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Insights From A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Written by Martin Seligman

Blog Post by Alice Joy

Flourish is written by Martin Seligman, a well-respected academic and self-confessed conservative research scientist, who is known as the founder and ‘father’ of Positive Psychology. His latest book, ‘Flourish’, has a simple aim; to help you flourish.

Does it live up to its promise?


Positive psychology is a science that focuses on ‘the good life’: human potential, thriving and flourishing. ‘Psychology-as-is’ focuses on negative emotions and treatments for those symptoms with the aim to get people back to neutral, or symptom free. If you imagine a spectrum of wellness, with -10 being the worst, and +10 being the best, ‘psychology-as-is’ focuses on getting people, at best, to zero (or neutral). Positive psychology focuses on zero to +10.

I don’t know about you, but if what you focus on grows, I would rather learn how to flourish than how to avoid suffering.
This is an academic, thoroughly researched yet readable book about a rewarding and intriguing science which is well worth reading in its entirety.

However, if you don’t have the time, here is a simple summary of the top 12 things that really stood out for me.

1. ‘Happiness’ and ‘Well-being’ are not the same thing

Being happy is great. However, happiness is only a small part of overall well-being and well being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology. ‘Happiness’ often just refers to positive emotions, like joy, awe, contentment, love and excitement. However, well-being is much broader than just happy emotions, and the positive psychology framework for well being is called PERMA.

2. Positive Psychology has a key framework: PERMA

PERMA is the golden ticket to well-being. If you get your PERMA right, increased life satisfaction and happiness await. PERMA has five elements, listed below, and no one element of PERMA defines well-being. All of the elements are measurable, and they all count. These elements are:

a. Positive Emotions (joy, awe, contentment etc)
b. Engagement (engagement, or flow, happens where your highest strengths are deployed to meet your highest challenges (see more about these strengths in point 4 below)
c. Relationships (all truly happy people have strong social relationships and connections)
d. Meaning (in something bigger than yourself), and
e. Achievement (you need to be kicking goals along the way).

3. There are easy exercises that you can do that will raise your well-being and lower your depression (if any)

There are small, simple interventions that, if practised regularly, can literally and without drugs increase your happiness and well being. They are clinically proven. That is amazing. To keep it brief, two examples include the Three Good Things, and the Gratitude Visit.
Gratitude is a powerful emotion that can make your life happier and more satisfying, and there are many studies that suggest that finding three things to be grateful for every day has a profound positive impact on your baseline level of happiness. The Three Good Things exercise teaches you to focus on things to be grateful for, which helps to strengthen positive neural patterns (as opposed to our evolutionary tendency to be negative). Writing them down can increase the impact.
The Gratitude Visit takes it further: choose someone still alive who years ago did something that changed your life, and who you have never truly thanked. Write them a 300-word thank-you letter about what they did and how it impacted you. Be specific. Tell them how often you think of it. Deliver it face-to-face next week, but make the purpose of the visit a surprise. Read the letter out. It will make you happier and less depressed one month from the visit. Sciences proves it.

4. Do more of what you’re already good at

Positive psychology has discovered that there are 24 signature strengths, spread across five different virtues. To find out what your strengths are, you can take the Values in Action Signature Strengths Test online, for free, on Martin Seligman’s website.
You will know when you self-assess your signature strengths what they are for you because you will feel like that strength is true and exciting, you will yearn to find new ways to use it, you will feel strength when you use it, invigoration when using it (not exhaustion), you will create opportunities to use it, and you will feel joy, zest and enthusiasm whilst using it.
If you find new and innovative ways to use your top five signature strengths every day, your baseline level of happiness will increase.
The more you focus on how it felt to use the strength, the better the experience will be. That’s quite amazing!

5. Psychological drugs are nowhere near as effective as we might believe

There are two types of medications: curative and cosmetic. Curative mediations cure the disease. Cosmetic drugs supress symptoms temporarily. Seligman states that ‘every single drug on the shelf of the psychopharmacopoeia is cosmetic’ and that ‘biological psychiatry has given up on a cure’. Also, the effect of psychotherapy drugs are almost always technically ‘small’, with the best most can do is reach 65% relief.
Frightening. Positive psychology, luckily, is a whole different story!

6. The way that you respond to other people’s positive events really, really matters

Most ‘good’ people are nice to someone in crisis. However, what is more telling is how we respond to other people’s positive events, and this is especially true in romantic relationships.

There are four types of responses that you can give:

a. Active and Constructive (this is the good one)
b. Passive and Constructive
c. Active and Destructive, and
d. Passive and Destructive.

