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.
Photo Credit for the rat in a cage: yummysmellsca via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Thanks Bridget, I particularly like the last quote from a sci-fi writer (?), but my recent researches, or what I call deepsearches, in co-social structures pivoted on one of England’s greatest kings—King Alfred the Great, who ruled from 877-899 in Wessex. It’s not fiction what have been capable of choosing.
Yes, 899 was still patriarchal. Yes, there was slavery. Yes, there were wars. So far, so bad.
But he had figured out something. First the 2016 context for why what he did inspired me to pick up on the good parts. I have been researching the origins of gentrification in the enclosure of the commons by Norman landbarons beginning in the 1200s. This raised the question of what were the commons and how did people manage them?
I also watched a documentary about writer Eve Ensler (Vagina Monologues) leading a workshop in a maximum security women’s prison. As I listened to the women I heard that what turned their inner lives around was being in a group and unburdening themselves. Or finding non-criminal alternatives which they wish they had worked out while on the outside. Well people have created have those groups already BUT typically individuals have to screw up badly to get into them. I’m talking about groups like Alcoholic Anonymous or therapy groups.
What if we had a wider and earlier bonding into a group for mutual support, reflections on living, etc. In time we could close the prisons!
I haven’t forgotten King Alfred. I’m reading along about life before the Norman Conquest and see that merry ol’ King A used native ways people had organized themselves to eliminate theft in his realm. Understand that. As “advanced” as some claim our culture has become, can we leave our valuable belongings unattended in a busy city and expect them to be there when we come back?
You could in Wessex when Alfred ruled. He used the system in place called “the hundred.” A hundred was a group of ten tythings, and each tything was a group of ten families. Alfred decreed that if anything were stolen and the thief not caught, if were known which hundred the thief was a member of the whole hundred would be fined! And it worked. Travelers at the time attested to it and King A tested it by leaving gold rings at heavily traveled crossroads—they weren’t stolen.
Something’s there … and you know as much as I for the moment.
John Perkins, Seattle, WA USA
Thanks for making the evolution of positive psychology come alive, Bridget. Meaty, timely, and love how you related Seligman’s realism re: research, past, present, and future. There was so much meaningful information here, I felt as if I had eaten and savored a Thanksgiving turkey dinner! Seligman’s video “Prospecting the Future” was particularly interesting. We are NOT “prisoners of the past” as our frontal lobes are planning for our future. His suggesting we use the word, “prospecting” was enlightening. Well done and many thanks. I also enjoyed John’s history lesson. Thanks to you, too, John.
I would also like to thank Bridget – for keeping us connected to what is going on at the cutting edge of positive psychology. Birthday congratulations and thanks also to Action For Happiness. Along with 20 other teacher colleagues I will, in a few minutes, be starting session 6 of the Exploring What Matters course – Can We Be Happier At Work? I have never seen a teacher group so engaged in a sustained learning program that is not specifically geared towards education – solid evidence in my view that this Everywoman/Everyman approach to promoting positive psychology is effective.
The mindfulness question is an interesting one – along with colleagues in my school we have partnered with Mindful Schools (www.minsdfulschools.org) to promote mindfulness to both teachers and students. This ties in with the Action For Happiness Approach inasmuch as each What Really Matters session begins with a mindfulness practice and that the whole of session 2 is based on discovering more about mindfulness. ‘Other people’ do indeed ‘matter’ but, surely, a successful relationship with another or others does at least partly depend on our relationship with ourself. As shown on the Mindful Schools website ( http://www.mindfulschools.org/about-mindfulness/mindfulness-in-education/) a regular mindfulness practice can potentially help us to deal with ‘busyness’, rumination, overwhelm, narcisissm and dissociation and create CARE – calm, compassion, attention, resilience and emotional regulation. Perhaps these are the benefits of mindfulness that Martin Seligman refers to..?
