Just because you’re miserable doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your life.
I’m a psychologist (actually, I have a diploma and the equivalent of a PhD, yeah!), but I am willing to admit that psychology has it’s share of problems. One of them is that it deals mainly with human deficits. We look at mental disorders and are dealing mostly with problems and deficits, alleviating suffering or preventing it — the mistakes people make when they think, the lack of knowledge or motivation people have at work … and much more.
However, at the turn of the last millennium, Martin E.P. Seligman propagated a change of perspective in psychology. Instead of looking only/mainly at the deficits humans have, psychology should also look at the positive side of life — at what makes a life worth living and which conditions are needed to enable such a life, and how to create these conditions.
That might sound trivial, but actually, there is something to it. As Seligman emphasizes: a life devoid of suffering — which a psychologist working as a therapist would regard as a success — is not a happy life. It’s an empty life. The positive elements of life are missing — and these elements are the domain of positive psychology.
Seligman wrote a couple of books about the topic. In 2011 he published “Flourish”, in which he gives an overview of positive psychology and introduces his well-being theory. Besides the actual theory (see below), I think (at least) three other important issues discussed in this book:
- Positive Psychology is often misunderstood — e.g., as smiling happily and hoping for the best while the cancer eats itself through your body and wastes you away. That’s not positive psychology. Positive psychology deals with enabling people to lead a life worth living and building up resilience against possible setbacks, not with mindless optimism.
- Positive Psychology is a young domain, but it is based on psychological theories and actual empirical evidence. That’s a far cry from the usual batch of self-help books. Psychology can never predict the future with 100% accuracy, but if done well, it’s much, much better than human intuition.
- Seligman is actually interested in influencing/improving the real life, which is in stark contrast to some psychologist working in ivory towers researching alternate worlds populated only by students (the main participants psychological research is based on). Unfortunately, psychology is a career and all to often, the scientific work in psychology is devoid of any aspiration to actually apply the findings or assess whether the findings hold true in the “real world”. Seligman uses a website to gather data from ‘normal’ people.
Happiness is not enough
Regarding the content, there is first the issue that positive psychology is not (solely) about being happy. Happiness is nice, but not enough. There are multiple ways to have well-being in one’s life. Seligman differentiates between:
- The Pleasant Life: What most people would consider a “happy” life. You maximize positive emotion and use your skills to get as much positive emotion as possible.
- The Engaged Life: You spend your time doing things you lose yourself in — things where you experience flow (skills and demands on the same level, you focus on the activity, time stops for you, everything else moves in the background).
- The Meaningful Life: You use your life in the service of something that is bigger than you. Not only religion, but also social, ecological, or political movements and the like.
While the pleasant life is mostly a distraction from well-being, it’s the engaged and meaningful life that is closely connected to well-being.
Five Elements of Well-Being
The issue of positive psychology is well being, but what is ‘well-being’? Seligman defines well-being as a construct (cannot be measured) that has five elements (can be measured). The names of these elements form the acronym PERMA: Positive Emotions, Engagement, (positive) Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments/Achievements. Seligman frequently refers to the work of other researchers to underpin his theory (exceptional science usually is collaborative).
PERMA: Positive Emotions
Positive Emotions is just what the name says: happiness, enjoyment, etc. This might be a difficult subject for pessimists, but the issue is not to go through life Pollyanna style or to discard negative emotions. After all, negative emotions do have their uses. It’s to enjoy the positive emotions.
An exercise in the book is the what-went-well exercise. The task is to write down three things that went well and why it happened this way. Do it at the end of each day for about a week. No matter whether it was a minor issue or a life-changing event, but you need a written record. It should become self-reinforcing quickly and should lead to more positive emotions in your life after a while.
Engagement means occupying oneself with things in which you can lose yourself (flow, see “The Engaged Life” above). Seligman argues that you experience flow when you are doing something in accordance with your signature strengths and refers to a test to measure your strengths. The test is at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. It measures 24 strengths and places them in rank order. Your signature strengths should be among the top positions. You see them as part of your person, like engaging in them, and improve quickly in using these strengths.
An exercise is to look at the top 5 strengths and find new applications in your daily life for these strengths. If you apply them and you experience flow you are on the track to bring more engagement into your life.
We are social animals, although I think there’s an exception to every rule. However, relationship quality does matter for well-being, and it’s the partner or friends you can call at 3 a.m., not the 6,456 friends you see online, that matter (non-sequitur also nails this issue).
Here Seligman refers to four interaction styles when partners share successes:
- active + constructive: Being responsive to the partner, asking the partner to relive the positive experience together (where were you, what did you do, how did you feel) and showing genuine positive emotions.
- passive + constructive: You take notice of the positive event in an unspecific, always applicable way (“well done”), but you do not ask questions to relive the experience and show only little if any positive emotions.
- active + destructive: You criticize the positive event and show negative emotions. Sounds strange, but it can — and unfortunately is frequently — done. For example, a promotion (positive) can mean less time at home (negative). Even inheriting $35k can be constructed as something negative.
- passive + destructive: You ignore the positive event and change the subject.
The important issue here is that only a genuine active + constructive style is helpful for a positive relationship. An unspecific unemotional passive + constructive style does not improve relationship quality.
Belonging to something that is greater than oneself and contributing to it. This can be religion, political, social or environmental activism and the like.
An exercise here is to think about a positive vision for the future and write one’s obituary from the perspective of one’s grandchildren as to what you did to contribute to that vision. I also like Seligman’s reference to the Japanese term “ikigai” here (= reason for being, or for getting up in the morning). Very interesting concept.
This is the last element of well-being. Seligman refers to studies that show the influence of persistence and self-discipline on achievement, even above intelligence. The same is true for many other areas — it’s people who persist when things get tough or boring who matter.
In short, Seligman’s book is really interesting, although much of the history and personal anecdotes will probably not resonate with people outside of the field of psychology. I would also have liked a more work-book like style. But still, the book is really interesting and it shows the value positive psychology has — if we do not only want empty lives (= free of suffering), but want a life of well-being.