What is Flourish by Martin E. P. Seligman about? What’s the key to living well and enjoying life to the fullest?
Many of us think happiness is the answer to a good life. In his book Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman challenges this idea and argues that there’s more to life than happiness.
Read below for a brief Flourish book overview.
Flourish by Martin E. P. Seligman
In his book Flourish, psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman argues that in our quest to flourish as humans, other aspects of life matter just as much as, if not more, than happiness. He proposes that instead of prioritizing happiness as the gateway to a good life, we—as individuals and as a society—should cultivate well-being, which is a blend of five elements: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, relationships, and achievement. We can fortify these pillars of well-being by applying the principles of positive psychology in our lives and society, so that the whole world can learn to flourish.
Seligman is a psychologist, professor, and pioneer of positive psychology, a branch of psychology that studies how people can experience more positive emotions and lead richer lives. He’s the director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and once served as the president of the American Psychological Association (APA). His other best-selling books include Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.
Well-Being Is the Key to Flourishing
We often think happiness is the key to flourishing—to living a rich, joyful, and fulfilling life. That’s what Seligman once believed, too, when he wrote his previous book, Authentic Happiness. But now, a decade later, he has a new theory—that well-being, not happiness, is the key to a good life. He argues that happiness rests too heavily on having a positive mood, which isn’t a reliable indicator of a meaningful life. Well-being, on the other hand, is an interplay of multiple factors that enrich your life, with none being more important than the others.
The Five Elements of Well-Being
According to Seligman, there are five key elements of well-being:
1. Positive Emotions—Temporary pleasurable experiences such as joy, excitement, and warmth that we enjoy having.
2. Engagement—A state of flow, which we experience when we’re completely absorbed in an activity. This usually happens when we’re doing an activity that’s challenging, enjoyable, and involves our strengths. For example, you might be in flow while performing music, practicing a sport, playing video games, working on your car, or creating artwork.
3. Meaning—A sense that we belong and contribute to a purpose larger than ourselves.
4. Positive Relationships—Having close, social connections with others. Having positive relationships counteracts loneliness, stress, and depression because humans are social by nature.
5. Accomplishment—A feeling of success for having mastered and achieved our goals.
Seligman asserts that well-being is a more worthwhile measure of a meaningful life than happiness because it calls for people to build up all five of these pillars in their lives instead of just focusing on feeling good. You might pursue positive relationships even if they don’t always bring you positive emotions, like when you attend an event you’re uninterested in to support a friend. Overall, the more you build up these pillars of well-being, the more you’ll flourish and lead a rich, satisfying life.
Well-Being Is Good for Your Health
Seligman writes that having more positive emotions and high well-being improves your health and protects you from illnesses—whether it’s cardiovascular disease, cancer, or the common cold. He cites research that suggests that people with high well-being have an 18% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with low well-being. According to Seligman, the most notable trait contributing to this better health is optimism, which is a positive outlook on life that increases your well-being.
People who are optimistic tend to be less vulnerable to diseases for several reasons:
- They believe their actions matter. Unlike pessimists who tend to feel more helpless, optimists take action to improve their circumstances, such as caring for their health and practicing good habits.
- They have more social support. Seligman writes that people who express positive emotions more often find it easier to connect with people and form more supportive relationships.
- They handle stress better. According to Seligman, stress tends to impact pessimists more heavily than optimists, and frequent stress has negative effects on your health. For instance, people who have more positive emotions produce less of a substance that causes blood clots.
How to Enhance Well-Being: Practice Positive Psychology
According to Seligman, we can enhance personal and global well-being by practicing and teaching the principles of positive psychology. Positive psychology focuses on cultivating good traits and resources that help you get the most out of your life—such as resilience, optimism, gratitude, personal strengths, and so on. It differs from traditional psychology in that traditional psychology focuses on relieving people of miseries, traumas, and other difficulties.
While helpful to an extent, removing the negative aspects of life doesn’t mean you’ll be happier, Seligman argues. In fact, many methods of reducing negative emotions (such as with psychotherapy or psychiatric drugs) are ineffective or only temporary. Because there’s no lasting cure for conditions like anxiety and depression and no way to eradicate all negative emotions and challenges in life, Seligman writes that we must help people become aware that drugs and therapies only help temporarily, and teach them skills to increase their well-being with positive psychology.
So, how can the principles of positive psychology help you build the five elements of well-being? There isn’t a step-by-step process to increasing well-being, but Seligman details practices you can use and reflect on for building positive traits, skills, and resources to help you enhance your well-being.
Seligman argues that one powerful way to increase your well-being is to practice gratitude more often. He explains that humans evolved to dwell on negative things more than positive things. This was useful for our ancestors, who had to regularly navigate life-threatening dangers, but less so for us in modern-day society, where we’re more concerned with leading a satisfying life.
Seligman suggests two ways to counteract our tendency to focus on the negatives and deliberately be more grateful:
1. Write down three things that made you happy every day and include the reason for why they happened. For example, “I set a new personal record at the gym because I stuck with my training and rested well last night.” Seligman notes that regularly writing three good things a day will make you feel happier and less depressed.
2. Write a gratitude letter. Think of someone who made your life better and write a letter thanking them. Then, arrange a meeting with that person and read the letter to them. After doing this, you’ll feel happier, and you’ll also have strengthened your relationship with that person.
