Monday, June 18, 2012

Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being

Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being
By Martin E. P. Seligman

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

For this book, Seligman has 49 pages of notes, a 28-page index, and a 22-page appendix (“Signature Strengths Test”).  Out of a 349-page book, that leaves 241 pages of text material.

The book is divided into two parts, “A New Positive Psychology,” and “The Ways to Flourish,” and each part has five chapters.  The first five chapters cover, 1) What is well-being?, 2) Creating your happiness, 3) The dirty little secret of drugs and therapy, 4) Teaching well-being, and 5) Positive education: Teaching well-being to young people.  The final five chapters cover 6) GRIT, Character and Achievement, 7) Army Strong: Comprehensive soldier fitness, 8) Turning trauma into growth, 9) Positive physical health, and 10) The politics and economics of well-being.

Seligman begins by saying, “This book will help you flourish” (p. 1), and to support his point throughout the book, he uses “careful science: statistical tests, validated questionnaires, thoroughly research exercises, and large, representative samples” (p. 1).  “In contrast to pop psychology and the bulk of self-improvement,” he continues, “my writings are believable because of the underlying science” (p. 1).

Those readers who are looking for a quick recipe that will help them flourish may be disappointed.  It is a similar disappointment to those readers who read Edgar Willis’s How to be funny on purpose (And Then Some, 2005) looking for a quick formula for being funny.  Both books have extraordinary depth and breadth in addition to offering what readers may be seeking.

I write all of the above information so you, the reader, will know what you are getting when you purchase this book.  What I have not as yet said, however, is that Seligman is a terrific writer.  You can easily and quickly become engrossed with the detailed stories he writes.  If you are at all interested in the influence of editors on a writer’s works or how a research scientist changes positions, his Chapter 1, “What is Well-Being” provides details.

Regarding his change of positions, he writes about Senia Maymin, a student in his master’s level “Introduction to Positive Psychology” class, who challenged his point of view.  He writes, “Beginning in that October class in Huntsman Hall, I changed my mind about what positive psychology is.  I also changed my mind about what the elements of positive psychology are and what the goal of positive psychology should be” (p. 12).

Now, as a lay reader with little background in psychology, all of this information about his theory and how his theory changed may be boring.  I, however, found it riveting.  That may be because I took a number of psychology classes, that I use many of the psychological-research findings in my writings, or, too, I am a college-textbook writer who is constantly faced (by my textbook reviewers) with challenges to the ideas I write about.  It is just such challenges that cause me to re-think and even alter what I write.

Those of you who have a life characterized by well-being or who have read a great deal of well-being literature (there are numerous possible sources in the “Notes” section of this book), may not find a whole lot of information, suggestions, or well-being prompts that are new here—although reminders and reinforcements aren’t bad!  I found the exercises interesting and fun.

I found Seligman’s explanations about his research engaging.  Most readers may, too, find his descriptions lengthy and a bit tedious; that is why it can be stated clearly—just as Seligman warned in Chapter 1—this is not a pop psych book.  But, if you enjoy a deep-reading experience, if you find pleasure in looking behind the scenes, and if you relish the musings of a research scientist, you will love this book.  Just look at this one sentence alone: “Psychotherapy and drugs as they now are used are half baked” (p. 53).  What he argues here is that they may remove the disabling conditions of life, but they seldom build the enabling conditions of life (p. 53).

This is truly a book for serious readers.  The way, for example, he analyzes the philosophy and approach of Wittgenstein, Popper, and Penn (pages 56-62), discusses the ingredients of applied positive psychology (pages 66-69), the Penn Resilency Program (PRP) (pp. 81-85), what intelligence is (pp. 106-114), GRIT–or the combination of very high persistence and high passion for an objective--- (pages 115-124), are excellent instances of when seriousness is necessary.  There are many such examples.

There is no doubt that serious readers will find this book interesting—even captivating (from his heavy use of engaging examples alone).  It makes a valuable contribution and may well serve as another benchmark (in addition to his book Authentic Happiness, 2002), in the pursuit of those precise ingredients that allow us to understand happiness and well-being.

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