How can you improve your chances at being happy? What are the elements that make for a happier life, both personally and professionally? This is the issue studied by Martin Seligman, PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in his books “Learned Optimism” and “Flourish”; studies motivated by his belief that pessimism is the greatest drag on improving the human condition.


Pessimists see the world as it is. Optimists see the world the way they want to see it. In a recent seminar on The Psychology of Storytelling by producer Lindsay Doran, she absorbed Seligman’s findings and translated them into what makes a story successful in movies.

According to Doran, pessimists are very accurate in how they recall events. If they go to dinner, they will more accurately tell you what the place looked like, how many people were there, and what they ate.  Optimists get the decor wrong, as it will be bigger, or more intimate, and they might even exaggerate the meal.

Optimists do not see the world clearly or accurately. And yet, in almost every aspect of life, optimists do better. This is given biological truth as optimists have better immune systems and live longer than pessimists.

Optimism is the muscle of resilience, and resilience is the most important life and business skill we can master.

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe events will last a long time, and are their own fault. Optimists think about their misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault.” – Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism


Seligman calls his approach “Well-Being.” As a marketer, I love calling it “Happyology.” His 5 Elements of Well-Being (Happyology) create the permanent building blocks for a life of fulfillment.

  1. POSITIVE EMOTIONS: What we feel, what pleasures us, creates rapture, ecstasy, warmth, or comfort… when we lead an entire life around this element, we call it the “pleasant” life. Doran’s interpretation was summed up as the courage to be “warm” when the world pushes you to be “cool.” This could be as simple as deciding to take the time to have an especially special lunch on any given day. And chewing slowly.
  1. ENGAGEMENT: This is the flow. This is being one with the music, writing, painting or doing a PowerPoint. You’re deep into it, time stops and suddenly, it’s 6pm and time to go home to experience the Positive Emotions. People, who love their jobs, or a project on the job, experience this. And if you ask people who are in the flow what they are thinking, they usually say, “Nothing.”
  1. MEANING: Positive Emotions and Engagement need meaning. We can get absorbed in an activity, but it might be a useless pursuit. How much time do we spend on Facebook or Instagram, watching cats or what people ate for lunch only to feel a little morose after three hours. At the end of the day, we’re engaged and feel empty as we just torched a chunk of time doing absolutely nothing of real meaning. Human beings want meaning and purpose in life.

“A meaningful life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.”  – Martin Seligman, Flourish.

  1. POSITIVE ACCOMPLISHMENT: Doran had an interesting observation as regards Positive Accomplishment: It’s not about the thing accomplished; it’s about the result the accomplishment has on our relationships. In the movie “Rocky.” Rocky Balboa went the distance against a much better fighter and looked like road kill at the end. But, that wasn’t the reward.

    “Yo! Adrian! I did it!” – Rocky

    The reward was his relationship with Adrian; the respect from his trainer; and the love of Philadelphians, who, to this day, get married at the top of the 72 stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At work, it’s about how your co-workers regard you for a job well done. At home, it’s the love you get from preparing an incredible meal. For John D. Rockefeller or Bill Gates, it’s how society regards them when they give away the money they made from their accomplishments. On another level, it can shape communications by dictating that we should increase the intensity of customer relationships versus bragging intensely about what we’ve accomplished. So, it’s not that we’ve successfully improved the formulation of the soap, it’s that in doing so, we’ve made all our relationships much, much stronger.

  1. POSITIVE RELATIONSHIPS: When you’re in a movie theater watching a comedy and the audience laughs large, chances are you will too. When you feel profound meaning, or pride of accomplishment, there is one constant: They will take place in a more rewarding fashion when you’re around other people. When a child is sad, most likely a “good” parent will cobble together a playgroup or take the child out where there are people. This is also why, when we do other people a good deed, be it helping somebody cross the street to buying someone a cup of coffee, we feel a momentary increase in well being, or happiness.

So, c’mon, let’s all get happy! Have a great lunch, get lost in a task, make sure the task gives you meaning, enjoy the glow from your accomplishments, and be around people as much as you can.