As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman challenged the psychological community to radically change its approach. For too long, he charged, psychology had been preoccupied solely with relieving symptoms of mental illness; instead, he believed it should explore how to thrive in life, not just survive it. He called for a psychology that would uncover what makes people creative, resilient, optimistic, and, ultimately, happy. The “positive psychology” movement was born.
Yet in his latest book, Flourish, Seligman tries to provide something of a course correction for positive psychology. Seligman, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also directs the university’s Positive Psychology Center, argues that positive psychology has been too focused on the goal of promoting happiness alone. He proposes a shift, both to increase overall personal well-being—what he calls “flourishing,” which is not as dependent on one’s mood or momentary feelings as happiness—and to improve one’s community, not just one’s self.
While Seligman still considers happiness to be important, in Flourish he offers a more holistic take on well-being, which he summarizes with the acronym PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Each of these elements, he argues, is crucial to a full, well-lived life, even if it sometimes involves struggle and leads, in the short term, to unhappiness.
For example, relationships can be a source of joy, but they can also involve conflict and sacrifice. Yet having close relationships is an important life goal for most people and contributes to one’s overall well-being. Indeed, research shows that people with close relationships enjoy all kinds of physical and mental health benefits, including greater longevity.
Seligman believes that psychologists should focus on increasing these aspects of well-being using positive psychology interventions—like keeping a gratitude journal to increase positive emotion—rather than prescribing psychotropic medications, which he claims fail to cure people. He is critical of social scientists who emphasize the study of environmental influences—like poverty and upbringing—on behavior and don’t pay enough attention to the study of individual character. This breeds a victim mentality, he claims, which hampers the individual’s opportunity to grow.
“Human beings are often, perhaps more often, drawn by the future than they are driven by the past,” he writes, “and so a science that measures and builds expectations, planning, and conscious choice will be more potent than a science of habits, drives, and circumstances.”
In this idea are echoes of Seligman’s seminal work on “learned helplessness,” where repeated experiences lead a person to believe that they are powerless to avoid emotional suffering, and so stops trying. To prevent this, Seligman suggests teaching patients coping skills, which they can use to better control their emotional responses to difficult situations and help avert depression and anxiety. These same skills, he argues, can be taught in our public institutions—including schools, hospitals, and the military—in order to inoculate whole communities against emotional distress.
In the book, he highlights the work of social scientists who have tried to do just that, including Karen Reivich and Jane Gillham, who study character-building. Reivich and Gillham have developed a classroom intervention that helps children increase their optimism, flexibility, and assertiveness in order to prevent them from developing depression later on. In addition, they’ve created a program that helps students identify their character strengths (e.g., creativity, self-control) and use them more effectively. When applied to schools, these programs have been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, and conduct problems among students, and to increase positive social skills, like empathy and cooperation.
In another example, Seligman worked with the military to create a character-based program that combats PTSD in veterans. Before soldiers are deployed, they are taught resiliency, or the ability to adapt to different circumstances, thereby reducing their chances of returning home with post-battle mental illness. Though some critics have accused Seligman of brainwashing soldiers to accept intolerable conditions, he counters with data showing his program reduces later suffering.
Seligman’s work is inventive, but his writing can sometimes ramble. The beginning of the book is nearly unreadable, with a convoluted comparison between his theories of “authentic happiness” and “flourishing.” Still, for those who can get past its faults, Flourish is a thought-provoking read, filled with insights into Seligman’s thinking and personality, as well as inside stories of positive psychology’s early beginnings, its occasional detractors, and its many successes.