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