Walking the driveway of Martin Seligman's suburban Philadelphia home, I pass his daughter Nikki. Although I'm here to interview her University of Pennsylvania professor dad, the 19-year-old is, one could argue, the true mother of the Positive Psychology movement that has made him quite possibly the world's most influential academic psychologist.
In his 2002 bestseller, "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment,"Seligman recounts the movement's creation story: When Nikki was 5 years old, she asked her father why, since she had so successfully learned to stop whining, he couldn't quit being such a grouch. At that moment, Seligman writes, he understood that the source of his parental grumpiness was his unwavering focus on correcting his children's weaknesses rather than on building up their strengths.
More important to the rest of the world, Seligman concluded that dwelling on the negative wasn't merely a personal flaw. His entire profession had been engaged in the blinkered pursuit of trying to fix what was wrong with people at the expense of identifying their best traits and helping capitalize on them. After Nikki's unlikely tip-off, Seligman began in earnest to develop a new approach to psychology based on building optimal functioning and resilience instead of one limited to treating depression and anxiety. "The burden of the social sciences over the past 120 years has been all about misery and victimology," he says. "Somehow it eluded people that if we went after what made life worth living, that may be our best armamentarium against misery."
In rethinking psychology's raison d'etre, Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, has succeeded beyond his wildest imaginings. Thanks in good measure to his influence, we're living in a happiness-happy world. Within the ivory tower, his academic disciples and admirers have published numerous books about happiness and how to pursue it; there's even a Journal of Happiness Studies. The chipper vibes have rippled through the world at large. The Boston-based company Life Is Good slaps its moniker on T-shirts and baseball caps and sells more than a $100 million in merchandise annually, without needing to advertise. And Slate.com blogger Gretchen Rubin landed on the best-seller list with her book "The Happiness Project."
But even as happiness spun into a burgeoning industry, Seligman grew increasingly, well, unhappy with what he helped bring into being. That discontent has steered him toward yet another intellectual course correction as detailed in his new book, "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being." It's his most comprehensive effort to make sense of the existential question that thinkers since Aristotle have struggled to answer: What does it really mean to live a good life, or, in Seligman-speak, to flourish?
In "Authentic Happiness," a foundational text of the Positive Psychology movement, Seligman argued that individuals needed three core components to achieve life satisfaction: positive emotion, engagement, and a larger sense of purpose. Holding up the tent of the satisfied life, he argued, was one central pillar: happiness. But now Seligman believes that the tent didn't quite cover everything it was supposed to. However broadly you define happiness, he allows, it should have something to do with feeling "up." Yet two of the three good-life components, engagement and meaning, are about connecting to something outside yourself and as such may have nothing at all to do with being upbeat.
To better understand what motivates people to do what they do, Seligman synthesized 50 years' worth of social psychology research, including his own. He arrived at "Flourish," a revised and more capacious vision of well-being that adds two new elements to his previous formula. Five pillars now support the tent of the well-lived life, each important and independent: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment -- or PERMA. These elements represent "the things that people do for their own sakes when they're not being oppressed or frog-marched," Seligman says. (That language isn't accidental. Seligman's grandparents were Eastern European Jews who came to this country to escape persecution, and he's never taken his personal freedoms for granted.) "PERMA constitutes what I think we should strive for in life," he says. "From my point of view, a flourishing person has those five things writ large." Here's how Seligman explains each pillar of well-being:
"Happiness means so many different things to different people," Seligman says, "which is why I think it is a scientifically useless concept." Positive emotion is, he believes, happiness's useful core, the energizing force that drives us toward the sweeter things in life, like friendship and romance, and probably keeps us healthier and living longer. And it's something that, from an academic's point of view, can be more accurately measured. In one study Seligman cites, of 999 senior citizens from Holland, the most optimistic were 45 percent less likely than the most pessimistic to die over nine years.
When we're truly engrossed in a task that demands our attention, our sense of self recedes and time feels as if it has slowed or even stopped. We're in what Seligman's good friend, the distinguished psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, calls flow. To illustrate the benefits of engagement, Seligman points to a study that tracked high-flow teenagers who diligently did homework and practiced music at night yet felt envious of their low-flow peers who were hanging out at the mall. But "the ones that go into flow do better in college and in life," Seligman says. The moral: Easy pleasures are fleeting; hard-won gratifications can buoy you long-term.
Most of us know intuitively that life's truly joyful and meaningful moments are spent in the company of others. Indeed, in a study of college students, Seligman found that what separated the most content from the least was a fulfilling social life, including romantic relationships. Our bonds with others are "the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up," he says. "And research literature shows that loneliness is one of the huge factors in anxiety and depression. Human beings are built for relationships."
