Since the mid-eighties I’ve been an avid follower of Martin Seligman’s leading-edge work at the University of Pennsylvania. He began his distinguished psychology career in the late sixties studying pessimism, learned helplessness, and depression. His two previous books, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Lasting Fulfillment (read my review here) are loaded with extensive and solid research from the rapidly expanding fields of cognitive therapy and positive psychology.
His latest book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, lives up to its title. Seligman continues to build and expand on his life work. He starts with a radical rethinking of his own studies and results from the flood of new happiness research of the past decade. In Flourish, he writes, “I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become meaningless.” Seligman goes on to outline what he sees beyond good feelings and smiley faces, “I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. This theory, which I call well-being theory, is very different from authentic happiness theory…”
Seligman centers well-being theory on a “PERMA” framework:
Positive Emotion – happiness and life satisfaction are moved from being the end goals to factors of well-being.
Engagement – when we’re in this state of “flow,” time flies by as thoughts and feelings are often absent. We then look back later at just how fun or rewarding the activity was.
Relationships – acts of kindness, connecting with others, and sharing laughter, joy, pride, or purpose provide deep and lasting feelings of well-being.
Meaning – feeling we’re part of something much bigger or serving a greater purpose that ourselves.
Accomplishment – goals such as money, fame, winning, or mastery that we pursue for their own sake whether or not they bring positive emotion, stronger relationships, or meaning.
The PERMA elements of our well-being are maximized when they align with our highest strengths. Flourish provides an appendix of twenty-four VIA (Values in Action) Signature Strengths. Seligman and his colleagues developed these as the foundation for positive psychology to counterbalance the decades old mental illness or “sickness model.” Minimizing misery is the path of psychiatry that traces back to Freud and is still deeply entrenched in many psycho therapy disciplines and treatments. Go to www.authentichappiness.com to take the Signature Strengths questionnaire — among many other excellent personal assessment and development tools provided there free with registration.
Seligman’s work is deeply grounded in extensive research and science. This is especially evident in Flourish with 50 pages of fine print footnotes. His evidence-based approach clearly sets Flourish apart from most personal growth books puffed up with fluffy theories and wild claims. However, it will make harder reading for some readers, having to sift through the academic approaches and citations for many of the practical nuggets, application exercises, and personal growth insights buried throughout the book.
Flourish covers a lot of ground in the rapidly expanding field of positive psychology. Seligman reports on the development of the new Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) degree program that he leads at the University of Pennsylvania. The program’s mission is to “combine cutting-edge scholarship with the application of knowledge to the real world.” He also provides chapters on breakthroughs in teaching well-being to young people, a new theory of intelligence (very similar to the work in emotional intelligence), and the biology of optimism (click here to read an excerpt of this chapter).
Flourish has two chapters dealing with a huge project Seligman and his colleagues have with the U.S. Army to provide Comprehensive Soldier Fitness and Master Resilience Training to hundreds of thousands. One goal is converting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). You can read a bit more on this from my previous blog post Building our Resilience in Facing the F-Word.
Seligman concludes Flourish with his “moon shot objective” (inspired by President JF Kennedy’s audacious goal declared in 1961 to land on the moon by the end of the decade) of PERMA 51. This chapter proposes a new approach to the politics and economics of well-being with new measures of a country’s prosperity based on the PERMA indicators. PERMA 51 is “the long mission for positive psychology. By the year 2051, 51 percent of the people of the world will be flourishing.”
By applying PERMA to our own lives — and using these concepts in our parenting, coaching, leading, and developing others — we can all benefit from “shooting for the moon.”