A book review of Flourish (2012) by Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman is a Psychologist who, like most Psychologists, wants to help people. If Seligman’s earlier book Authentic Happiness was designed to empower you to live a happier life, Flourish is trying to recruit you to make the world a happier place. With suggestions ranging from personal improvement, through education and right up to public policy, this is more than just an update to the previous book. However, it is an update as well.
Seligman shares that Authentic Happiness had not been his preferred title. “I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life.” (p23) I wonder if the publisher told him they were going to subtitle the new book, “A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being”?
Anyway, Seligman suggests other words like well-being and flourishing to summarise what it is we want to have. But more importantly, he identifies five empirically based factors that make up this construct. (That’s two more than in the previous book.) Using the acronym PERMA, they are Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. Seligman argues that this more holistic understanding of happiness, umm, I mean well-being, has some major benefits.
Firstly, human beings vary by nature on these different factors. For example, some people are just born less cheerful. If we think the whole point of life is positive emotion, then we don’t equally value those people. Not only is this judging someone for being themselves. But we actually do value people for other things independent of positive emotion, such as the contributions they make to society, human progress or the alleviation of suffering. Seligman sums up, “A theory that counts increases in engagement and meaning along with increases in positive emotion is morally liberating as well as more democratic for public policy.” (p30)
Secondly, growing one factor is helpful for growing each of the others. I might try to achieve something for its own sake. But you wouldn’t be surprised if achieving it also made me feel happy! And so even if all you care about is positive emotions, your best overall strategy for increasing positive emotion in yourself and others includes seeking to increase the other factors. In his TED talk on The New Era of Positive Psychology, Seligman put it like this, “So we ask — and we’ve done this in 15 replications, involving thousands of people: To what extent does the pursuit of pleasure – the pursuit of positive emotion – the pleasant life; the pursuit of engagement – time stopping for you; and the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction? And our results surprised us; they were backward of what we thought. It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest.” (18:42 Retrieved 1/8/2017)
If you found this review helpful, you might like to read Flourish for yourself, listen to Martin’s TED talk, or we would love to share with you how we find meaning in knowing God through Jesus.