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Reviews

Happiness

Jerry Gilpin

A new understanding of happiness and well-being - and how to achieve them
Martin Seligman
Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 408pp, ISBN: 9781857885699

What does it mean to be human?  What should a fully alive human being be like? Many readers of Third Way, like me, will instinctively want to answer this question by taking Jesus as a template of flourishing humanity.  Here is an icon: loving, self-sacrificial, clear of purpose, self-aware, free to give up his own will to that of his Father.
And yet being a Christian often doesn't feel like that.  We often find it much easier to focus on our shortcomings, our sins, our compromises than on our new humanity. We can seem to live in a world where it is always Lent and never Easter, all too aware of our failures to live up to the fullness we have been told is on offer. We're not really happy.

Martin Seligman is best known for his work on positive psychology at Penn State University, where he began and maintains the useful and popular  'Authentic Happiness' website - this is also the title of his previous book. Happiness is big news at the moment. The UK government has begun to think in terms of measuring national success not simply in terms of GDP (which, said Robert Kennedy, 'measures everything... except that which makes life worthwhile'), but of the wellbeing produced by a variety of other measures.
So far so good: a person's life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions, after all.  But the language of happiness is one at which we may look askance: it smacks of self-indulgence, of burying the moral compass somewhere under a duvet, of an avoidance of sacrifice and principle in favour of a sixties-inspired feelgood factor.  Seligman himself is well aware of this danger, and writes that he regrets the way his work has been defined by the phrase 'Authentic Happiness': 'the old, gold standard of positive psychology is disproportionately tied to mood [which] consigns the 50 percent of the world's population who are "low positive affectives" to the hell of unhappiness.'

Flourish is an attempt to set the record straight and to provide a much more nuanced approach to the subject of wellbeing. There is much overlap: part of wellbeing and full humanity IS feeling good, or being happy - our spirituality should be questioned if we routinely go round as if it were a wet Wednesday in February. Seligman allows for this as part of his rounded approach summed up in the acronym PERMA: the P stands for Positive Emotion - happiness, or good mood, if you will. But alongside this he includes as equal contributors to a full human experience the qualities of Engagement (the experience of being 'in flow', taken up with an activity that expresses our essence), Relationship (whether at the intimate or professional end of the scale), Meaning (a sense that the way we are spending our time and energy has a larger purpose to it) and Accomplishment (the satisfaction of getting a job done, of improving our skills and abilities).

Seligman's underlying point is this: that for the first century or so of its existence, psychology has had pathology in its focal length: it has been designed to mitigate the effects of depression or psychosis, which, however common and unpleasant they may be, are still minority experiences. As a result, it has become almost inextricably linked to sickness rather than wellness. For example, most of us are very conscious of the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder, a relatively uncommon condition, but completely unaware of post-traumatic growth, a much more common experience for those who survive physical or mental crises. Indeed, he writes of the vacuum that has been created: clinicians seek to 'mend' people with no clear sense (or no sense at all) of what human flourishing actually looks like. Positive psychology seeks to address this huge gap by studying situations in which human beings are happy and function well, and then by asking what behaviours we find in these situations.  

Positive psychology is here to stay, and I for one am very glad about that. Although the book has a slightly disorganised feel (Seligman wrote the bulk of it somewhat unexpectedly on holiday, he claims), it is full of helpful and simple suggestions as to how we can cultivate, for example, gratitude or resilience. It is also passionate as well as well evidenced, drawing on studies over the past half century. And it raised my eyes once again to the model of Jesus.  We are famously told little of his emotions, positive or otherwise; but here is someone who has engagement, relationship, meaning and accomplishment in spades.