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Answering the Call: Martin Seligman’s Positive Mission (Book Review)

By on April 12, 2011 – 12:48 pm  22 Comments

Christine Duvivier, MAPP '07 and Cornell MBA, is a positive change speaker and mentor who helps her clients unleash hidden talents, develop skills, and take practical steps to achieve higher levels of happiness and success. In her career at DuPont, Eli Lilly, and DEC, she learned to lead with positive alignment and release what holds us back. Christine's model builds on strengths, challenges myths, and cultivates possibility in each individual, even if they are not currently "A" players. Web site. Email. Full bio. Christine's articles are here.



Flourish

BOOK REVIEW: Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.

Love. Joy. Appreciation. Gratitude. Awe.  Until Martin Seligman and his colleagues began documenting the value of these emotions not only to our spirits but to our productivity and well-being, these words were primarily found in religious contexts.  With his new book, Flourish, Seligman brings our attention to the compelling evidence that has emerged from the field of Positive Psychology, a field he forged.

As a speaker and a writer, Seligman inspires.  In September 2006, he opened the first morning of our MAPP program with a story that he shares in Flourish:  In the 15th century, Cosimo de’ Medici convinced his family and the rulers of Florence not to spend their unprecedented wealth on war or on territorial acquisitions but rather on creating beauty.  This decision led to the Renaissance, the notion of Free Will, and to Florence’s renown as a beautiful city.  In a similar vein, Seligman urges us to invest the great wealth of western nations in the ultimate goal of having wealth: increasing well-being.

Positive Psychology Calling

Marty with MAPP Group on Stairs

Marty and MAPP Colleagues

While calling others to his cause, Seligman explains that he did not set out to create positive psychology, but rather was called to it, as are his MAPP students, who also tend to be called to this field as an avocation, not simply a vocation.   Thankfully, Flourish is not simply for those who are called to positive psychology.
 

Here Seligman lays out his thinking on pathways to greater well-being and explains how his thinking has changed over time.  He takes on GDP (Gross Domestic Product, or national income) and urges governments to create measures of citizen well-being which is, after all, the reason most of us want income.  He ends with a clear call for governments to measure citizen well-being, and he stakes out the ‘moon shot’ goal of positive psychology: 51% of the world’s population is flourishing by 2051.

A Dirty Little Secret

Seligman directly challenges traditional approaches to depression, saying,

“The dirty little secret of biological psychiatry and of clinical psychology is that they have both given up the notion of cure… and here’s the second dirty little secret.  Almost always the effects are what is technically called, ‘small’…recurrence and relapse are the rule.”

In contrast, he offers evidence and exercises from positive psychology. He explains that not only are the exercises fun and easy-to-do, but they are self-reinforcing over time.   His tests of positive psychotherapy with Acacia Parks and Tayyab Rashid are described in detail.  The results were dramatic: symptoms decreased into non-depressed ranges and remained there for the year of study.  He says, “Positive psychotherapy relieved depressive symptoms on all outcome measures better than treatment as usual and better than drugs.”

Most importantly, in my view, Flourish offers clear evidence that positive psychology can be used to prevent depression, not simply to treat it.   Seligman, rightly in my view, questions the fact that the U.S. government has to-date ignored the value of positive approaches.

Reading Seligman’s responses to one critic, Barbara Ehrenreich (book review by Louisa Jewell), I began thinking about the fact that she comes across on paper (I don’t know her) as unhappy, for example when she writes, “I hate hope.”  Who hates hope?!?   It dawned on me that I have never met a happy or optimistic person who was a cynic about positive approaches to work, love, and life.  I look forward to seeing data on cynics’ well-being in the future, but meanwhile the data across millions of people confirms the value of positive approaches.

Mind and Body

   Pedometer

For example, where this book truly breaks new ground is in Positive Health.  Until recently, positive psychology was thought to be the domain of emotion and mood, while physical health was based on screening and treating problems in the body.   With the work of Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University, the positive mind-body connection is making its way into academia and the public.   Cohen’s work is described in Flourish and shows the immediate preventive effects of positive emotion on something as common as the cold.
 

