Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being by Martin E. P. Seligman
Positive psychology takes the opposite approach to traditional psychology. Instead of studying pathology and disease and things going wrong, it focuses on optimal health and on things going right. Instead of alleviating depression by bringing someone back to “normal,” positive psychologists hope to prevent and cure depression and some similar mental illnesses through a holistic approach aimed at reaching the person’s full potential. Instead of getting rid of a deficit, it’s about adding a positive, and the research in this book sounds like this approach is more effective than the more traditional ones.
Flourish marks the second wave of the positive psychology movement. The first wave just studied happiness, and the researchers found that studies on “life satisfaction” were distorted based on whether survey participants had had a good day or a bad one. This book and the research leading up to it, complicates the picture to talk about well-being instead of just happiness, and it’s a more complex, powerful, and comprehensive concept. Well-being consists of positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, accomplishment, and a sense of meaning.
In the book there are a lot of stories about how Seligman has conducted his research, the people he has met and programs he has started. These include a prestigious school in Australia, a mental-health program for the Army, and the graduate program at Penn. Most of these stories are interesting, and the research behind them is told in a narrative style. There are also some examples of positive psychology assignments and exercises that any reader could do easily. There is a “Signature Strengths Test” in the book, and examples of some of the other assessments as well. Many other tests are available at the Penn website.
One of the most exciting parts of the book for me was hearing about the school that is built around positive psychology and the way students there learn character and optimism as well as academic content. It’s called the Penn Resiliency Curriculum, and it’s not available yet, unfortunately. I hope that someday I can see these materials, because the students I know could use help in this area. They need direction and focus, they need a sense of their own strengths and what they’re good at, they need to be able to bounce back and fight off the feeling of discouragement. The idea of explicitly teaching these mental skills to students excites me, so I hope this curriculum is made widely available soon.
Seligman takes some time to condemn Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die, which disparages the positive psychology movement. After reading this book, and rhetorically analyzing to death one of Ehrenreich’s previous endeavors, I feel that the research must be on Seligman’s side. However, I am sympathetic to some of Ehrenreich’s concerns. The worst moments in the book for me were very similar to the spiritual mumbo-jumbo I dislike so much. For example, an older single woman brought love (in the form of a husband) into her life through visualization exercises. Stories like that make me roll my eyes.
The thing that bothers me the most about about positive psychology is the potential for victim-blaming and thought policing. If optimism prevents cardiovascular disease, does that mean pessimists deserve to die? Does this research mean that pessimism is a vice, like smoking? Should people be scolded for negative thoughts the way we scold people for smoking? When optimism requires self-delusion, that bothers me.
However, because the concept of well-being is comprehensive, someone with well-being is unlikely to require much self-delusion in order to feel happy and optimistic. When you have positive relationships, a sense of meaning, engaging work, and significant achievements, happiness kind of comes along to that party on its own. And when those good things are happening, optimism becomes natural. I think Seligman would say that anyone struggling with this idea that optimism is self-delusion should start with the more concrete tasks of building relationships, engagement, meaning, and achievements, and wait for the good feelings and rosy outlook to follow. That seems fine and healthy to me. I like the idea of changing concrete things in your life to make yourself feel better, instead of just talking yourself into feeling better or changing your view of things, as cognitive therapy would have you do. Don’t get me wrong, I think cognitive therapy and similar treatments have their place, but they also have their limits. They can help you talk yourself from a cliff, but they can’t change the objective reality that made you want to go to the cliff. Positive psychology urges people to do just that.
The book ends with a discussion of the political implications of positive psychology and well-being. He says GDP should not be the most important measure of a nation’s success, because it’s not correlated with well-being. Nations should measure well-being and assess social policies based on their impact on well-being. He states a goal that by 2051, 51% of the world’s population should have a positive well-being, as measured by his assessments. I’ll be 66. I hope we can get there too, if not earlier.