What a treat lay in store for the 1000-strong audience at Action for Happiness’s (AfH) 5th birthday celebration in London’s Friend’s House on March 9! For 90 minutes Professor Martin Seligman spoke in his characteristically informal and engaging style on the PERMA model of well-being and evidence-based ways to increase happiness, as well as giving us a sneak preview of his new book, Homo Prospectus, to be published by Oxford University Press this summer.As one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman should really take the credit for establishing AfH, a UK-based movement of people committed to building a happier and more caring society, though he was very quick to pass it to three others present: his friend and colleague, Professor Lord Richard Layard (who had originally conceived the idea for AfH), AfH’s strategic director Mark Williamson, and their positive psychology consultant and advisor, UPenn MAPP Vanessa King.
In five years AfH has grown to over 70,000 members worldwide. Although on Monday evening we didn’t have the champagne, fireworks and razzmatazz that accompanied Leicester City Football Club’s 5000:1 rise from bottom to top of the Premier League, nor the shower of golden ticker tape which Simon Cowell let loose on the streetdancing StormTroopers on Saturday night’s Britain’s got Talent, we nevertheless felt part of this unique celebration. AfH really does some fabulous work across the UK, encouraging people from all walks of life to get together in groups to discuss and discover what makes them happy, and spread the good word to others.
Before I say a little more about PERMA and the key messages from Seligman’s talk, let’s focus for a moment on the forthcoming publication of his new book on prospection. In 2013 I got invited to a dinner with Martin Seligman, Antony Seldon, Dr Jane Gilham, and other leaders in the positive psychology movement, at which he outlined his growing interest in prospection. I wrote a brief description of this dinner for PPND at the time, and our editor, Kathryn Britton, also wrote about Seligman’s 2013 IPPA lecture on prospection. Prospection is not a new idea in psychology; indeed some suggest that it has been around since the 1950s in the form of personal construct theory.We are not prisoners of the past, but forging the future…
So, what is prospection and why it is important for well-being? In short, prospection is the unique human capacity to imagine the future. The reason it’s important is that, according to Seligman, depression and anxiety are not problems of the past. They are problems with our ability to imagine a better future. If we want to understand why people think, feel, and behave the way they do (particularly in response to adverse events), we also need to devote time and effort to understanding how much and how well they imagine the future. By understanding the psychology behind prospection, we can then more effectively support people to improve both individual and social functioning.
Asked by a member of the audience for his view on mindfulness, Seligman was refreshingly to the point. While acknowledging the benefits, he outlined two clear reservations. Firstly mindfulness is often practiced as an individual exercise, focusing on the self, and in his view (and to quote the late, great Chris Peterson) “Other people matter.” Therefore he prefers mindfulness practices that are more outward-looking, like compassionate mindfulness. Secondly, as he will outline in Homo Prospectus, human beings are creatures of the future and mindfulness works against this. At this point, there was very audible muttering from large sections of the audience, presumably mindfulness practitioners. I guess we’ll have to wait for the book’s publication to find out more.
We were wrong about Learned Helplessness
What probably took many of us by surprise was Seligman’s admission that our understanding of learned helplessness had been completely wrong. It was previously thought that, in the face of uncontrollable stressors or repeated adverse stimuli, we learn that we can do nothing about them and therefore give up trying, thereby learning to be helpless.However, studies now suggest that behaving in a maladaptive way (being ‘helpless’) is in fact a default human response. Research by Steve Maier and colleagues on brain functioning shows that, contrary to what the Learned Helplessness theory suggested, maladaptive behaviours (such as depression, anxiety, stress etc) are not induced by a lack of control. That means they are not learned.
What actually seems to be happening is that control inhibits the default response of maladaptive behavior, and in so doing we become more resilient. What we don’t know at this stage is how this new knowledge about control and responses to adversity might change the ways we try to develop resilience in ourselves and others. I’m sure that more will be revealed in Homo Prospectus as well as in Steve Maier and Martin Seligman’s forthcoming paper in the Psychological Review, Learned helplessness: 50 years later. It may also change the way we view depression and other mental disorders and help overcome the stigma associated with them.
- The five elements which comprise the PERMA model of well-being are all measurable and learnable.