With respect to more serious illness, Seligman cites research on cardiovascular disease (CVD) that shows optimists die from CVD at only 23%  the rate of pessimists.  Currently, I am reading The Heart’s Code, and in it Paul Pearsall explains that more than 50% of heart attack victims had no sex in the prior year. So now I’m wondering: can we combine these findings and conclude optimists have more sex?

On the flip side of emotional effects on the body, MAPP students encouraged the faculty to add physical exercise to the positive psychology agenda, knowing from our personal and professional experience that it was an important component of mental well-being.  In the book, Seligman describes his personal transition from a “neck up” psychologist to a 10,000-steps-a-day practitioner, thanks to clear evidence of the mental and physical benefits of exercise.

Spirit

Why is the sky blue?

Flourish offers us much to absorb, and one book cannot cover everything.  Yet there is  one area that I would love to see covered: spirituality.  By spirituality, I mean a connection to a higher part of ourselves or something beyond our individual minds and bodies.   George Vaillant addresses spirituality in both lectures and books, and some positive psychologists have begun to study meditation as a path to spiritual practice.  Among the things I most admire about Martin Seligman is his masterful ability to incorporate a cross-section of thinkers and fields (biology, history, medicine and philosophy) into positive psychology. He blends them well in this new book.   Given where positive psychology is now, I hope that in the future, spirituality will be given attention. I also hope that quantum physics will be incorporated, since it can explain some of the physical/non-physical dynamics between mind, body, and spirit.
 

That said, these are topics for someone else’s book. Flourish is an enlightening, valuable, and engaging compilation of Seligman’s thinking, his work, and this exciting new field of psychology.

A Story of Personal and Professional Transformation

Martin Seligman

   Martin Seligman

Flourish documents Seligman’s personal and professional journey.   Along the way, it provides useful tools, extensive research, and his applications of positive psychology and resilience training in the military and schools.  Seligman’s descriptions of his own fallibility. including how he stumbled in trying to introduce a new initiative as President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and his personal struggle with pessimism, make him fully human and endearing to the reader.   He tells his story of creating the new field of positive psychology (and for those who know the “Nicki” story, read the book because there’s more to it).
 

His writing reflects his brilliance in clear and understandable terms.  Martin Seligman continues to have a powerful, positive effect on individuals and societies, and I believe that Flourish will have a powerful, positive effect on you.

 


 

References:

Cohen, S., Alper, C.M., Doyle, W.J., Treanor, J.J. and Turner, R.B. (2006).  Positive Emotional Style Predicts Resistance to Illness After Experimental Exposure to Rhinovirus or Influenza A Virus. Psychosomatic Medicine, 68: 809-15.

Pearsall, P. (1998).  The Heart’s Code: Tapping the Wisdom and Power of Our Heart Energy. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61: 744-88.

Vaillant, G. E. (2008, October 24).  Presentation at the MAPP Summit.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

 

Image
Pedometer courtesy of Jake Mohan
Why is the sky blue? courtesy of optick

 

22 Comments »

  • Jules says:

    Hi Christine

    Re this paragraph:

    ‘In the 15th century, Cosimo de’ Medici convinced his family and the rulers of Florence not to spend their unprecedented wealth on war or on territorial acquisitions but rather on creating beauty. This decision led to the Renaissance, the notion of Free Will, and to Florence’s renown as a beautiful city.’

    The Renaissance happened in many other cities in Italy, as well as in England, Germany, Holland, France…And I don’t understand what you mean that Medici’s millions led to ‘free will’. Could you explain what you mean?

