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Should We Dispense With Happiness? A Review of Marty Seligman's New Book, Flourish

It's too early to dispense with happiness.

NOTE: I recently published a review of Marty Seligman's new book, Flourish, in the journal Nature. It had to be significanctly abridged, and I provide the original version below.

The premise of positive psychological science - that it is equally important to investigate wellness as it is to study misery - is no longer unfamiliar to the general public. In his most personal and boldest book to date, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman takes readers on a captivating tour of the latest and greatest in this rapidly growing field. Flourish offers insights accumulated over a long and storied career - one that has put the author in the same room as billionaire philanthropists, British lords, Army generals, Australian school kids, and thousands of scientists, educators, physicians, and mental health professionals. Seligman offers gems of wisdom in this book, along with audacious opinions that leave one unsurprised as to why he has attracted both legions of followers and high-profile critics from Barbara Ehrenreich to Jane Mayer.

Flourish is also replete with stories that are at times illuminating and compelling, and occasionally maddeningly digressing. To be sure, the book reveals a great deal about Seligman the scholar, the educator, and the charismatic and inspiring leader, as well as casting light on his passions and pet peeves.

Running through Flourish are two critical themes. The first is that positive psychology - the study of optimal human functioning - must be grounded in the most rigorous science. The 100+ serious positive psychological scientists working today attest to the fact that this earliest goal from the field's genesis has met with smashing success. The second take-home message is one that many scholars pay lip service to but routinely set aside and even disdain - namely, that researchers don't exist solely to engage in abstract intellectual cogitations but have a calling to make the world a better place. Seligman's book is a paean to the importance of scientific application and a blueprint for how to translate and marshal empirical evidence out of the laboratory and into the real world.

The heart of Flourish involves detailed descriptions of several applied initiatives that Seligman has personally conceived and shepherded. For example, assorted ventures in "positive education" have involved creating and implementing curricula to develop character strengths (kindness, leadership), build grit (passion, perseverance), and enhance positive emotions (happiness, gratitude) among both schoolchildren and undergraduates. Seligman also teaches the theory and research behind positive psychology to mature professionals - life coaches, pastors, entrepreneurs, fitness instructors, policy wonks, game designers - who subsequently return to integrate their newfound knowledge into their vocations.

The most impressive effort discussed by Seligman, however, is the cutting-edge Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program currently being implemented across the million-plus members of the U.S. Army community. The program, recently profiled in a special issue of the highly regarded American Psychologist, involves measuring "psychosocial fitness" and building resilience in several critical life domains (emotional, social, family, spiritual). This is a rare and remarkable opportunity to change the culture of an entire institution (not known for prioritizing emotions), prevent suffering (including suicide and post-traumatic stress), and bolster both flourishing and effectiveness.

That Seligman's preceding best-selling book was called Authentic Happiness and this one is titled Flourish is not accidental. Seligman professes that he detests the word "happiness," and offers three plausible reasons: It is overused and nearly meaningless, it is measured subjectively, and it connotes smiley-faced cheerfulness and hedonism. However, the alternative terms preferred by Seligman - flourishing, well-being, meaning, love, growth - are unlikely to prove superior. (My own nonscientific survey of acquaintances from a variety of backgrounds and professions revealed that half were completely confused as to what "flourishing" meant.)

After dispensing with "happiness" in Chapter 1, Seligman proposes a new "well-being theory" to motivate the remainder of the book. He posits that well-being (aka flourishing) has four elements or pillars - positive emotion (happiness, satisfaction, engagement), meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (mastery). Essentially, he argues, human beings yearn to flourish; in addition to wanting happiness, they desire to master something, to have fulfilling relationships, and to have meaning in their lives.

It's hard to argue with this intuitively appealing thesis, and I doubt that many psychological researchers would fundamentally disagree about the importance of positive emotions, meaning, relationships, and mastery. However, the theory has notable weaknesses that detract from its ability to sustain the weight of the entire book.

The first problem with Seligman's premise - namely, that "well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment" - is that it confuses the elements of well-being with the contributors and consequences of well-being. The truth is that people who report that they are "satisfied" or "happy" are more likely than their less happy peers to have meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. Some empirical evidence suggests that these are sources of happiness (e.g., having a good marriages makes one happy) and some suggests that they may be outcomes (e.g., happier people are likely to forge satisfying relationships).

Second, although the four pillars are correlated with one another, to my knowledge no statistical evidence exists to support a unifactorial structure - that is, whether the pillars always "go together." This is problematic, as the four elements may originate and evolve differently over time. For example, a public servant who is passionate about his work may experience a great deal of positive emotions and meaning over the course of his career, but his relationships may suffer. And a selfless Mother Theresa type may have meaning, accomplishment, and fulfilling relationships, but little joy. These examples point to a third concern, which is that it's not clear whether Seligman's conceptualization of well-being is culturally shared. As with the question of unifactorial structure, empirical evidence to establish cultural differences or universalities is critical.

Finally, I know of no strong theoretical argument or research evidence that suggests that constructs like meaning or love can be measured more objectively than happiness. If happiness is "all in one's head," as Seligman asserts, then so are some of the four pillars.

Ultimately, many will agree that one of society's aims should be to raise the amount of positive emotion, meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment in its citizens. Indeed, Seligman's "moon shot" galvanizing goal for positive psychology is for 51% of the world population to be flourishing by the year 2051. I have no problem with using "flourishing" and "well-being" as useful shorthand for the four pillars, but perhaps calling the four pillars a theory is premature.

Research reveals that happy people are not self-centered, gratification-seeking hedonists lacking in meaning or fulfillment. To the contrary, hundreds of studies have shown that happiness relates and leads to such positive outcomes as creativity, productivity, effective coping, satisfying marriages, close friendships, higher earnings, longevity, and strong immune systems. If that's not a reason not to dispense with happiness, then I don't know what is.

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