February 2015 Bar Bulletin
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February 2015 Bar Bulletin

Pursuing Our Signature Strengths

By Joseph Shaub


Martin Seligman has been studying the paths to personal well-being for a few decades now. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman has developed a robust branch of mental health theory and practice called "positive psychology." He has even developed the first, and wildly successful, graduate degree program in the field.

His idea is simple and compelling: Why should mental health professionals only think about working with people who are unhappy or impaired with a goal of getting them to some base-line where they no longer experience distress? Isn't there a whole range of human experience, that he simply termed "happiness," which we can successfully foster?

Seligman suggests in his very accessible and informative book, Authentic Happiness, that there are actually three different kinds of happiness that we should all experience. The first is sensate happiness - the kind we experience with a good meal, sexual connection, a perfect vacation or an excellent workout.

The second is what he terms "Flow," from the book of the same name. Flow is experienced when we become so deeply engaged in an activity that time evaporates. Before we know it, we look up and hours may have passed and we'd hardly know it.

Lawyers actually can experience flow in the work they do. There is a huge number of activities that completely absorb our attention - bringing us the experience of being in flow. That's why trial can be so much fun for the lawyer.

The final kind of happiness comes from associating ourselves with something that is greater than ourselves. Attachment to a cause, religious practice or anything else that connects us to the greater whole, to community. It is what Seligman terms striving for meaning and purpose.

One pursuit that I and many clients have found enlightening and enjoyable is the exploration of one's own signature strengths. Seligman enlisted Chris Peterson, chair of the University of Michigan Psychology Department, to assist him in a search for basic "virtues" that have been found, over the centuries, to be the cornerstones of a good life.

Their team read a vast assortment of written wisdom through the ages, including Plato, Socrates, Aquinas, Augustine, Buddha, the Old and New Testaments, Koran, Upanishads, Ben Franklin, etc. What they found was a remarkably similar collection of virtues that they placed in six categories: wisdom and knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; and spirituality and transcendence.

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