Anything other than an active and constructive response will undermine rather than build the relationship.
To give Seligman’s example, imagine that your life partner/sibling/best friend just won $500. A genuine active constructive response, supported with eye contact and positive emotion, would be: “How wonderful! That’s really great. What are you going to do with it? How did you feel when you won the money? Tell me about how you came about winning this.”
An active destructive response would go with negative emotions, and be something like: “I bet there’s a catch. I never win anything.”
A passive constructive approach, with limited emotion, would be: “That’s nice.”
A passive destructive approach, with limited eye-contact, and turning away from the other person would be: “I had a bad day at work today.”
If you’re a good active constructive responder, people will like you more, spend more time with you, and share more of their lives with you, which makes you feel better. It’s a skill worth cultivating. Seligman recommends spending a week noting how you respond to other people’s good news, and if you’re not yet good at it, prepare in advance and start practicing!

7. School doesn’t teach us about well-being: you have to learn elsewhere

Seligman makes a blindingly obvious yet crucial point here. When asked: “what do you want for your children?”, most people say ‘happiness’, ‘kindness’, ‘confidence’, ‘fulfillment’, ‘balance’, ‘good stuff’, ‘kindness’, ‘health’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘love’.
When asked “what does school teach your children?” they say ‘achievement’, ‘thinking skills’, ‘success’, ‘conformity’, ‘literacy’, ‘maths’, ‘work’, ‘test-taking’ and ‘discipline’.
Do you notice how these are not the same?
Our current educational system creates children and adults alike that are seriously lacking in the skills of how to be happy. Seligman thinks that we should change that. I tend to agree.

8. We can be drawn by the future, not driven by the past

Social science is underpinned by the idea that malignant environments, not bad character, produce crime. That premise takes away a lot of personal responsibility, making circumstances, not people, responsible for bad behaviour. Further, in that world-view, to create change, you must change the circumstances and environments and not punish bad nor reward good behaviour. That leads to governments spending money to correct social problems.
In contrast from ‘psychology-as-usual’ (which is, as Seligman bitingly states, the psychology of victims, negative emotions, alienation, pathology and tragedy), positive psychology puts the responsibility back on the person, looking at their character, with free will and individual responsibility as causes.
That changes the way that we should intervene: not only can we better the world by making environments and circumstances better, we can also identify and shape character.
Good events, high achievement and positive emotions are to positive psychology what bad events, under-achievement and negative emotions are to ‘psychology-as-usual’. When we take positive events as being just as legitimate as negative events, we can focus on character, strength and talent.
In ‘psychology-as-usual’, the focus is on habits, drives and circumstances. In contrast, positive psychology believes that we are drawn by the future, which means that expectations, planning and conscious choices are the focus. Our character defines us, and gives individuals back responsibility and control.

9. GRIT is the queen of all of the virtues

GRIT is the extreme expression of the virtue of self-discipline, and can be defined as ‘the combination of very high persistence and high passion for the objective’. Extraordinary achievement is very rare. Most extraordinary achievers possess high grit. There is a GRIT test (available in Flourish).

10. You can turn trauma into growth

We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’). But have you heard of post traumatic growth (PTG)?
Seligman has worked extensively with the USA Military on resilience training and cultivating PTG instead of PTSD, which he describes as ‘the tail wagging the dog’.
There is a bell-shaped distribution of the human response to high adversity, with the low end resulting in pathology, but the high end resulting in significant growth.
Until recently, in the military, 90% of the soldiers knew about PTSD, but only 10% about PTG. In reality, and without implying that trauma is a good thing, trauma does often set the stage for growth. Both early resilience training as well as post-event positive psychology interventions can increase the chances of experiencing PTG. Mental toughness can be built.

11. Optimistic people are less likely to die than pessimistic people

Many reliable studies have been done that show that optimistic people enjoy better health, longevity and quality of life than those who are pessimists. In some studies, optimism was the only variable that impacted your chances of an early death. Luckily for those with a tendency towards pessimism, optimism can be learned.

12. Above a certain threshold, more money does not make you happier

And there we have it: scientific proof that when our basic needs are met (and this varies greatly), money cannot buy happiness. For example, in the USA, the GDP has tripled in the last 50 years, but life satisfaction has been flat. Worse, measures of ill-being have increased: depression has risen tenfold, anxiety rates have risen and social connection and trust have dropped. Having money helps; after all, we do buy a lot of positive emotions (think travel, hotels, dinners out, luxury chocolates, nice clothes), and wealth does contribute to life satisfaction. However, money doesn’t affect happiness or good mood, and money’s effects cap out lower than one would expect.
The skills of the good life – enjoying positive emotion, being engaged with loved ones, having meaning in life, achieving goals and maintaining good relationships – are not the same skills as not being depressed, not being angry and not being anxious. Just as in medicine, removing the symptoms does not mean that a person is flourishing. Positive mental health is not just the absence of mental illness.
Being a 0 or a 1 on a scale of flourishing that reaches 10 isn’t optimal, but many of us languish there. Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, which is definitely a worthwhile pursuit. Positive, happy and ‘well’ is a goal for many people, and positive psychology gives us the tools to get there.

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