While not old, I’ve lived long enough to observe that human beings tend to lapse easily into negativity. Wives and husbands grouse about their spouse’s shortcomings; neighbors gripe about one another’s irritating behaviors; professors complain about the out-of-touch administration; politicians make acrimonious speeches about the faults of the opposition; and managers criticize employee performance in public and private. And that’s the tip of the iceberg! One wonders how any of us remain functional in such a sea of discontent.
Into this chaos rush the professional “fixers”–consultants, psychologists, medical personnel, arbitrators, lawyers and well meaning friends. But more often than not, even they focus on correcting problems. It involves more attention given to the negative!
Martin Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, noticed the issue many years ago and decided to come up with an alternative strategy. His solution was positive psychology, a system of interventions that help people focus on developing behaviors and attitudes that enhance positive aspects of living, bring fulfillment and build relationships with other people. He began describing the character of positive living in his 2003 bestseller Authentic Happiness but feels that his current theory presented in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being (Free Press, 2012, $16.00) better captures the essence of positivity.
Seligman builds his adjusted theory around well-being, a construct that can be operationalized (defined and measured) by five elements:
– Positive emotion – happiness and life satisfaction
– Engagement – losing yourself or becoming completely absorbed in an activity
– Relationships – positive connections and interactions with other people
– Meaning – belonging to/serving something believed to be bigger than yourself
– Accomplishment – achievement/pursuit of success or mastery.
He sees their strength as elements that can be measured both subjectively and objectively since well-being “cannot exist just in your own head.”
Seligman has devised various exercises that help people change their focus from the negative to the positive. Among them are:
– The gratitude visit – personally thanking someone who has helped enhance your life in some way
– The “what-went-well” exercise – taking a few minutes at the end of each day to list three things/events that were “blessings”
– The signature strengths exercise – identifying your strengths, owning them and using them more frequently in daily living.
Exercises such as these, and the activities generated from them, form the basis of his model’s interventions in therapeutic settings of various kinds.
I tend to be something of a skeptic, so I wondered as I read whether the “fix-it” strategies proposed actually worked. A self-described empiricist, the author did his best to exceed my expectations. He was clearly rather obsessive about proving his points with studies that he and others had completed. I smiled when he recounted practicing his interventions on himself, and in some cases his family, to see if they had a positive effect–which, by the way, they did.
Seligman also provides quite a collection of stories and studies of positive psychology in action. For instance, he explains a progression of interventions that therapists working from the positive perspective use with their clients, and includes a few case studies that show their growth. He further describes the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), a method of teaching positive focus and resiliency to schoolchildren, developed by his research team. Studies conducted over the last 20 years have shown that a properly implemented program reduces hopelessness, anxiety and problem behaviors; reduces and prevents depression; and improves health-related behaviors and engagement in learning.
In fact, the Geelong Grammar School in Australia invited Seligman and his team to implement the PRP in every one of its classrooms. Administrators, teachers and students alike found the results so positive that it has become an integral part of the curriculum.
The author has also worked with generals at the Pentagon to develop a training program aimed at strengthening psychological fitness in the military. While the program is still relatively “young,” soldiers who have taken part in the trainings have benefited not only in resilience in the face of the horrors of war, but in family relationships stressed by the absence of the spouse or parent. A related program, Post-Traumatic Growth training, has been implemented to combat the high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among servicemen and women.
Another major research endeavor mentioned in the book is the effort to define positive health, a project commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The research was in its initial stages at the time Seligman was writing, so he indicated the direction the team would be taking to address the goal but did not have definitive results.
However, the discussion of the project does contain a series of studies that the team had collected during a search of the literature on physical health and optimism that offered evidence that positive attitude enhances health. For example, they show that those with positive outlooks on life heal faster from injuries, have stronger resistance to infectious diseases, experience fewer life-threatening diseases such as heart attacks and tend to live longer. Other studies gave strong evidence that consistent exercise–an activity Seligman associates with people who have positive attitudes–promotes better health. As a result, he promotes a 10,000-step goal per day to increase psychological and physical health.
I enjoyed his conversational style throughout the book for the most part though I did find the negative jabs at colleagues who disagreed with him distracting and unnecessary. The negativity was particularly evident in his response to Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote a book in which she contends that the relentless focus on positive thinking is undermining America. I think he could have noted the points with which he disagreed in an appropriate section of the health chapter and then let the subject rest–especially if he has the incontrovertible evidence for the effects of positive attitude on health that he says he has.
All in all, Flourish is a book that everyone would benefit from reading. We human beings need a dose of the positive to combat our penchant for wallowing–and sometimes glorying–in the negative. We would definitely be more productive, have better relationships and live longer, healthier lives.