As defined by Seligman, this is a sense of "belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self," such as religious institutions or political causes. Seligman has been examining whether a person's answer to the statement "My work has meaning and purpose" can be a predictor of suicide. In the real world, a sense of meaning often spills over to other PERMA elements, such as engagement, relationships, and accomplishment, but, Seligman says, we also pursue purpose for its own sake.
In "Flourish." Seligman explains that his reevaluation of the good life was sparked by a comment from a brilliant graduate student in an applied positive psychology class at Penn. His Authentic Happiness theory, she declared, "has a huge hole in it. It omits success and mastery." And with that, Seligman began considering the rightful place of accomplishment and success in the well-lived life. Certainly, achievement is one thing people often pursue as an end in itself, even if everyone has a different idea about what it entails. For some, accomplishment is doing something notable and being acknowledged for it. But for others it means setting and achieving purely personal goals, such as losing 15 pounds or making the effort to be nicer to your neighbor.
Rebelling Against the Smiley Face
If Seligman's PERMA schema seems a bit abstract, there's an easy way to bring it down to earth: kids. As he and I discuss his book, his two youngest girls, Carly, 10, and Jenny, 7, are mesmerized by the family's new puppy; his wife, Mandy, and daughter Lara, 21, a senior at Penn, are in the kitchen brainstorming post-college internships, and paterfamilias Seligman looks not the least bit grumpy. And yet, if the psychologists and economists who have seized on happiness as the measure of all things are right, this hearth-and-home scene may not be worth all the emotional labor it took to build it.
Princeton psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert raised some parental hackles with studies concluding that no matter how much joy people claimed their kids brought to their lives, raising them delivered about as much happiness as washing the dishes, if that. Are we simply deluded, as Gilbert suggests, about what really makes us happy?
"The fact that we're forever choosing to have children just tells us that this is wrong," Seligman says. "[Without kids] Mandy and I would be traveling around the world going to operas and eating in great restaurants. All I see now are Disney movies. But my life has more meaning, my relationships are better." And as his own example suggests, some of the most rewarding things we do cross PERMA lines. Raising a family speaks to relationships and meaning; pulling off a DIY project to meaning, accomplishment, and, when it's going well, to engagement.
The richer if less aggressively sunny vision of the good life as laid out in "Flourish" is Seligman's bid to save Positive Psychology from those he calls the "happy-ologists." After a long, distinguished academic career of pioneering work, first on depression and later on optimism, the last thing he wanted to be defined by was a yellow smiley face. In fact, his most enduring contribution may be his collaboration with that distinctly nonsmiley institution, the U.S. Army.
Three years ago, Seligman persuaded the military to evaluate and treat its soldiers' mental health according to Positive Psychology principles, including PERMA. Today there are online Army courses and a steady stream of master sergeants coming to Penn's Center for Positive Psychology to receive the training they'll share with the Army's 1.1 million soldiers.
For Seligman, PERMA is also a concession of sorts to critics who suggested he was doing his readers no favors by making happiness (even Authentic Happiness) the centerpiece of the good life given that baseline mood is so difficult to change. As Seligman himself points out, a raft of studies on identical twins have shown that about 50 percent of our temperament, whether it's cheerful, melancholy, or somewhere in between, is inherited. Among those who tend to be blue, mood may fluctuate temporarily in response to good news only to settle back into their set range, suggesting that chasing after pleasure is a fool's errand. Seligman believes that PERMA, by stressing the complementary paths to the good life, is a scientifically sound road map for getting there regardless of one's default disposition.
Seligman's map, it should be noted, does not come with detailed directions. If his intellectual boldness permits him his master list of the most important things in life, his scrupulousness about sticking to the published research doesn't yet allow him to tell us exactly how the pieces should fit together in one optimal PERMA package. Can some of us do just fine without one or two of the elements? How much energy should we invest in, say, relationships versus accomplishment -- which, working parents will appreciate, have a way of lining up in opposition? Seligman himself admits that he was so driven in the early years of his career that his relationships with his two adult children from his first marriage lack the closeness he enjoys with his younger five, all of whom he helped to home-school.
These are good questions that in theory, he says, have good answers, ones he's still working toward. For now, the best therapeutic advice he can offer is to take a hard look at the PERMA elements in your life "if you feel like you're stuck or stagnating or find yourself sad, anxious, or angry out of proportion to the reality of your world," he says. "There is no common path. There is only a dashboard of elements." But he is more than willing to take off the lab coat of the disinterested scientist to send the world a straightforward message: More PERMA is better PERMA.
Seligman's faith in the statistical tools of modern social science has persuaded him that his dashboard is more illuminating than all the other visions of the good life that have come before. The data he has gleaned from decades of surveys and questionnaires has given him, he says, not only the five PERMA elements but also the instruments to measure techniques that enhance them. "It's about measurement and intervention," he says.
