I recently completed the unabridged audiobook version of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Dr. Martin Seligman. Dr. Seligman, a professor at The University of Pennsylvania, is widely considered to be the primary founder of positive psychology (the study of human happiness & well-being). I’ve read a number of Dr. Seligman’s books and have also seen him present at a conference. Needless to say, Dr. Seligman provides a wealth of information about what the latest research has to say about human happiness and, in practical terms, how we can use this information to improve our own levels of happiness and well-being.
I’m sure it drives Dr. Seligman a little batty when he hears how some people mischaracterize his work. Positive psychology and his work are not about sticking our heads in the sand and ignoring our problems or discounting the suffering that is an inherent part of life. Rather, for about a century psychology was almost entirely focused on what is wrong in people’s lives – the depression, anxiety, neuroses, disabilities, disorders, and psychoses. Dr. Seligman along with several other prominent researchers in the field such as Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi founded positive psychology to counteract the dominant focus on the negative aspects of the human condition.
Dr. Seligman is NOT saying we should ignore our negative feeling states and just plaster fake smiles upon our faces. While it is important to experience suffering when it arrives, it is also important to learn how to avoid being stuck in it. Moreover, as Dr. Seligman points out, learning how to incorporate the strategies of positive psychology into our lives will help us to move beyond merely being “less depressed” and on to the next level – flourishing. Some of these strategies include keeping a gratitude journal, practicing deliberate acts of kindness on a daily basis, savoring (e.g., the taste of chocolate, the fragrance of a rose), identifying and using our signature strengths, and incorporating activities that provide meaning and purpose into our lives.
Dr. Seligman points out that there are 5 aspects of human well-being, and he uses the acronym of “PERMA” for these:
- Positive emotions (i.e, the “feeling” of happiness)
Now, one can argue that all of these facets to well-being (PERMA) are each still very much connected to happiness. For instance, the reason we accomplish difficult tasks is that in some way it makes us feel happy (even if the process to getting there is arduous). The “sense of accomplishment” we get is a form of happiness. Similarly, we seek out relationships with others because these help us to feel happy. Minor quibbles aside, PERMA is a useful guide in that we can use it to monitor our lives to insure that we are living in a manner that engenders PERMA.
The positive psychology-derived philosophy and strategies are now being used and researched within education, computing, medicine/health, and the military. For instance, the military is now having enlisted men and women participate in Master Resilience Training (MRT). Importantly, psychologists and the military brass are finding that MRT reduces both the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide in military personnel, among the countless other benefits. The old adage does hold true: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
I found Flourish to be quite inspiring on a number of levels. As Dr. Seligman recommends, I hope that our politicians will begin to use some of the findings from positive psychology to guide public policy. In particular, perhaps instead of merely measuring the effect of policies on our Gross Domestic Product they will begin to focus on the effect of such policies on our Gross Domestic Happiness. Yes, I realize this is quite a shift, and it is extremely complicated. Still, such a philosophical shift could help us all to suffer less and flourish more. And that sounds good to me!