A Course Correction for Positive Psychology: A Review of Martin Seligman’s Latest Book

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter).

A Course Cor­rec­tion for Pos­i­tive Psychology

A review of Mar­tin Seligman’s lat­est book, Flour­ish: A Vision­ary New Under­stand­ing of Hap­pi­ness and Well-Being.

- By Jill Suttie

As pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion in 1998, Mar­tin Selig­man chal­lenged the psy­cho­log­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty to rad­i­cal­ly change its approach. For too long, he charged, psy­chol­o­gy had been pre­oc­cu­pied sole­ly with reliev­ing symp­toms of men­tal ill­ness; instead, he believed it should explore how to thrive in life, not just sur­vive it. He called for a psy­chol­o­gy that would uncov­er what makes peo­ple cre­ative, resilient, opti­mistic, and, ulti­mate­ly, hap­py. The “pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy” move­ment was born.

Yet in his lat­est book, Flour­ish, Selig­man tries to pro­vide some­thing of a course cor­rec­tion for pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy. Selig­man, the Zeller­bach Fam­i­ly Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, where he also directs the university’s Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy Cen­ter, argues that pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy has been too focused on the goal of pro­mot­ing hap­pi­ness alone. He pro­pos­es a shift, both to increase over­all per­son­al well-being—what he calls “flour­ish­ing,” which is not as depen­dent on one’s mood or momen­tary feel­ings as happiness—and to improve one’s com­mu­ni­ty, not just one’s self.

While Selig­man still con­sid­ers hap­pi­ness to be impor­tant, in Flour­ish he offers a more holis­tic take on well-being, which he sum­ma­rizes with the acronym PERMA: Pos­i­tive emo­tion, Engage­ment, Rela­tion­ships, Mean­ing, and Accom­plish­ment. Each of these ele­ments, he argues, is cru­cial to a full, well-lived life, even if it some­times involves strug­gle and leads, in the short term, to unhappiness.

For exam­ple, rela­tion­ships can be a source of joy, but they can also involve con­flict and sac­ri­fice. Yet hav­ing close rela­tion­ships is an impor­tant life goal for most peo­ple and con­tributes to one’s over­all well-being. Indeed, research shows that peo­ple with close rela­tion­ships enjoy all kinds of phys­i­cal and men­tal health ben­e­fits, includ­ing greater longevity.

Selig­man believes that psy­chol­o­gists should focus on increas­ing these aspects of well-being using pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy interventions—like keep­ing a grat­i­tude jour­nal to increase pos­i­tive emotion—rather than pre­scrib­ing psy­chotrop­ic med­ica­tions, which he claims fail to cure peo­ple. He is crit­i­cal of social sci­en­tists who empha­size the study of envi­ron­men­tal influences—like pover­ty and upbringing—on behav­ior and don’t pay enough atten­tion to the study of indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter. This breeds a vic­tim men­tal­i­ty, he claims, which ham­pers the individual’s oppor­tu­ni­ty to grow.

Human beings are often, per­haps more often, drawn by the future than they are dri­ven by the past,” he writes, “and so a sci­ence that mea­sures and builds expec­ta­tions, plan­ning, and con­scious choice will be more potent than a sci­ence of habits, dri­ves, and circumstances.”

In this idea are echoes of Seligman’s sem­i­nal work on “learned help­less­ness,” where repeat­ed expe­ri­ences lead a per­son to believe that he or she is pow­er­less to avoid emo­tion­al suf­fer­ing, and so stops try­ing. To pre­vent this, Selig­man sug­gests teach­ing patients cop­ing skills, which they can use to bet­ter con­trol their emo­tion­al respons­es to dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions and help avert depres­sion and anx­i­ety. These same skills, he argues, can be taught in our pub­lic institutions—including schools, hos­pi­tals, and the military—in order to inoc­u­late whole com­mu­ni­ties against emo­tion­al distress.

In the book, he high­lights the work of social sci­en­tists who have tried to do just that, includ­ing Karen Reivich and Jane Gill­ham, who study char­ac­ter-build­ing. Reivich and Gill­ham have devel­oped a class­room inter­ven­tion that helps chil­dren increase their opti­mism, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and assertive­ness in order to pre­vent them from devel­op­ing depres­sion lat­er on. In addi­tion, they’ve cre­at­ed a pro­gram that helps stu­dents iden­ti­fy their char­ac­ter strengths (e.g., cre­ativ­i­ty, self-con­trol) and use them more effec­tive­ly. When applied to schools, these pro­grams have been shown to decrease depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and con­duct prob­lems among stu­dents, and to increase pos­i­tive social skills, like empa­thy and cooperation.

In anoth­er exam­ple, Selig­man worked with the mil­i­tary to cre­ate a char­ac­ter-based pro­gram that com­bats PTSD in vet­er­ans. Before sol­diers are deployed, they are taught resilien­cy, or the abil­i­ty to adapt to dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, there­by reduc­ing their chances of return­ing home with post-bat­tle men­tal ill­ness. Though some crit­ics have accused Selig­man of brain­wash­ing sol­diers to accept intol­er­a­ble con­di­tions, he coun­ters with data show­ing his pro­gram reduces lat­er suffering.

Seligman’s work is inven­tive, but his writ­ing can some­times ram­ble. The begin­ning of the book is near­ly unread­able, with a con­vo­lut­ed com­par­i­son between his the­o­ries of “authen­tic hap­pi­ness” and “flour­ish­ing.” Still, for those who can get past its faults, Flour­ish is a thought-pro­vok­ing read, filled with insights into Seligman’s think­ing and per­son­al­i­ty, as well as inside sto­ries of pos­i­tive psychology’s ear­ly begin­nings, its occa­sion­al detrac­tors, and its many successes.

Jill Suttie Greater Good— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review edi­tor and a free­lance writer. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good, based at UC-Berke­ley, is an online mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Alabama health on September 18, 2011 at 10:33

    It is refresh­ing to see Mar­tin Selig­man turn his research on the depres­sive out­look, to focus more on what makes peo­ple optimisits.

    AS an under­grad social psych major, Selig­man and Shel­ley Tay­lor were the pio­neers of this research. So glad they got past the “depres­sive real­ist” notion and the “illu­sion of con­trol.” We need the healthy defense of opti­misim to get us through these uncer­tain times. One needs to pick an illu­sion that fits ones per­son­ait­ly and tem­per­me­nt and live out of that if one is to acheive true hap­pi­ness. Thanks for the review! Can’t wait to read Selig­man’s latest!

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