Why do we need a science of flourishing?

Take a tour of the science of flourishing and how to live a more fulfilling life, then learn why it can help us thrive as individuals, groups, and communities

Introduction

Martin Seligman was grumpy and becoming increasingly annoyed. He was trying to garden while his 5-year old-daughter, Nikki, was singing, dancing, and throwing weeds up in the air. Becoming angry, he yelled.

His daughter walked off crying, only to return a few minutes later with this to say: “Daddy, do you remember, before my fifth birthday, how I whined every day? When I turned five, I decided to stop. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I can stop whining, you can stop being a grouch.”

Her honesty was brutal but deserved. After all, Nikki was right. “I had spent fifty years enduring mostly wet weather in my soul and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine,” said Seligman.

Yet, surprisingly, he not only went on to change himself but began to revolutionize the entire field of psychology from the inside out [1,2].

The birth of a new psychology

It was 1999, and psychologist Martin Seligman had had a revelation that not only altered his personal outlook on life and parenting style but also reshaped his approach to his new role as president of the American Psychological Association (the APA) — the largest and most prestigious body of psychologists in the US.

Up until then, psychology had focused on the negatives. Seligman wanted to shake things up and look at the positives.

The traditional ‘disease model,’ as it’s sometimes referred to, addresses the problems people face: their anxiety, depression, and what is wrong in their lives. Seligman’s idea was to redress this balance. What if psychology were to turn its attention to what was right – the ‘good life.’ He didn’t want to dismiss the rest of psychology, but he wanted to address several key questions, including ‘what makes life worth living?’ and ‘how do we focus on people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses?’ [1, 2].

Where did this ‘new’ positive psychology come from?

Positive psychology didn’t just appear. After all, the ancient Greeks were a clever bunch, and they were already thinking about the ‘good life’ 2000 years ago. But, for Seligman, it had been bubbling around for 2  decades since his psychological research on the effects of helplessness.

Seligman’s earlier work showed that, when a dog is given a mild but unpleasant electric shock, it can learn to press a button with its nose to make it stop. However, if the shocks are random and cannot be avoided or shortened, the dog ultimately gives in – it accepts there is nothing they can do.

And this can be equally true of humans. If, for example, we repeatedly fail at a maths test, no matter how we prepare, we may adopt what psychologists call ‘learned helplessness.’

In the decades since, it’s become clear that this passive response, rather than being learned, is actually our default. Evolution has provided us with a switch to shut down when things turn sour for too long. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Positive emotions such as joy, love, curiosity, and hope turn the tables, boosting our beliefs that future bad events will not last – they are temporary, specific, and manageable [ 1, 4].

Positive psychology isn’t just unicorns and rainbows

Positive psychology offers us the means to shift away from distracting negative thoughts that drag us down, replacing them with positive ones, like hope, joy, and gratitude that leave us uplifted, energized, and motivated to change. 

And yet, positive emotions aren’t all unicorns and rainbows.

Take ‘hope,’ it’s born out of earlier setbacks and disappointments and awareness that we overcame them – and will do again. In fact, we shouldn’t see hope (or any other positive emotions) as mere wishful thinking – it’s so much more. Rather, this powerful emotion refers to a positive yet practical state of mind about a feel-good future, helping us build relationships, improve creativity, and pursue challenging goals.

Most importantly, we can learn hopefulness. And it’s worth it –breaking cycles of depression, improving resiliency, and boosting motivation. It also works across our life span. A 2020 review of studies involving older adults (mean age 70) found that appropriate psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, improved their degree of hope – which is linked to improved physical and mental health.

And hope isn’t the only positive emotion; there are so many more to help us toward meaningful lives and improve our wellbeing [1, 11].

Playing to our strengths, not our weaknesses

More than twenty years ago, experts at Gallup began an extensive study to identify what single factor is required to make a great leader. Only they didn’t find one – there is no one strength shared by all the world’s best leaders. Yet they did identify that the most effective ones, while not all-rounders, know their strengths and how and when to use them. Rather than being good at everything, the powerful surround themselves with good people and invest in their abilities.

But we don’t need to be a world leader to benefit from strength-based research. We can take an online strengths test or reflect on what we are good at to identify our ‘signature’ strengths. Then, we take every opportunity to use and develop them in existing and new situations.

For example, if our top three are love, curiosity, and gratitude, we can try them out when we relate to new people or difficult situations. Focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses makes us more optimistic, confident, and resilient and boosts our wellbeing – improving all aspects of our lives [1, 2, 5, 8].

Why positive psychology isn’t just about happiness

Positive psychology sounds like we’re trying to be eternally happy. Is that all it is? No, the approach doesn’t ignore reality – we can’t be upbeat all the time. Life regularly slaps us in the face. We are hit by unexpected bills, a missing phone, a car that won’t start, and even the loss of a loved one. Life can be tough. 

Instead, Seligman reasons that pursuing happiness and life fulfillment means learning to grow in the face of adversity by focusing on our strengths rather than our weaknesses. Rather than nudging struggling people back to ‘normal’ by repairing what’s bad, he suggests human thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to make people the best version of themselves.

