Self-Help for Graduate Students, Part 8: Authentic Happiness

Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Time Investment: 263 pages. Plus questionnaires on the following website:

You could do the Signature Strengths questionnaire before reading the book for some interesting insight also. When I took the it, I found that one of my strengths is “loving and being loved.” Going back to the book, I expected to read something like: “If you’re good at loving, you should pursue one of the following careers: x,y, or z.” What the author actually said was to incorporate that strength into as many things that you do as possible.

His example involved a janitor he met while visiting his friend in the hospital who was in a coma. The janitor cleaned up the room, and then switched the wall art around–and he was spending a really long time fussing with the art. Finally, the author asks what he’s doing. The janitor says, “Patients do better when they have new stimulus. It’s my job to make sure that they have new and beautiful art.” Basically the author (Martin Seligman) was amazed that this janitor took a menial job and turned it into a calling by retuning his job to be about nurturing (instead of scrubbing toilets).

While I’m not mean to my students, I could instantly see how focusing on caring for them (instead of focusing exclusively on improving their writing) would improve my performance and my happiness with my job. It would also, as the book says, help give my job meaning and purpose.

I also realized that my favorite professors–the ones who made me want to be a professor myself–would score pretty high on the kindness scale. I don’t even always ask my students, “how are you?” when they come to office hours!

Yesterday, instead of sending a brisk & businesslike, “you can’t take advantage of me just because I’m a young woman” e-mail to a student who has missed several classes, I forced myself to sit down next to him and look him in the eye as I showed him the attendance sheet. Instead of wishing he would just drop the class and get out of my hair, I thought about how great it would be if he staying in the class and succeeded in passing it.

I think part of the point Seligman makes is that doing what you’re good at is bound to make you feel happier. And you can find ways to do what you’re good at in almost any situation.


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