    Thanks,

    Jules

  • Hi Jules, Thanks for your questions. Here are a few thoughts:
    – I would love to stay on the bigger point from Marty’s story: how we choose to invest our wealth:)
    – Florence is often considered the catalyst for the renaissance as noted on wikipedia here: “Florence has had a long and eventful history, being a Roman city, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance (or the “Florentine Renaissance”), and being considered, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as politically, economically, and culturally one of the most important cities in Europe and the world for around 250 years – from the 14th century to the 16th century.[12]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence#Middle_Ages_and_Renaissance
    – Another reference to Florence’s centrality and importance here: “…the changes that we associate with the Renaissance first occurred in the Italian city of Florence and continued to be more pervasive there than anywhere else.” http://www.learner.org/interactives/renaissance/florence.html
    – As for Free Will, Marty makes the point that it was here that the idea of human choice and man’s ability to cause change in the world began. Before then,the thinking had been pre-determination and awe for God’s creations. The Renaissance, he says, becomes a place of choice of creating change in the universe.

    Hope this helps. I love the idea that they stopped and considered their choices– and chose to invest in beauty rather than more war.
    Christine

  • Hi Oz, That’s funny, thanks! My view is Marty’s work with the military is an effort to help individuals achieve greater well-being. He does not set policy on where the government chooses to spend its wealth (and he does argue for spending it on well-being).

    No, he doesn’t speak of mindfulness (and for me that fits nicely with spiritual practices including meditation which would be great to see in another book).

    As I mentioned, he primarily covers his own work applications and he does cover some (in my opinion) important ground: depression and health.

    No, I don’t recall anything about the secular nuances of meaning.

    Thanks for the link to Dennis’ review. I enjoyed it and the comments!
    Christine

  • Jules says:

    Hi Christine

    I don’t think it’s right to say the idea of free choice and man’s ability to change the world ‘began’ with the Renaissance. It’s called the Renaissance because it means ‘re-birth’ – in other words, a return or rebirth of classical wisdom, and the translation and dissemination of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and other ancient sources. It was the ancient Greek philosophers who first explored the idea of free will and human agency – and it was these same philosophers who inspired cognitive psychology.

    Secondly, I don’t think you can dismiss Ehrenreich’s criticisms of Positive Psychology by simply saying ‘she seems an unhappy person’. So what? That’s not engaging with her arguments rationally. That’s like a psychoanalyst saying ‘she seems in denial’. It’s not a proper argument. You then say ‘It dawned on me that I have never met a happy or optimistic person who was a cynic about positive approaches to work, love, and life.’

    Are you saying you’ve never met a happy person who ever expressed cynicism or disbelief about an attempt to improve the world? Do you think happy people should support ALL attempts to improve the world, unquestioningly? Don’t you think it’s possible that attempts to improve the world might be ‘positive’ in their motivation, while also being harmful in their actual effects?

    There is a danger that Positive Psychology sees the world in Black and White Manichean terms. A person is either an Optimist (which is Good) or they’re a cynic and pessimist (which is Bad).

    But whether a wise person expresses a cynical view or an enthusiastic and optimistic view depends, surely, on the conversation they are in, and the idea they are reacting to. If someone is talking baloney, then a dose of gentle cynicism with regard to what they’re saying is useful, adaptive and wise. Trying to teach one fixed, rigid response to the world is, by contrast, maladaptive, dogmatic, myopic.

    All best,

    Jules

  • Hi Jules, I agree completely: a fixed, rigid response to the world is unhealthy. Going back to Free will for a moment, I’ll let you debate that with Seligman, as I was paraphrasing him and I am not a historian.

    Did you feel I dismissed Ehrenreich’s criticisms? That wasn’t my intent, as I haven’t read her book. I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek and speculative there and you’re right, probably painted with way-too-broad a brush. My intent was to comment on the negativity in some of her statements that are quoted in the book, in particular, “I hate hope.” Sorry, but that just sounds unhappy to me:)

    It did get me thinking about cynicism though — and I hope I didn’t say skepticism about specific positive interventions or even skepticism about a particular theory, because I agree with you, debate is healthy (and for some of us, fun)!