Some of his interventions are adapted from the world of cognitive therapy; some resemble what might be found in a book by a smart life coach. The difference, Seligman says, is that "they're validated in random-assigned placebo-controlled research and they actually change people." Beginning with Seligman himself. He often practices PERMA exercises, including Three Blessings and Active and Constructive Response, to help silence the persistent negative thoughts he says genetics have bequeathed him and that are at play even during our conversation. "Jeez, what's he really gonna say in that article? Why am I spending two hours doing this interview?" Seligman says, giving me a taste of his inner dialogue. "But I know how to argue back. It's about developing a whole bunch of skills that you use to counter the deficits you bring to life."
Whether or not you share Seligman's conviction that social science is the royal road to human truth, his vision of well-being is compelling, less about enjoying life when it's going well and more about marshaling emotional reserves when it's not. He's built a PERMA tent big enough to include his heroes Lincoln and Churchill -- magnificent depressives who rose above their low moods to reshape the world -- and ones closer at hand, those Army soldiers he's studying who emerged from combat trauma stronger than they were before they went through that hell. Not unlike Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago, Seligman has decided that while being happy is perfectly fine, being good is better. Maybe it is time to say goodbye to the smiley face.
Joseph Hooper, coauthor of "Muscle Medicine: The Revolutionary Approach to Maintaining, Strengthening, and Repairing Your Muscles and Joints," wrote about depression treatments in Whole Living's October 2010 issue.
It's easy to achieve flow when you're doing something you love -- hours fly by. But when you're doing something you dread, you feel every second. The exercise Using Signature Strengths in a New Way had a positive effect on volunteers for the full six months. To begin, find your personal signature strength by answering the questionnaire at authentichappiness.com. (There are six key virtues -- Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence -- which then give rise to 24 character strengths.) Then pick one task you typically don't enjoy and tackle it using your signature strength. Let's say you don't like to cook, but humor is your strong suit. Once a week, bring your kids into the making-dinner act by pretending you're the host of a cooking show. Since you're more likely to enjoy things you do well, applying that strength helps transform something you dread into something you love.
"Much of your mood depends on what you pay attention to," Seligman explains. And we're hardwired to focus on the negative. That tendency may have saved our Ice Age ancestors, but today, it serves only to steep us in anxiety and depression. Traditional talk therapy doesn't always help, as it tends to dissect what goes wrong in life. Seligman's Three Blessings forces us to acknowledge the good. Every evening for a week, write down three things that went well for you that day -- whether they were a matter of luck (you found $20 on the sidewalk) or they were in your control (you clocked your fastest mile during your morning run). The latter tends to be a stronger mood elevator. The key here is being aware of and reflecting on positive events. This simple acknowledgement springs you out of the spiral of victimhood that makes you think nothing ever goes right. Research shows that the more you do this, the more it can improve your well-being.
Unlike exercises that encourage you to look inward, this one has you reaching out: Write a 300-word essay that lays out a PERMA-future for the world, how in 20 years your children or your grandchildren will live in a world with more positive emotion, deeper engagement and meaning, and stronger relationships. Then write your obituary through the eyes of those children or grandchildren describing what you did in your lifetime to bring about those changes. When writing your obit, focus on smaller gestures, not just bigger causes or interests. This shows that every action, however minor, affects your family and maybe even society at large.
Perhaps no relationship is more central than the one you share with your partner. Seligman's favorite exercise draws on research from psychologist Shelly Gable at the University of California, Santa Barbara: The better predictor of relationship success is how couples respond to each other's good news, not how they fight. For example, your partner tells you he got a raise. In an Active and Constructive Response, you would be as excited as he is and want to relive the "up" moment with him. In contrast, the "passive and constructive" response is the right words, tersely, with little feeling behind them. An "active and destructive" response might be something like "Are you going to spend fewer nights at home now?" while a "passive and destructive" response ignores your partner's news: "What should we order for dinner?" Listen carefully when your partner has good news and respond actively and constructively, and listen to his response when you have good news. To complete the exercise, log your interactions verbatim in a notebook every evening for a week: The News; My Response; Partner's Response to Me; and vice versa. Another relationship exercise doesn't involve your partner at all but brings an even greater mood boost. Compose a 300-word letter of gratitude to someone who made a difference in your life but whom you have not properly thanked. Then make a date to visit and read the letter to them. You'll not only call up positive associations writing the letter, Seligman says, but deepen your bond with the recipient in delivering it.
Truly driven people thrive on achievement and recognition. They keep a mental tab of each win. Those who aren't as goal oriented may need to define success for themselves. You can do that with this simple exercise: On the first of each month, make a list of three things you want to accomplish. "It doesn't need to be world-shaking stuff," Seligman says. Then at the end of the month, check your progress. This gives you a sense of satisfaction by driving home how much you actually achieve in any given month.
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