but often required others, since to improve in work and at hobbies, one must learn from others and develop good personal relationships. This is generally the path taken by introverts to happiness, but it still requires some social contact. Finally, the meaningful life involves having a great impact on the world or influencing something greater than oneself. Similarly to the good life, for happiness to be achieved in this way social relationships are not directly relevant, but they are required in order to have a meaningful impact in the first place, since without connections, very few people will be interested in what you have to say. This is often the path taken by extroverts to happiness.
High levels of happiness do not seem to appear very often in the absence of social relationships, and where they do, it is most likely to be in the case of extreme introverts. Leading the good life or the meaningful life are thought to be the best routes to happiness, since the happiness that comes from the pleasant life alone is thought to be short-lived, but it cannot be bad to have on top of the other two. So, the message of Seligman’s findings are clear. Whatever your personal aims in life, going out and meeting people is perhaps the first step on the way to happiness.
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