review of Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness

The two most memorable things in this book, for me, come early on:

1) Seligman divides happiness into what he calls pleasures (like “ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort”) and gratifications (like “a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, and making a slam dunk”). A pleasure is a sensory experience, while a gratification is inseparable from some form of action or exertion. I think this is a very useful distinction. People often talk about how it’s better to buy experiences than to buy things, but the moments in my life that I look back on most fondly are not merely cool experiences—rather, they’re moments when I accomplished something, or when an aspect of who I am paid off in a satisfying way. Memories of, say, a great trip that I went on get replayed in my head much less often than trivial-sounding memories of making an insightful remark or writing a useful program.

2) Noting that positive and negative moods make us better at different kinds of tasks, Seligman suggests you “design your mood to fit the task at hand.”

Here are examples of tasks that usually require critical thinking: taking the graduate record exams, doing income tax, deciding whom to fire, dealing with repeated romantic rejections, preparing for an audit, copy-editing, making crucial decisions in competitive sports, and figuring out where to go to college. Carry these out on rainy days, in straight-backed chairs, and in silent, institutionally painted rooms. Being uptight, sad, or out of sorts will not impede you; it may even make your decisions more acute.

In contrast, any number of life tasks call for creative, generous, and tolerant thinking … Carry these out in a setting that will buoy your mood (for example, in a comfortable chair, with suitable music, sun, and fresh air). If possible, surround yourself with people you trust to be unselfish and of good will.

I’m skeptical that intentionally putting oneself in a bad mood could be beneficial, but it’s an intriguing idea.