Mindfulness may appear to be a selfish activity – but so might putting on our own oxygen masks on an aeroplane before those of the children we are with. We cannot care for others unless we at first care for ourselves – perhaps one day mindfulness will become as common as caring for our hair, our teeth and our bodies in general?
I think I understood why some members of the audience muttered when Martin Seligman stated that mindfulness works against us ‘creatures of the future.’ We do plan and envision our lives but that planning and envisioning happens in the only moment that we truly know – and that is the present moment. One of my What Really Matters colleagues shared that she would – over the next week – try to begin every class and every meeting with a one minute mindfulness practice in order to effectively transition into the next activity. This, as she explained, might go some way towards getting that activity off to a calm and measured start rather than a frantic and hectic one. In a world of ‘busyness’, in which many of us are struggling to ensure that stress does not become toxic, such an action is likely to benefit not just the practitioner but also those s/he is interacting with.
@Bora, I like your friend’s idea. It how Quakers (also known as Friends) begin their meetings. As an activist within a Quaker social justice organization, we began our meetings with silence as well. This practice has been going on for maybe 400 years. And the Quakers with their abolitionist efforts and modern work around prison reform, international peace, etc. are clearly strongly engaged with Others.
Many thanks for your comments – I’m haven’t studied history so it’s not something I can really comment on, other than in a very general sense.
The point in your first comment about having ‘a wider and earlier bonding into a group for mutual support, reflections on living’ etc is very well made and I guess that is what Action for Happiness provides in the UK – time and space for people to get together for those very reasons. This is all the more necessary given the fragmented and hectic lifestyles we seem to lead these days. In secondary schools here, we have what’s called Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons, however not all aspects of PSHE are compulsory and lessons do tend to focus on the negative topics like bullying, drug abuse and dealing with conflict. It would be a revelation if they could instead cover well-being in the Pos Psych sense, or for example discuss key topics from an Appreciative Inquiry perspective.
The move towards ‘Positive Education’, and resilience/well-being programmes ‘Bounce Back’ do redress the balance though.
Thanks for your kind words, I really appreciated them. I’m really looking forward to Seligman’s new book – it should open up a whole new area of study in pos psych, coaching, education etc about the human mind and behaviour, and hopefully will lead to a new range of evidence-based techniques for people to try.
I thought what he said about reality was fascinating and I’m sensing there is a lot more to be said about reflexive and non-reflexive realities and the role pos psych should play.
Lovely to hear from you. I’m aware that I owe you an email – I haven’t forgotten. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy teaching schedule to post some comments
Do let us know how the Exploring What Matters course goes – are you going to be getting some formal feedback from the participants?
Regarding mindfulness, of course we can only speculate at this point what is going to be said in the new book about prospection and mindfulness. It may be that Seligman was being deliberately controversial (and why not?) at the Action for Happiness event, simply to stir up a hot and bothered Monday night audience…Personally I find short mindfulness practices very helpful; they do help you to get more focused and grounded, so I can see why your colleague wanted to start each lesson with one. I’m keen to see what Seligman and his colleagues also say about prospection and future time perspective. If you’re not already familiar with it, look up the work of Zimbardo and Boniwell on time perspectives. They found that people with a balanced time perspective (i.e. could move flexibly between past, present, future time frames) tended to have higher well-being.
You are welcomed and thanks for your additional commentary here. Great discussion and I am anxious to read Seligman’s new book, too. Have a super week.
We’ll be posting a review of Martin Seligman’s new book on Pos Psych News as soon as it’s published – so do look out for that.
Can’t wait to read your Seligman book review, Bridget! Big thanks.
Some thoughts on the issue of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Other People:
Mindfulness without the attitudes of open curiosity, kindness and compassion would not be mindfulness (e.g. sniper or a robber). Mindfulness is also known as Heartfulness and Kindfulness.
Mindfulness and Planning for the Future:
While Mindfulness is a state of being, it acknowledges that this has to be balanced with doing, which includes planning for the future. It is only in the present moment that we are actually alive and can plan for, or envision the future.
Looking forward to Martin Seligman’s new book and your review.