His approach is not to ignore or minimize difficult and upsetting feelings but to teach people how to deal with them. While we may inherit a great deal of who we are from our parents, the rest is up to us; we choose how we use our mental toolkit [1, 3].

Positive psychology uses the scientific method

Positive psychology is research-led. It’s not made up by someone touting the latest ‘pop-a-pill and be happy for life’; instead, it has precise and predictive theories that have been, and continue to be, tested, challenged, and improved.

In 2005, Seligman led a 6-group, randomized study to test 5  different positive psychology interventions to see what really worked. Three of them boosted happiness in the here and now. And, amazingly, 2 of the interventions (that encouraged individuals to use their ‘signature strengths’ and reflect on 3 good things that had happened within the last 24-hours) significantly increased happiness and reduced symptoms of depression over the course of 6 months.

Perhaps it’s no surprise. Neuroscience shows that we are neither fixed nor stuck in our existing way of thinking and behaving – we can change.  Experts call this ability to grow and flex, ‘neuroplasticity.’ We can boost positive emotions, build upon our strengths, and ‘craft’ the environment to improve it.

But, it’s not just a change in mindset; it takes work [1, 3, 12].

The benefits of positive psychology

What does positive psychology give us that we don’t already have? Well, science has answered that one – a lot it seems. Perhaps its most significant impact is the shift in our perception. Even a small change here can transform our quality of life and our wellbeing. 

Simply being more ‘optimistic’ and showing ‘gratitude’ radically alters our perception of the people and the world around us. Throw in other positive emotions, such as awe, curiosity, and joy, and our outlook is revitalized, its effect life-changing – or at least  life-affirming.

Other tangible, research-identified benefits are more easily quantified – some even financially. Positive psychology techniques in the workplace boost job performance and increase customer satisfaction. And the changes don’t need to be radical. Even a greater focus on ‘giving more,’ ‘showing kindness,’ and ‘being grateful’ creates a more meaningful life.

And it doesn’t end there. Using positive emotions is contagious. Try it and see the effect you have on others.

The current state of positive psychology

What’s been going on with positive psychology in the decades since Seligman attempted his psychological coup – replacing the ‘traditional’ focus on what is wrong in life with positive psychology’s attention on what is right?

As positive psychology was born out of research and hard science, studies have continued to confirm its validity and value in many life domains, including education, healthcare, employee wellbeing, and leadership. And data prove that even short-term interventions make people feel happier and more fulfilled.

In fact, a series of studies involving 72,000 participants in 41 countries found that children and adults who received positive psychology interventions were less anxious, stressed, and depressed 3 months later. And not only that, their wellbeing also improved the longer the interventions lasted.

Theories and models continue to develop, helping us improve happiness, find engagement and flow, promote positive emotions, increase resilience, and build and encourage the use of strengths [1, 6, 9, 13].

The PERMA model of wellbeing

PERMA is Seligman’s model of wellbeing. It binds together several individual positive psychology elements to create a clearly defined, evidence-based approach for further study and application in our personal and work lives.

And, no surprise, PERMA is an acronym – psychologists love them. It’s made up of positive emotions, engagement, (positive) relationships, meaning, and accomplishments or achievements. And each one contributes to wellbeing, can be pursued for its own sake, and can be improved and measured.

And they are so powerful that, when taken together, they predict flourishing as an individual, group, community, organization, and even at a national level. Indeed, working on your PERMA increases aspects of your wellbeing and decreases psychological distress.

So, what do we need to do to ramp up our PERMA? Well, we break it down and use theory-based, research-proven practices to build ourselves up, one element at a time. And you know what, we’ll be more able to deal with life’s challenges and feel better, focusing our strengths to create improved, more fulfilling lives – and others will see the change too [1, 7].

Potential questions 

Q1: What do you think positive psychology gives us that the more traditional (disease-model) approach does not?

Q2: Think of the last 24 hours. What positive emotions did you experience? And why?

Q3: What single strength do you think your closest friends and family recognize in you? How could you use it more often? 

[1] Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

[2] Boniwell, I., & Tunariu, A. D. (2019). Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. London: Open University Press.

[3] Snyder, C. R. (2021). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. Oakland: New Harbinger.

[5] Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field guide for Practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.

[6] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2016). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dordrecht: Springer.

[7] Forgeard, M. J., Jayawickreme, E., Kern, M., & Seligman, M. (2011). Doing the right thing: Measuring wellbeing for public policy. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1), 79–106.

[8] Rath, T. (2017). Strengths based leadership: Great Leaders, teams, and why people follow. New York: Gallup Press.

[9] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.

[10] Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2018). Resilience: The science of mastering life’s greatest challenges. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Hernandez, S. C., & Overholser, J. C. (2020). A systematic review of interventions for hope/hopelessness in older adults. Clinical Gerontologist, 44(2), 97-111. 

[12] Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421. 

[13] Carr, A., Cullen, K., Keeney, C., Canning, C., Mooney, O., Chinseallaigh, E., & O’Dowd, A. (2020). Effectiveness of positive psychology interventions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 16(6), 749-769. 

Additional useful references, just for noting

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