Where Does Authentic Happiness Come From, And How To Get It

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

In 2002, Dr. Martin Seligman, often considered the father of positive psychology, published a book titled Authentic Happiness. In this book, he purported that happiness could be broken down into the three components of positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. He also introduced the acronym PERMA to break down the idea of well-being. PERMA generally stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishment. An excellent way to begin your journey to authentic happiness can be to identify and capitalize on your strengths. Online therapy can be another helpful tool to aid you in finding happiness.

Therapy can help you find authentic happiness

What is positive psychology? 

In the mid-1960s, American psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman is thought to have ushered in a new era of psychology. Through research, Seligman found that for every 100 studies on negative psychology, there was only one study on positive psychology. This meant that most psychological studies generally had to do with taking a person’s emotional state from bad to neutral.

At the time, Dr. Seligman found there were very few studies or methods to take a person from neutral to happy. After publishing several extensive studies, Dr. Seligman released his book, Authentic Happiness, in 2002. 

Put simply, positive psychology can be thought of as the study of happiness. Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement, is believed to have inspired countless studies, courses, and methods to achieve both happiness and well-being. Positive psychology generally aims to teach us what we can do every day to make our lives better. 

In an excerpt published by the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Seligman explained the general theory of Authentic Happiness is that happiness can be broken down into three different elements: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning

Positive emotion

The first element, positive emotion, typically consists of feelings like pleasure, excitement, elation, and comfort. Most often, these feelings come from outside or temporary things, such as another person, a material item, a delicious food, or an illicit drug. 


The second element, engagement, is normally described as the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity. Dr. Seligman describes this as entering a “flow” state when you are doing something you enjoy. Examples of this may include an author who enters a flow state when writing a book or an athlete who enters a flow state during training.  You can even enter a flow state when playing video games. 


Dr. Seligman’s third element of authentic happiness is meaning. While there may be a state of happiness that can be achieved through pleasure and engagement alone, Dr. Seligman states that “human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life.” This meaning tends to exist in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than yourself. 

Getty/MoMo Productions

Taking steps toward authentic happiness

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, authentic happiness can be defined by an individual’s measurement of life satisfaction, with the three elements of happiness playing a role in the result. To achieve this desired result, Dr. Seligman says the construct of well-being must be considered first and foremost.

Dr. Seligman breaks down the idea of well-being into five major elements, referred to as PERMA: 

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment

While no one element may define well-being on its own, each can contribute to it. In the book Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman says, “Positive emotions alienated from character lead to emptiness”.

This may be to say that simply seeking outside or material pleasures in life with no true meaning or reason behind these endeavors will not likely result in authentic happiness. For this reason, the theory of authentic happiness can come down to finding your purpose. 

While the concept of finding your purpose can seem overwhelming, it can be broken down into smaller steps, with the first step potentially being the act of identifying your strengths. 

For example, your strengths may be your creativity, sociability, bravery, or intelligence. You may find you are good at writing, public speaking, or helping others. Your strengths are often a great indicator of what gives your life meaning. 

Essentially, when you find your strengths and apply them toward your overall meaning, authentic happiness may be within reach. Of course, this concept is frequently easier said than done. Finding and nurturing your strengths tends to take serious time and focus, and it can often be challenging to explore without guidance. 

Therapy can help you find authentic happiness

The benefits of online therapy

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the pursuit of well-being and life satisfaction usually requires a substantial amount of self-reporting and self-reflection. 

Productively turning your focus inward can be difficult without proper guidance. It may be helpful to consult a therapist or another licensed mental health professional to aid in your pursuit of happiness. 

Since finding your purpose often takes serious time and effort, online therapy may offer more flexible scheduling options than traditional in-person therapy. You may also find it more accessible to attend therapy from home rather than traveling to a therapist’s office.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Recent studies show that online therapy can be highly effective when it comes to treating anxiety, depression, and trauma, among other mental health challenges and disorders. In fact, online therapy generally has the same level of effectiveness as traditional face-to-face therapy. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.


Authentic happiness, as defined by Dr. Martin Seligman, generally consists of positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. It can be possible to move toward authentic happiness by recognizing your strengths and using them to find meaning in life. Working with a therapist, whether online or in person, can help you with the introspection that is often required to experience authentic happiness.
Find your happiness with professional support
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started