    What I probably didn’t express was my thinking about a cynical “don’t give me all this positive woo woo” type of response. And yes, in my (limited!) experience, it occurs to me that I haven’t met a happy person who responded cynically to the general idea of positive approaches (as opposed to a particular way of applying a positive approach). That doesn’t mean they don’t exist!! I hope someone will research cynics and happy people who don’t like positive approaches:)

    It was not my intent to imply that optimists are good and pessimists are bad, rather that optimists are generally happier. I like to think about what works for me– and what seems to work for others. And it does seem that optimistic thinking makes many of us feel better– and for me, optimists are more fun to spend time with (which is not to say I am a raging optimist, but I’m working on it!).

    Thanks for your thoughts!
    Christine

  • Jeni Hooper says:

    Hi Christine,

    Great title to your article “Answering the call” Flourishing is a book compelling us to act, not just agreee with Seligman. He offers another layer of compelling evidence that flourishing is as much a set of skills as a mindset. I was intrigued that he didn’t want his 2002 book to be called Authentic Happiness because happiness didn’t capture the essence of his findings which were about meaning and purpose.

    Yesterday here in the UK we had the launch of Action for Happiness which is campaign to encourage people to replace self obssessed materialism with caring action groups at work, home and in the community. The interest was huge and the website couldn’t handle the volume of traffic. Hopefully it will be up again soon at http://www.actionforhappiness.org

    Psychology itself will only flourish when the application has equal status with the “pure” science locked into university circles. Marty Seligman has faced up to the institutional inertia of those who prefer to solve puzzles rather than support people. PPND is one place where those of us who “do” psychology as well as think about it can meet up and examine what it takes to make a positive difference.

    warm regards
    Jeni

  • Hi Jeni,

    Thanks! You make many great points and I enjoyed reading your comments! I agree PPND is one place where “doers” can meet up and exchange ideas–great observation, thanks. I hope your initiative goes well for you!

    I have a feeling that positive psychology (or at least positive approaches) is going to flourish with or without academic status — because the general public wants to find ways to feel good. Thanks for your contributions to that end.

    Warmly,
    Christine

  • Orin says:

    Interesting take, Christine!

    One point I would like to make, however, is that the connection between positive psychology and physical health is by no means new.

    Consider the work of Milton Erickson, George Vaillant, and Herb Benson, among many others.

  • Thanks, Orin! You make a great point about these other pioneers.

    Best wishes,
    Christine

  • Oz, It seems that filtering data through our own beliefs is the nature of human reality:)

    I may disagree with you if you are saying that Marty’s focus on CBT/resilience is problematic. My belief is that this work is highly beneficial to many and while you and I may find it easy to meditate, many do not. Ed Schein once said, “start with where the client is” and I tend to take that to heart.

    Also, this is Marty’s book about his work and as such he covers the things he finds most interesting and/or valuable, which I think is what most writers do, so for me this is fine.

    Thanks for your comments!
    Christine

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Christine,

    I have been very intrigued by the amount of vitriol aimed at Barbara Ehrenreich because of her latest book. This inspired me to read her prior work, including Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America. Read this book before passing judgment on her. Focus on her actions, not her words. This intelligent, civic minded woman has done more to raise awareness of the plight of the low-wage and impoverished working class in America than every card waving member of positive psychology. With a little digging, you will see that Barbara is a woman devoted to obliterating some of the barriers that prevent well-being. We are better served by learning from our critics, especially when they are intelligent journalists, than condemning them with second hand soundbites.

    I strongly believe that the inability to handle criticism will be one of the downfalls of positive psychology until it starts changing its way….

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Todd,

    Where’s the vitriol? Is that the way you read Christine’s comment? I read it as a more compassionate statement.

    Kathryn

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Kathryn, do you see how you jumped on me for defending someone who made a critique on PP? There are 3 references to Barbara. There is Christine’s blog post above, there is her link to Louisa Jewell’s review of Barbara’s last book, and there is the reference to Marty’s comments about her in his book. Read them as a package, add in the comments about her (not just her writings but her as a person) on the PP listserv, and point me to the compassion. But Barbara is a grown woman who is not asking for or in need of compassion.