Discover Your Personal Strengths
Another way to increase well-being is to use your strengths and talents more frequently in your life. According to Seligman, using your strengths is crucial for achieving a state of flow, creating a sense of meaning in your life, and increasing your overall happiness. He recommends identifying your strengths by taking the VIA Signature Strengths Test.
Once you’ve identified your strengths, Seligman suggests you work them into your life more: Schedule a time in the upcoming week to exercise one or more of your strengths. Think of new ways to use your strengths and reflect on how using your strengths made you feel.
Increase Your Effort and Grit
People often think their ability to succeed is mainly determined by their natural talent or intelligence. But Seligman argues that grit and effort may be more important for success. Grit is a personality trait similar to self-discipline that was identified by psychologist Angela Duckworth. Specifically, it means having a high level of perseverance and passion for a goal. By exercising grit and spending more time practicing your skill, you can achieve more in your life, regardless of your natural abilities.
While you can’t change your innate talent, you can control how much effort you put into your work. According to Seligman, grit is a better predictor of success than IQ. In light of this, he writes that schools must recognize that a lack of self-discipline may be a major factor for why some students struggle to reach their academic potential, and he suggests they adopt programs that build self-discipline and grit.
Foster Positive Relationships
As we’ve discussed, humans are naturally social creatures, and connecting with others makes our lives better. You can improve your well-being by learning to build stronger, more positive relationships in your life. Seligman recommends three ways to do this:
1. Learn to celebrate others better. Strengthen your relationship by improving how you respond to someone’s good fortune or news. He cites the research of Shelly Gable, who explains four main ways people respond to other people’s good news:
- Active and constructive: You engage with and build upon their joy—for example, “I’m so happy for you! How did it make you feel? How do you plan to celebrate?”
- Passive and constructive: You give positive feedback but without engaging—for example, “That’s good to hear.”
- Active and destructive: You engage but focus on the negatives—for example, “But doesn’t that mean you’ll have even more work to do?”
- Passive and destructive: You don’t acknowledge their news at all—for example, “I had a pretty tiring day at work.”
To build flourishing relationships, use the active and constructive communication style: When someone shares something positive that happened to them, validate their joy and ask questions that encourage them to talk more about the situation. By responding this way, you maximize the happiness they feel and learn more about them, which makes you feel more connected.
2. Use more positive statements. Seligman suggests you pay attention to how often you use positive and negative statements in your relationships, as this predicts the strength of our relationships. He cites research showing that a good relationship requires a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative statements—that is, at least three compliments, encouragements, or appreciations for every criticism or complaint. To improve your relationships, focus on saying more positive than negative things to others.
3. Perform random acts of kindness. Seligman writes that doing something kind for others can significantly improve your mood and well-being. It can also help you feel connected with others, which researchers argue can actually make you live longer.
Strengthen Your Resilience
Positive psychology helps you build the good qualities and emotions of life. But you’ll still face challenging situations from time to time that will trigger negative emotions. Rather than minimize those negative emotions, Seligman argues that you should instead increase your resilience—your ability to bounce back from hardship. When you’re more resilient to setbacks, you can cope more easily with the negative emotions that inevitably arise. Many methods for building resilience are the same as those for building well-being, such as developing strengths, cultivating positive relationships, and practicing gratitude.
Resilience can improve everyone’s well-being, but it’s especially important for people who face more severe stressors than others, like members of the armed forces, to learn ways to become more resilient. When tasked with improving the psychological fitness of Army soldiers, Seligman uncovered one important avenue for strengthening resilience: post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth occurs when someone becomes stronger, wiser, and more capable of overcoming difficulties after experiencing a difficult event.
Seligman argues that raising awareness of the potential for post-traumatic growth can boost resilience among soldiers. When soldiers know about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but not post-traumatic growth, they may be more prone to developing PTSD. Further, teaching soldiers ways to achieve post-traumatic growth can help them become more resilient to the hardships of their profession.
The Future of Well-Being and Positive Psychology
Now that we’ve explored various ways to increase well-being, let’s discuss Seligman’s hopes for the future of positive psychology and how he believes teaching well-being can improve quality of life across the globe. Seligman argues that we should teach positive psychology and promote well-being not only on an individual level but also on an institutional and national level.
Seligman discusses ways positive psychology programs have already benefited various institutions, like by improving learning in schools and enhancing psychological wellness in the military. To increase well-being for more people, he advocates that workplaces and institutions (educational, governmental, and so on) adopt the principles of positive psychology. Teaching people the pillars of well-being and arming them with tools to achieve them will enable more people to lead healthier, satisfying, and more productive lives.
On a national level, Seligman writes that countries should consider well-being as a measurement of their growth and success—in addition to GDP (gross domestic product). He points out that despite human progress, technological advancements, and countries getting wealthier, people aren’t getting happier. The United States has tripled its GDP, but life satisfaction has remained the same, and depression and anxiety have increased. This is because wealth doesn’t lead to flourishing: well-being does. When nations have reached a stable level of prosperity, they should turn their attention toward increasing the well-being of their citizens rather than further expanding wealth.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Flourish summary:
- Why happiness is not the key to enjoying life to the fullest
- Why we should be focusing on well-being over happiness
- Actionable advice for enhancing global and personal well-being