Positive psychology is not yet twenty years old. In the short time since Martin Seligman’s 1998 call to turn on a scientific inquiry into what helps human beings to flourish, rather than merely survive, we have discovered an enormous about what we can all learn and do and practice and master to increase and sustain our own and each other’s happiness.
And much more than a luxury, we are finding that our happiness is integral to our individual success, in terms of our performance and productivity, our creativity and learning, and our resilience and positive responsiveness to change and uncertainty. And it is an equally vital aspect of making strong trusting relationships in our families and friendships, our teams and wider networks, as much as our societies and increasingly interconnected, interdependent global systems.
Seligman is speaking across the UK at the moment and I am looking forward enormously to hearing him on 9th May at the Action for Happiness event in London.
In his Irish Times article, Can you teach wellbeing? Martin Seligman thinks so, Ronan McGreevy writes:
Introducing Seligman in Dublin, TCD professor of psychology Ian Robertson described him as a “polymath” engaged in nothing less than “a movement which is creating a paradigm change in how humanity thinks about itself”.
Seligman described himself as a self-confessed pessimist and depressive who tries out his own techniques first on himself before expanding them to his own family and then his students.
He was a relatively late convert to the concept of wellbeing and happiness. As a psychologist, he recalls, happiness was regarded as the “froth on the cappuccino”, immeasurable and irrelevant to his profession.
“Thirty years ago there was no theory of wellbeing which distinguished it from suffering and no interventions that built wellbeing. That has changed over the past 30 years.”
It might seem obvious given the recent emphasis on wellbeing and happiness, but the focus of psychology and psychiatry was, for so long, on alleviating suffering and examining mental illness rather than the pursuit of happiness.
He defines wellbeing as what “non-suffering, non-oppressed people choose to do”. It pertains not only to individuals but also to corporations and even nation states.
Seligman’s understanding of wellbeing includes the notion of “flourishing”, where human beings create the conditions for making the best of themselves and their circumstances.
Seligman’s model for wellbeing is made up of five building blocks summed up in the acronym PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. These five concepts together represent a definition of wellbeing.
We add one more – Resilience – and use this framework in our programmes as a springboard to help people explore what they most and least satisfied with in their work and lives at the moment, and what they can do to keep strong their highest elements and build up their lowest scoring elements.
Positive emotion is feeling happy or comfortable in a situation, what we think of when we think of happiness.
Engagement is the process whereby a person is absorbed by something, whether it is their work, pastimes, making the dinner, and so on. Seligman talks about the concept of “flow”, which occurs when an individual is totally absorbed in what they are doing. Greater “flow” brings greater happiness.
Relationships relate to positive and not negative relationships – the ones that bring us benefit. Human beings are “hive creatures”, he says, not just selfish individuals.
Meaning is the idea of belonging to and serving something that you think is bigger than yourself, for instance, a union, church, charity or some club. “The more meaning people have at work, the more productive they are,” he says.
Accomplishment would appear to be self-evident, he states, but it is startling how self-discipline trumps talent. It is twice as important as IQ for predicting academic success, he says.
Seligman advocates simple techniques that will enhance one’s sense of wellbeing – one of which is to write down “three good things” that occur during the day.
“It turns out that when people do this, six months later they are less depressed and have higher positive emotion compared with a placebo.”
What works for the individual also works for larger organisations. Seligman pointed to research in the United States that showed a startling correlation between the type of language used on Twitter and incidences of fatal heart attacks.
One would seem ostensibly to have nothing to do with the other, but there was an unerring correlation between negative language used on the social media platform and increased risk of heart attacks.
“I think this is causal,” he says. “If you change the way people think and talk about the world, you can change things like the heart attack and death rates.”
The critical question, Seligman says, is whether PERMA can be taught. Can happiness be improved? Do these techniques work? Can the success or otherwise of such techniques be measured? He maintains the answer to all these questions is yes.
Studies in Bhutan have shown marked differences in schoolchildren to whom wellbeing was taught against a placebo group that was not taught wellbeing.
Bhutan has made national wellbeing a goal as distinct simply from gross national product. Children who were taught the techniques of positive psychology halve the rate of depression and anxiety as adolescences, Seligman says.
Similarly, Seligman was employed by US army chief of staff George Casey to teach positive psychology to drill sergeants. Casey wanted an army that was mentally as well as physically fit and has spent €150 million teaching resilience psychology to soldiers.
The result has been a notable decrease in incidences of suicide, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Governments should follow suit, Seligman says.
Learning to find light in the darkness…
Plus many more stories and articles in our eclectic collection:
Filed under: 21st century leadership, 21st century work, Changing the World, Creative Learning, Happiness & Wellbeing At Work, Leadership, Mindfulness, Positive Psychology, Uncategorized Tagged: accomplishment, collaboration, creative learning, creativity, engagement, flourishing, happiness, Happiness At Work, happiness experts, leadership, listening, Martin Seligman, meaningful work, mindfulness, optimism, PERMA, personal development, positivity, professional development, purpose, relationships, relationships at work, resilience, self-mastery, team working, Wellbeing, work-life balance