In London last week, shortly after the tennis at Wimbledon 2011 had just come to an end, Dr. Martin Seligman used a timely analogy. He announced that the UK was now on ‘centre court’ towards creating a positive human future and at a possible inflection point for positive psychology. His comment refers to the UK Government’s action to measure well-being through a household survey of 200,000 people per year. Seligman described this as a courageous move since Britain is in the grip of a tough economic recession and swingeing cuts to public services.
Seligman spoke at two sessions, the first at the House of Commons, the centuries old home of the UK Parliament, and the second at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), whose notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Charles Dickens. Seligman stated clearly his view that governments should be held accountable for changes in the well-being of their citizens, as well as for levels of economic growth. Indeed, he provoked, “What is the point of wealth if not to produce well-being?”
Certainly the UK Government appears to be listening, at least as far as taking the first step of measurement. How this will translate into public policy for well-being is yet to be determined. Although Dr. Seligman confessed that throughout his career he has focused at the individual level, positive psychology research has now been successfully applied to groups such as schools and indeed currently to the US Army. He sees no reason why it shouldn’t influence government policy too.
The core of Seligman’s address centered around the elements of PERMA, his new theory of well-being as presented in his recent book, Flourish. Here Seligman confessed that his thinking had changed. The approach he’d taken in Authentic Happiness was insufficient since, “What free people choose to do is driven by more than just happiness.” Introducing each element in turn he cited some of the latest research findings and gave examples of specific interventions.
- For Positive Emotions, he mentioned both Fredrickson and Losada’s ratio of 2.9:1 positive to negative interactions amongst successful business teams and the higher ratio (5:1) needed for successful marriages, as identified by John Gottman.
- Speaking about Engagement he posited that this happens when people use their higher strengths to meet challenges.
- For Relationships he talked through Shelly Gable’s Active Constructive Responding.
- For Meaning, he talked about looking back from the future to think about how we’d like to be remembered as having contributed to our own vision of positive humanity.
- For Accomplishment he talked about Angela Duckworth’s concept of ‘Grit’.
Clearly well-being is a hot topic here in the UK and both sessions were packed to overflowing with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Illustrative of this were the range of questions asked of Dr. Seligman.
- How can well-being help to counter the level of ‘presenteeism’ (being present at work but not actively engaged)?
- Do organizations, not individuals, need to be oriented towards pessimism?
- What is the role of gratitude in PERMA?
- How might PERMA differ across cultures?
- How did religiosity relate to PERMA?
- Should policy be concerned with teaching people how to cope with bad events rather than trying to prevent bad things happening?
- Why is there little research on the benefits of platonic touch amongst wellbeing in adults?
Seligman responded that in his view PERMA is from the neck down, as well as up, and more research is certainly needed into the role of the physical and the body on psychological well-being.
A question that particularly stood out for me as illustrative of how far the positive psychology and well-being agenda has come was when a member of the House of Lords asked if well-being needed to influence not just the content of political debate but how it is conducted – since political discourse in the UK has moved away from ideology to become increasingly adversarial and materialistic. Seligman agreed, noting that Aristotle considered that the two noblest professions were teaching and politics. (I suspect that whilst many in the UK would agree with the first, there would be far fewer that agreed with the latter.) He went on to say that this might also be applied to journalism – again timely as sections of the UK press have fallen from grace in the eyes of the public in the light of recent phone hacking scandals. Perhaps, said Seligman, the press needed to report on more of what is right, noble, and heroic, as well as what is wrong.
A final question considered how pharmacology and positive psychology urgently needed to work together. Posed by an audience member from the pharmacology sector, this question centered on the limited effectiveness of current drug based treatments for depression and other psychological disorders. Seligman stated that the situation may even be worse. Citing his latest bedtime reading, Anatomy of an Epidemic, he said that there is evidence that drug-based treatments that work in the short term may actually contribute to the rise in mental ill-health in the long run.Indeed he pointed out that the positive effects of both medical and traditional psycho-therapeutic interventions ‘melt away’ whereas in contrast, some positive psychology based interventions may be more readily and healthily maintained.
It seems that since its inception, positive psychology is gradually challenging cynicism and even melting some of it away. If this can be achieved here in the UK, hopes are high that it can do so anywhere. Like Wimbledon for those with a keen interest in tennis, eyes across the world are watching the new centre court.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Audio recording of Dr. Martin Seligman’s lecture at the RSA in London
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Fredrickson B. L. & Losada M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60, 678-686.
Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A. & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing good events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87: 228-245.
Maisel N. & Gable, S. L. (2009). The paradox of received social support: The importance of responsiveness. Psychological Science, 20, 928-932.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Whitaker, R. (2010). Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America. New York: Random House.