Happiness guru Martin Seligman answered a central question for me about happiness studies in his session this morning, "Improving Happiness Through Personal Practice." I have always resisted the Seligman happiness principals because they sounded like redressed Calvinist morality to me -- a point Barbara Ehrenreich makes in her recent book Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Seligman writes, for example, that the first taste of French vanilla ice cream may taste good and give you pleasure, but by the third taste the pleasure has worn off. Happiness, in his formulation, has always sounded to me an awful lot like what moralists call "character" and Christians call "walking with God" and lefties call "humanitarianism" but not what most of us would call fun.
But today Seligman answered that with a pretty bold confession: According to his "theory of well being" (read it about here on his website), Osama Bin Laden was very happy - in fact he checks all the Seligman boxes and passes for one of the happiest people around. Seligman explained that he uses the morality argument as a tactic to promote well being as a public policy, much the way the anti smoking or the environmental movement do. But that in fact, it is perfectly possible to rate high on his happiness scale and be utterly evil. What a relief....
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