- P – Positive Emotions
- E – Engagement
- R – Positive Relationships
- M – Meaning
- A – Accomplishment
- Seligman does not believe there is one single measure of happiness, because we all care about different things in differing amounts. The development of the PERMA Profiler suggests that happiness measures must be composite. Although there are many single measures of happiness, in Seligman’s view simply asking people how happy or satisfied they are is not sufficient.
- Positive psychology interventions like 3 Good Things are sticky. Because they are fun and easy to do, people continue doing them and therefore benefit from them. This is unlike dieting, where even if we have sufficient self-control to stick to a diet for a short time, in the long-run most of us regain the weight we lost, and sometimes even a little extra.
- Research using social media appears to show that neurotic and healthy people use entirely different vocabularies online. (I’m unsure how this is controlled for social desirability, recognized human-computer interactions, or those who do not use social media. If you know the answer to this, please let us know via the comments.)
- The way to improve well-being in an organization is straightforward – hold the particular manager accountable, and measure staff well-being at Time 1 and Time 2 to see if what is being done has the desired effect.
- The goal of a good government is to raise the PERMA level of every citizen. Some countries, towns and cities are already taking that message seriously, for example the recent appointment of Ohood Al Roumi as Minster for Happiness in the United Arab Emirates and the Well-being Project in Santa Monica, California. Happiness is not a ‘quick fix’; paradoxically it’s a serious business, which requires time and effort.
- There are two kinds of reality: one is an independent, non-reflexive reality, which is not influenced by how we think and feel, or what we expect or desire. Whether it is sunny tomorrow is a non-reflexive reality that our optimism (or pessimism) will not change. The other reality is reflexive, It’s influenced by our expectations and perceptions. A classic example appears on pages 234-235 of Seligman’s Flourish: the stock market. The value of stock is in large part determined by our perceptions, and our optimism (or pessimism) about its price in the future.
On Monday evening Seligman reiterated his Flourish argument that the science of positive psychology is entirely about reflexive realities. “I am all for realism when there is a knowable reality out there that is not influenced by your expectations. When your expectations influence reality, realism sucks,” (pp. 236-237). He didn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to change knowable reality for the better (overcoming poverty, searching for cures to illness etc.), rather that we should try to influence the psychological realities, i.e. way people think and feel, by supporting them in developing greater optimism where it makes a difference, for example in their relationships and, more controversially, their health.
Facing the Future with Realism or Optimism?
Seligman ended his talk with a quotation from Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt:
“We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons, we will build roads through the mountains and across the deserts, and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more quadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more caste, no more hunger, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.” ~ Kim Stanley Robinson
The fact that Stanley Robinson is a science fiction writer should not detract from the power, meaning or relevance of his words. If anything, they’re very appropriate given the importance that positive psychologists will place on the future following the publication of Homo Prospectus.
Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R., & Sripada, C. (2016, July 6). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University Press. Available for preorder.
Amat, J., Baratta, M. V., Paul, E., Bland, S. T., Watkins, L. R., & S F Maier, S. F. (2005). Medial prefrontal cortex determines how stressor controllability affects behavior and dorsal raphe nucleus. Nature Neuroscience 8, 365 – 371 (2005). doi:10.1038/nn1399. Abstract.
Britton, K. H. (2013). IPPA Third World Congress: Opening Words and Hard Choices. Positive Psychology News.
Butler, J. & Kern, M. L. (2015). The PERMA-Profiler: A brief multidimensional measure of flourishing.
Eichstaedt, J. C. (2016). Using Social Media to Assess Health from Afar. Scientific American Mind, March/April 2016.
Eichstaedt, J. C. (2015). Speaking about social media research in Behavioural Exchange 2015 (BX2015).
Grenville-Cleave, B. (2013). Positive Education: Making a Successful School. Positive Psychology News.
Kelly, G. A. (2013). A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Norton Library.
Robinson, K. S. (2003). The Years of Rice and Salt. Random House.
Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Prospecting the Future. Thinkers In Residence Youtube channel. Embedded below.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Pictures of the event and logos of Action for Happiness are used with permission from Action for Happiness. They can be reused in reprints of this article with proper attribution.