Author: Martin E.P. Seligman
APA Style Citation
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York, Atria Paperback.
Flourish is a narrative reflection regarding Seligman’s chronicle of work (and the work of many others) towards improving the well-being of others. Seligman opens Flourish by discussing his training as a therapist. During his education and early practice as a therapist Seligman learned that in order to help those who were mentally ill or suffering from some other emotional ailment, the goal was to remove one’s suffering. Seligman contends that there is far more to life than the lack of suffering. He advocates for acting in a more proactive manner, which he argues could potentially prevent many ailments altogether. Seligman also argues that treatment should work towards helping clients to thrive rather than just removing their pain. Seligman is frustrated that much of current research and practice in psychotherapy focuses on drug therapies, which mask rather than treat the problem from which a client suffers. Many drugs blunt the feeling of emotion, however feeling emotions is part of the human experiences and should be felt even if they are sometimes painful. Seligman in large part has been able to do work in the field of Positive Psychology because of generous grants, which were provided from an initially anonymous source to fund the research. It is this funding which has allowed Seligman to make efforts toward revolutionizing the field of psychology from a focus on illness to a focus on well-being.
Seligman makes a distinction between happiness, which he considers a mood and well-being which he considers a state of being. We describe happiness when we are feeling cheerful or merry. Seligman argues that this term is so overused as to become almost meaningless. Well-being, however, is a way of thinking and behaving in order to live one’s best possible life. A focus on well-being may not lead everyone to “happiness” as there are many individual differences concerning happiness and one’s subjective experience of when they are feeling “happy.” For example, introverts generally report lower levels of happiness than extroverts, but both can pursue and achieve well-being in relatively similar levels. According to Seligman, authentic happiness also involves engagement (flow), a complete loss of time when engaged in an activity in which one is completely absorbed in a meaningful activity.
The elements of well-being are slightly different than happiness and include positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Seligman uses the anagram of PERMA to describe the characteristics of well-being. Flourish’s main emphasis is to provide the reader with recent and ongoing research regarding how to improve PERMA in specific populations.
What follows is a description of the components of PERMA. Positive Emotion is the cornerstone of well-being as well as life satisfaction. Engagement addresses the issue of flow, losing one’s self in a task for which one is completely engaged. One finds their flow when an individual’s strengths are used when challenged to the limits of their ability. These first two elements are pursued for their own sake rather than to gain some other benefit or external “prize”. Resiliency is the ability to bounce back from failures and regroup in the face of setbacks. Meaning refers to working for something that is larger than one’s self and may be completely different from positive emotion. For example, Abraham Lincoln, who famously experienced periods of depression also experienced great meaning in his work feeling that he was doing something that would impact the nation in a positive fashion for years to come. Finally, Accomplishment is pursuing a goal for its own sake.
Seligman makes many recommendations regarding how one can improve well-being. He is forthcoming about the fact that he does not always use these in his own life but that he strives to do better. He is a self-described “curmudgeon” and states if he can do this so can anyone else. His family, who are now well versed in the elements of well-being call him out if he violates his own advice. In one example, Seligman advises a gratitude visit in which one writes a letter and personally delivers it to someone to whom they are thankful. He also recommends keeping a daily gratitude journal and after completing a task assessing the result in a ‘what went well exercise.' Seligman describes the work of Angela Duckworth (a graduate of MAPP Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania) who has done much research of the resiliency portion of PERMA, her research into Grit indicates that those who can pick themselves up after failures and continue to be motivated even in the face of setbacks will experience more ‘success’ than those who give up more easily.
The remainder of the book describes how Seligman and others have created a Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania and other activities in which Seligman and others have made efforts to share positive psychology with as many people as possible. Seligman describes the many varied people from salespeople to CEO’s, teachers and “coaches” who have benefitted from this program by capitalizing on their strengths and employing PERMA in their lives.
Perhaps two of the most exciting endeavors that positive psychology has taken on thus far are pushing the characteristics of positive psychology into classrooms in Australia and implementing a positive psychology program in the military to build up the resilience and emotional well-being of soldiers and their families. The military has long been one of the most underserved populations regarding mental health and some military traditions have made it difficult to discuss emotional issue or struggles with others who serve in the military. Seligman worked with members of the armed forces to create a program that seeks to change the awareness of illnesses such as PTSD and to make those serving more aware of the resources they have to assist them with both their physical and mental health, the reports which Seligman mentions suggest that the program has been quite successful and because of the large number of trainees will eventually produce the largest body of data thus far collected regarding the outcomes of well-being training. Seligman refers to the training as creating a psychologically fit army. The program identifies one’s personal social, spiritual and family fitness to determine one’s strengths and also to identify those who may be more vulnerable to emotional illness and to provide more proactive targeted in those areas. The program has also looked at the potential ways in which trauma can be channeled into growth.
Seligman address those who have dismissed his work with Positive Psychology such as Barbara Ehrenreich who published, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, she claims that she was told if she thought more positively, her breast cancer would go away, and she blames relentless optimism on the 2007 housing market because people believed that things would simply continue to get better in perpetuity. Seligman believes this criticism is misguided and cites his research with PERMA as evidence-based while still admitting that much work is ongoing. Seligman is careful to say that the research on positive psychology is not perfect and not plentiful but building.
Seligman explores how well being can improve not only emotional health but also physical health. Optimists have better cardiovascular health, less body fat and less death by cancer than their pessimistic counterparts. Seligman created the signature strengths inventory to determine areas in which one excels. Please see the activity to find your own signature strengths and use this to determine the activities for which you will likely excel and then try to find activities in which these strengths can be employed. Seligman believes that everyone can increase their levels of well being they just have to opt in, and one method of beginning is to take the signature strengths inventory.
TED talk: the new era of Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology Center: University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania: Authentic Happiness website
Huffington Post: The Father of Positive Psychology and his two Theories of Happiness
Harvard Business Review: Building Resilience
The New Yorker: Trying to cure depressions but inspiring torture
The Irish Times: Can You Teach Well-being?
Edge: The Third Culture (a talk with Martin Seligman)
VIA Institute on Character: Strengths Test
Psychological Terms and Concepts
Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Parasympathetic Nervous System
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)