    My point is look at her behavior, which is what she would want.
    And more importantly, be careful of being overly invested in PP such that criticism is viewed as a threat rather than a challenge or learning opportunity.

    Todd

  • Hi Todd, thanks for your feedback. Wow, sorry to hear it sounded like vitriol to you. I was not feeling vitriolic when I wrote it and I didn’t put in the link to the book review (editors have prerogatives too). My sense of barbara from the words she wrote was some unhappiness and I commented only on the words she wrote-“I hate hope.” I actually do feel compassion for her and I’m delighted to hear about her good work.

    I wholeheartedly agree that debate is health and I completely support your point that its not healthy to simply be a pp zealot. I’m not a pp zealot and I’m happy to see that you are not either.

    Warmly,
    Christine

  • Todd, I just realized you referred to the pp listserv. Perhaps there’s some vitriol there-I don’t know because I do not subscribe to it.

    Warmly,
    Christine

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Hey Christine, I just rechecked what I wrote to ensure it fit with what I meant to say. I didn’t mean to say that your comment was bathed in vitriol (which it isn’t) but rather put all of the links and comments to the links together to set up my broader point.

    If I wasn’t a fan of your writing, I wouldn’t even be here reading.

    and of note, I should say you are one of the best on PPND in responding in constructive ways to feedback….

    cheers,
    Todd

  • Hey Todd, Thanks for your kind feedback. It’s great to have a friendly exchange or even debate in the ether.
    I’m happy to hear that I didn’t come across too vitriolic:) and once I re- read your note and saw the reference to the listserv, I realized I might have inadvertently added to some cumulative “piling on.”

    A good lesson for me that what I might feel I’m writing with a sense of humor might come across very differently!

    Thanks for your open, candid and warm discussion here!

    All the best,
    Christine

  • Todd,

    I really was asking a question, not jumping on you. I wanted to know what seemed vitriolic, because as an editor, I don’t want us to be publishing vitriol. Like Christine, I was just looking at what’s here in PPND — I can’t keep up with the listserv!

    I think debate works best when both sides are open to being changed by what they hear. Thanks for caring about the quality of the debate.

    Kathryn

  • MrSkeptic says:

    I have read most of Thriving and I remember reading that PP interventions were more effective than therapy as usual. However, I didn’t see a citation. Did I miss it or are we just supposed to take Seligman’s word for it?

    With respect to Thriving, I found the whole book off putting because Seligman does a lot of self-promotion.

    Additionally, many of the interventions in PP are just not my style. I wouldn’t offer them to my clients nor would I use in my own life. They just seem superficial and hokey. Personally, I find mindfulness to be much more in tune with my world-view and theoretical orientation and it has radically changed my life. It doesn’t matter if I have positive or negative thoughts…they are all just thoughts. This perspective really dampens any sort of undesired emotional reaction.

    I often wonder why Seligman doesn’t talk about mindfulness and its effectiveness. I suppose mindfulness is more about remaining neutral than “positive” and this may not sit well with his point of view.

  • Dear Mr.Skeptic, RE: your citation question, it’s been a while since I read the book– I don’t remember what he did/didn’t cite. You might take a look at one of his articles on Positive Psychotherapy if you’re interested in more information. It’s good to hear that you find mindfulness so helpful– I do too. I also find some of the positive practices helpful when they fit the person/situation but it sounds as if mindfulness is the better fit for you and your clients, which is great.

    Thanks for your thoughts,
    Christine

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Christine, thanks for igniting this string of commentary. It seems the only person who sparks more controversy in the field of positive psychology than Barb Ehrenreich is Marty! Hey, what the heck, I agree with those who say we need more – not less – debate in the field. And you have handled all the discussion with class, dignity and respect.

  • Thanks for the humor and kindness, Dan! It’s all fun!

    All the best,
    C.

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