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The End of All Happiness

04 May

Song Suggestion: Happy, Rolling Stones
Drink Suggestion: Rimauresco Rosé 2010, Cotes de Provence

I am publishing a late, short blog this week. A last-minute request by INSEAD has me scrambling to prepare a course for mid-May. My apologies for this blogus interruptus.

Martin E.P. Seligman is the uncontested high priest of the Happiness movement since publishing his seminal work on the science of well-being – Authentic Happiness – in 2002. For Seligman acolytes, which include most leading psychologists, educators, counselors and coaches of positive psychology worldwide (and an equal number of lagging nobodies, such as your blogger), the anticipation preceding Seligman’s new book – Flourish – compares to the fervor around a new Beatles album or J.K. Rowling’s next Harry Potter installment.

Flourish starts with a startling admission: he hates happiness. Well, that is not true exactly (but it’s a gripping leader to keep you reading). He hates the word “happiness”, and that pleases me immensely. I too have struggled with the happiness concept in the context of my search for greater fulfillment and well-being. I can be perfectly happy relaxing on the terrace at Les Deux Garçons, drinking rosé, chatting with friends and watching tourists snap photos along Cours Mirabeau all afternoon long. Is this improving my well-being, giving life more meaning? Offer my kids an Xbox and a dark television room and you’ll not hear a peep (ah, tranquility at last!). Are they happy? Absolutely. Being well? Our opinions would differ on that answer.

That he would start Flourish by dissing his earlier masterpiece, considered by many a bible of the movement, reflects much about what separates Seligman from self-help gurus. Notice that I didn’t say other self-help gurus, because his not a member of that clutch. Seligman doesn’t tap into mystical forces, promise spiritual enlightenment, or proscribe an expedient list of x steps (where 3 < x < 12, depending on your guru du jour) to radically fix your shortcomings.

Seligman is serious academic who founded and runs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has been a professor of the discipline for the past 40 plus  years. He is a former president of the American Psychological Association and in Haggblooms’ “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century” from the Review of General Psychology, Seligman is listed at number 31. In Silicon Valley parlance, he is a BSD in his field (Big Swinging Dick, sorry).

His proposals around a life lived more fully are based on years of rigorous, peer reviewed research and statistically-significant findings and analysis. His website (see my blog links) is an extensive resource center for teachers, coaches, students, and the merely curious about positive psychology, containing the latest publications and a battery of self-tests, as well as findings, conferences and links. A word of caution: before entering this site block out the next 4 hours of your day. If you too are fascinated by the science of positive psychology, entering Seligman’s site is a slide down the rabbit hole.

Whereas Seligman’s intention with Authentic Happiness was to increase the reader’s life satisfaction, the goal of Flourish is to provide greater insight into factors affecting positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment, or what he calls PERMA. His recounting of experiences with children and adults, enthusiasts and depressives, as well as soldiers returning from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan reflects the effectiveness of his toolkit (at loss for a better word) in real-world situations. The book’s greatest gift, however, is the set of practical exercises and practices scattered throughout that are intended to bring more PERMA into the reader’s life. A sample few of these include:

  • The uplift from writing gratitude notes
  • Keeping a 3-things-that-went-well-today journal
  • Taking the VIA signature strengths test and understanding the results
  • The art of active and constructive responding
  • The GRIT test and what is reveals

If you feel a resonance with the concepts of PERMA and a student of best practices in the field of positive psychology, Flourish is necessary reading and deserves a spot on your Kindle list. In lieu of a more thorough and deserved review (I simply don’t have the time this week) I provide a list of the book’s chapters for a better sense of its content:

  1. What is Well-Being?
  2. Creating Your Happiness: Positive Psychology Exercises that Work
  3. The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy
  4. Teaching Well-Being: The Magic of MAPP
  5. Positive Education: Teaching Well-Being to Young People
  6. GRIT, Character, and Achievement: A New Theory of Intelligence
  7. Army Strong: Comprehensive Soldier Fitness
  8. Turning Trauma into Growth
  9. Positive Physical Health: The Biology of Optimism
  10. The Politics and Economics of Well-Being

I welcome any and all comments on Flourish or any other pieces you are reading in this topical area. More to that point, my initial intention with Postcards was to serve more as a resource center on midlife fulfillment and continued engagement, less as a platform for ramblings by Bill Magill. I simply love writing and so this it has become. If you are interested in posting your own essays and experiences to Postcards, please let me know.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Postscript: My good friend, confidant and former boss Peter Hankin passed away in late April. We had never discussed Martin Seligman, the concepts underlying PERMA, or my more recent exploration into this area, but over our occasional lunches through the many years Peter and I often shared thoughts on what really matters in life. He was like that, always asking first about the family and inquiring as to my personal journey, before moving on to some business issue of mutual exploitation; the rational for one of us expensing the meal. There are far too few people in the world like Peter, and now there is one less. A damn shame.

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