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Martin Seligman’s new book Flourish (Free Press, 2011) is full of practical, scientifically grounded wisdom about how we can go beyond being just OK with our lives and start to really thrive, creating meaning, happiness and well-being for ourselves and others. Let’s dig in to some of the life-changing Big Ideas Seligman shares with us:

A Theory of Well-being

One of Seligman’s main missions in Flourish is to clarify his own evolving understanding of positive psychology, and how its definition is changing.

“I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction,” he writes. “I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.”

There’s a big difference between the two theoretical positions, Seligman explains: Positive psychology 1.0 was focused on “authentic happiness” (the title of Seligman’s earlier book). Authentic-happiness theory focused on simply creating and increasing life satisfaction. Positive psychology 2.0, meanwhile, is about a more broadly defined “well-being theory,” and aims to “increase flourishing” by helping us have deeper, more engaged, and more meaningful experiences, more of the time.

Seligman uses the acronym PERMA to describe its key points:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Flourishing, of course, involves cultivating as much PERMA as possible.

Dealing With It

Well-being theory proposes that you don’t need a naturally sunny disposition to flourish. It’s all about having the right strategies.

“Think about Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, two severe depressives,” Seligman writes. “They were both enormously well-functioning human beings who dealt with ‘black dogs’ and suicidal thoughts. So one thing that clinical psychology needs to develop in light of the heritable stubbornness of human pathologies is a psychology of ‘dealing with it.’ We need to tell our patients, ‘Look, the truth is that many days — no matter how successful we are in therapy — you will wake up thinking life is hopeless. Your job is not only to fight these feelings but also to live heroically: functioning well even when you are very sad.’”

Seligman offers this wisdom in the context of his own challenges with pessimism, telling us that “strong biological underpinnings predispose some of us to sadness, anxiety, and anger,” and that most likely, these traits “can only be ameliorated, not wholly eliminated.”

That’s really important. It helps to realize that most of us are never going to get rid of all unpleasant thoughts and feelings. As we accept that some gremlins are sticking around, our job becomes, as Seligman puts it, “to live heroically,” even when we are feeling down in the dumps.

OK, good. Now how?

The ABCs of Adversity

No one has control over all the events in his or her life, but we do have control over what we think about them  — and that has a big impact on how we feel.

Seligman offers the following “ABC” model (encompassing adversity, beliefs and consequences) to help us stay clear about that:

“It is beliefs (B) about an adversity (A) — and not the adversity itself — that cause the consequent (C) feelings. This is a point of major insight for most people: Emotions don’t follow inexorably from external events but from what you think about those events. And you can actually change what you think.”

So next time the demons pounce, try the ABC model to separate stimulus from response. It might create just enough psychic space to help you perceive the situation anew.

True Grit

When it comes to creating satisfying achievements, talent gets too much credit, Seligman asserts. Dedication and self-discipline have a lot more to do with it. “Mozart was Mozart not primarily because he had a unique gift for music, but because, from toddlerhood, he spent all his time using his gift,” Seligman writes. “What determines how much time and deliberate practice a child is willing to devote to achievement? Nothing less than her character.”

And what is at the core of character? How do you cultivate it? Here’s how Seligman puts it: “My favorite social psychologist, Roy Baumeister, believes self-discipline is the queen of all the virtues, the strength that enables the rest of the strengths. There is, however, an extreme form of self-discipline: grit. It’s the combination of very high persistence and high passion for an objective.”

So what’s one way to flourish? Don’t give up!

Learned Optimism

Optimism might not come naturally to everyone, but it’s worth cultivating some, mainly because an optimistic view offsets a feeling of helplessness. And that means the bad stuff that happens isn’t going to do as much damage. Seligman explains how they studied the effects of optimism in the lab:

“We wanted to find out who never became helpless, so we looked systematically at the way that subjects interpreted bad events,” he writes. “We found that people who believe that the causes of setbacks in their lives are temporary, changeable, and local do not become helpless readily. When assailed with inescapable noise in the lab or rejection in love, they think, It’s going away quickly, I can do something about it, and it’s just this one situation. They bounce back quickly from setbacks. We call them optimists.

“Conversely, the people who habitually think, It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything, and there’s nothing I can do about it, do become helpless readily. They do not bounce back from defeat very quickly. We call them pessimists.”

The (very) good news is that we can learn to be optimistic. Seligman puts it this way: “Unlike dieting, learned optimism is easy to maintain once you start. Once you get into the habit of disputing negative beliefs (using the ABCs, reflecting on your self-talk, etc.), your daily life will run much better, and you will feel much happier.”

By getting our optimism on and using these tools to our advantage, we stand to develop more well-being in every aspect of our lives. Here’s to being the change we want to see — and changing the world in the process.

About the Author

Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, is one of the pioneers of the positive psychology movement and has published 20 books and 200 articles on the subject, including the 1991 bestseller Learned Optimism. He is currently Zellerbach Family Professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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