Tag Archives: Flourishing

Happiness read of the month: Flourish, by prof Seligman

I usually have New Year resolutions. Sometimes only one for the year, sometimes a bit too many. This year I have about five, and if there’s one that I really aspire to make, it is this one: I would like to read a book about happiness every month.

I built up a nice little collection of happiness books, so why not motivate myself to read a bit more this year. And – of course – find an excuse to buy a few extra books…

In January I read Flourish by prof Martin Seligman. I have spoken about prof Seligman, the role he played in positive psychology and the PERMA model of happiness and well-being already before. I however never read his book.

 

Happiness is out. Wellbeing and flourishing are in.

Flourish came out in 2011, and Seligman wrote it partially to correct his understanding of happiness in an earlier book, Authentic Happiness (2002). Over time, Seligman’s – and positive psychology’s -  understanding of what happiness and wellbeing are evolved. Gradually, the distinction between happiness and wellbeing  became more clear. Happiness relates to a brief, quickly passing moment, and is quite of a buzzword. It is a term easily understood by people, but when you look under the surface, it can have many meanings. Indeed, happiness is often used as a proxy for well-being or quality of life (in his book, Seligman also uses flourishing). Well-being is a more complex and generic phenomenon, describing everything what is important to a living good life.

In 2002 Seligman thought happiness manifested itself in three aspects: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. In 2011, he argued that well-being or flourishing – a more stable and more permanent notion – should be the focus of positive psychology. He also added two ‘missing’ dimensions of flourishing: positive relationships, and accomplishment. The PERMA model was born.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

 

The mission of positive psychology

The fundament now laid, most of the book is about fulfilling the mission of positive psychology: increasing flourishing. The chapters focus on what type of positive psychology interventions work. This can be compared to what standard psychology started to do when it was invented: find out, through academic research, what type of interventions can treat personality disorders and depression.

An example of a positive psychology ‘intervention’ is what Seligman calls the ‘gratitude visit’: think about someone in your life that did something for you for which you couldn’t thank them enough. Found the person? Now write down, in some detail, what the person did for you and what it meant to you. Then announce you want to visit the person, but don’t tell them why. When you visit the person, read out your gratitude letter aloud. I am sure that if you try it out, it will be a very powerful moment.

Seligman and colleagues then expanded these interventions in different areas. They built a positive psychotherapy programme to treat people with depression. They developed a positive education programme to reshape curricula in some pioneering schools. And they worked with the US Army to train soldiers on resilience.

The book then even stretches on to other areas, such as the economy and happiness – it was precisely the debate on alternative ways to measure progress than GDP that brought me into happiness blogging seven years ago.

 

What are your signature strengths?

One of the most interesting areas, though, is the work of Seligman and co on strengths. They defined what key call ‘signature strengths’. While acknowledging we all need to work on our weaknesses, they argued it’s just as important to build on our strengths when we define our ambitions and plans for personal development. The book contains a questionnaire, which can also be found on the website of the VIA Character Institute, that helps you to identify your personal strengths out of a set of 24. I did the test myself, and for me these strengths are honesty, gratitude, and curiosity. It’s a nice narrative to think that these traits define me.

  • Honesty is about authenticity, and being true to yourself. For instance, this helps to share your opinion when someone asks for it, or to name – and then improve – a bad habit.
  • Gratitude means being grateful for the good in your life, and being able to express that gratitude. This can help in maintaining relationships with others (people like to hear ‘thanks’), but also to accept life events outside your control as they are.
  • The strength Curiosity concerns an interest in new topics and experiences. I believe it’s a factor in personal growth, as it motivates to increase or go out of our comfort zone.

Curious what your strengths are? Read more and do the test here.

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

The King’s Speech: beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

“The pursuit of happiness is a beautiful thing. But it shouldn’t become an obsession.”

That’s one of the key messages of the Christmas speech of Dutch king Willem Alexander gave a few weeks ago.

It puts the finger on an important issue around happiness: happiness is worthwhile to pursue, but only in moderation. It should not become an obsession, indeed. Happiness gurus and positive thinkers may emphasise optimism so much, that they forget that bad things are a natural part of life. Sometimes life sucks, sometimes we fail, sometimes we doubt ourselves. And negative emotions – anger, guilt, self-doubt, sadness – are just as important in regulating our emotional health as positive emotions are.

If we shouldn’t obsess about happiness, should we still pursue it? Indeed, as Willem Alexander said: “one cannot force happiness. It is elusive. It comes suddenly”. In that vein, should we still wish each other a happy New Year?

Here the King’s Speech (in Dutch). The part on happiness starts around 3:00.

Have a Flourishing New Year

I think it’s still worth wishing each other a Happy New Year – it is an easy term and everybody has an image of what ‘happiness’ means. But we can also do better: in a way, ‘happiness’ is a lazy term. It is easily used incorrectly, and we have better, more precise alternatives. Many of them have been mentioned on the blog: well-being, meaning, life satisfaction, and flow.

Maybe the best one, though, is ‘flourishing‘, as described by Martin Seligman. A person that ‘flourishes’ doesn’t merely experience happy moments (and certainly doesn’t obsess about them!). Instead, he or she is doing well in a broad sense: positive emotions  and meaning to live well, but also resilient in face of the dark days that inevitably will occur during the year.

Beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

Let’s cheer to a year of flourishing. But how do you pursue flourishing? A start point might be to pursue a healthy life style. The example below is taken from Arts en Leefstijl (Doctor and Life style) in the Netherlands. They recommend to pay attention to six factors to develop a healthy life style: nutrition, your social life, relaxation, physical activity, meaning, and sufficient sleep.

On some you will already perform well. My examples here: I get my eight hours of sleep, I am grateful for what is good, I try to be friendly and interested in others. Some will be more challenging: I can definitely reduce phone time and do more sports. Others will be in between: my eating pattern is overall fine, but I can sure do more to reduce sugar and get enough fruit and veg everybody. A healthy life style finds a right balance on all of them.

With that, let me wish you a Flourishing New Year, full of positive emotions, a healthy life style, and resilience. Go beyond happiness, and pursue flourishing.

 

The wheel of flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

The wheel of a healthy life style, contributing to flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahneman, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness website, Penn University

 

The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?