What is Martin Seligman’s positive psychology theory? How does positive psychology enhance well-being?
In his book Flourish, Martin Seligman provides ways to use positive psychology to increase personal and global well-being. Positive psychology focuses on relieving people of miseries, traumas, and other difficulties.
Discover more about the concept of positive psychology, and how to apply it in your life.
How to Enhance Well-Being: Practice Positive Psychology
We can enhance personal and global well-being by practicing and teaching the principles of Martin Seligman’s 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.
(Shortform note: Positive psychology is a relatively new discipline that was founded by Seligman in 1998. It has its roots in the humanistic psychology movement, which studies how people can achieve their full potential. But while Seligman is often considered the “father of positive psychology,” the term was first coined by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who also wanted to shift psychology’s focus to helping people cultivate the good in life. Maslow created a hierarchy of five basic human needs that shares some similarities with Seligman’s five pillars of well-being.)
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.
(Shortform note: When it comes to coping with negative emotions, most experts advocate a holistic approach that includes social support and developing resilience but also the use of therapy and medications. They don’t deny the value of positive psychology, but still recognize the importance of managing symptoms and coping with difficulties.)
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.
(Shortform note: While Seligman feels that dwelling on the negatives can be harmful for your well-being, Mark Manson argues that being unhappy and dissatisfied is a good thing. In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, he writes that dissatisfaction motivates you to improve your life and pushes you to solve problems, which gives you satisfaction.)
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.
(Shortform note: In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor suggests you get other people involved in your gratitude practice. For example, you could start every gaming session with your friends by having everyone share three good things that happened in their day. Practicing gratitude with others exposes everyone to more positive feelings, which boosts well-being even more. It also holds you accountable, which ensures you stick to your practice.)
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.
(Shortform note: Research shows that expressing gratitude—like by writing a gratitude letter—is much more powerful than just feeling grateful for something someone did. When you thank someone, you not only make them feel more satisfied with the relationship, but you also change how you view the relationship. This is because, when you express gratitude, you show that you welcome the other person’s help or support. This increases a sense of dependency in the relationship and makes you view it as more mutually supportive. If you only think but don’t express your gratitude, your relationship doesn’t get the same boost.)
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.
(Shortform note: In 168 Hours, Laura Vanderkam suggests a different way to identify your natural strengths: Create a bucket list with 100 items and start doing the accessible ones first. Trying different activities can reveal to you what you enjoy and what you’re good at.)
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.
(Shortform note: You can take Seligman’s advice one step further and make using your strength a daily routine. Pick one strength and use it at a specific time every day. For example, if your strength is creativity, you can use it every evening by writing or drawing. By doing this, you can turn your strength into a habit, which means you don’t have to rely on motivation or willpower to use it. This can be a simple and effective way to increase your well-being and happiness.)
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.
(Shortform note: In Grit, Angela Duckworth explains the two elements of grit—perseverance and passion—in more detail. Perseverance means you don’t give up when you face setbacks, but rather keep trying until you succeed. Passion means you stay interested in a goal for a long time, and don’t get distracted by other things. She also writes that there are two reasons we focus on talent more than effort: First, we usually only see the final results of someone’s work, not the effort they put in to achieve it, which makes us think they’re naturally gifted. Second, we might use a lack of innate talent as an excuse to avoid feeling bad about ourselves if we haven’t achieved the same level of success as someone else.)
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.
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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