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Centre's review of Martin Seligman's new book - Flourish

Positive psychology has (until recently) played a big part in the Centre's work.  We have run various events with various positive psychologists, including Professor Martin Seligman, as the keynote speaker. However, although we continue to see the merit of much of this perspective we have become disenchanted with its narrowness of view and the idea that somehow these few tools and techniques are going to change the world.

Professor Martin Seligman's outlines his latest thinking in his new book Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. Here the Centre sets out some of Seligman's new  arguments as well as our own views on this theory. (Note: The numbers in parenthesis indicate the page number in the paperback version of Flourish.)


Review of Flourish by Martin Seligman
Centre for Confidence and Well-being, July 2011

Professor Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, was the keynote speaker at a conference called 'Towards a Confident Scotland' in Glasgow in the autumn of 2003.  After his talk outlining the basic ideas in his book the audience made clear that, while they liked much of what he said, they disliked the book's title and emphasis on happiness. Much to our surprise Professor Seligman agreed: he disliked it too and confided that it had been chosen by the publishers as it would be easier to sell than any volume called 'positive psychology'.  He tried to argue with them, he told us,  but to no avail. However, Professor Seligman did not simply get saddled with a title he didn't like as the focus of the book is happiness and, given Seligman's position within positive psychology, happiness has become synonymous with the movement's aims.

In his latest book Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them Seligman has come clean (despite the sub-title –presumably there to suit the publisher) and now tells us:

I actually detest the word happiness which is so overused that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science or for any political goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. (p. 9)

As will be evident to any frequent visitors to this site, this precisely echoes the Centre's views. However, it presents a major challenge to the positive psychology movement in the UK and beyond as many of them are involved in Action for Happiness, recently launched by Lord Layard, which seeks to influence individuals and government policy. The disagreement over terminology is certainly confusing for anyone with a passing interest in this area of work.

Martin Seligman's new theory

The first chapter of Flourish helpfully, and clearly, sets out his original theory in Authentic Happiness and how Seligman's thinking has now shifted.  The main difference is that, for three main reasons, (outlined below) he has replaced his focus on happiness with one on well-being.

First Seligman argues that when the general public hears the word 'happy' they take it 'to mean buoyant mood, merriment, good cheer, and smiling.' (p. 10) Indeed Seligman adds that the emphasis on happiness 'saddled me with  that awful smiley face whenever positive psychology made the news.' (p. 10)

Secondly, measuring happiness generally requires measuring people's life satisfaction yet it has been shown that this is tied to how we feel in the moment. In short, life satisfaction is very much about mood and such transitory feelings do not make a great basis for public policy or positive psychology.

Thirdly Seligman now thinks his original definition of happiness as positive emotion (how we feel in the moment), engagement (e.g. experiencing 'flow') and meaning (serving a goal larger than the self) inadequate as a basis for positive psychology. He still thinks these three pillars important for human well-being but now wants to add two more – relationships and 'accomplishment'.

When those of us from the Centre used to give talks on positive psychology and recounted Seligman's three pillars we always said that the importance of relationships was integral to the whole theory - meaning is about serving others' needs and positive emotion is often generated via our relations with others.  Making this explicit, rather than implicit, makes perfect sense.

What about the addition of accomplishment? Seligman now argues that an important element in well-being is 'success, accomplishment, winning, achievement and mastery'. These are things that people pursue for their own sakes, he claims,  and not because they will necessarily boost other aspects of well-being such as relationships, meaning or positive emotion.

One of the reasons why Seligman is so critical of his previous work is that it is 'monistic'  and 'one dimensional' – too concerned with happiness in the form of life satisfaction. The advantage of the new theory, he claims, is its breadth:

Well-being theory is plural in method as well as substance: positive emotion is a subjective variable, defined by what you think and feel. Engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment have both subjective and objective components, since you can believe you have engagement, meaning, good relations, and high accomplishment and be wrong, even deluded.  The upshot of this is that well-being cannot exist just in your own head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually  having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximise all five of these elements. (p. 25)

Seligman is very confident about this new theory. Indeed he opens the book with the statement: 'This book will help you flourish.' (Later  he argues that the 'long mission' of positive psychology is that by 'the year 2051, 51 percent of the world's people will be flourishing.')(p. 240)  He is aware that these are unlikely claims from a 'conservative' 'research scientist' like himself and argues that this is indeed the book's appeal:  

… what I write comes from the fact that it is grounded in careful science: statistical tests, validated questionnaires, thoroughly researched exercises, and large, representative samples. … My writings are believable because of the underlying science. (p. 1)

The  Centre's view

As a Centre we have never been keen on the emphasis on happiness – indeed this is one of the reasons we have 'well-being' in the title of the Centre - so we welcome the evolution in Seligman's thought.  As a Centre we still think there is  merit in paying attention to much of the research which goes under the banner of positive psychology but (and this is a huge but) we are particularly critical of two things which are central to Seligman's latest book.

The first is the continual overselling of positive psychology's scientific foundations. Of course, much of what Seligman writes draws on research studies but as numerous critics have pointed out studies such as these are not always generalisable to other populations and often have profound cultural biases. Another concern is that the effects of psychological interventions are often very limited and short-lived.

More importantly, Seligman has constructed his own theory of well-being based on five foundations but inevitably his selection has been subjective and based on personal preference – 'cherrypicking' is the term he would use.  For example, where's autonomy and personal control which assume an important place in other theories of well-being, such as Self-Determination Theory, as a result of considerable empirical research? Why does physical activity, for example, hardly get a look in when some would researchers argue it is fundamental to positive feelings? Speaking at a Centre event some years ago the famous positive psychology lecturer Dr Tal Ben-Shahar told us 'not taking exercise is depressing' yet exercise is not one of Seligman's pillars and he only dedicates a few pages to this whole topic.  

Our second area of criticism is more substantial – encompassing both Seligman's conceptualisation of well-being itself as well as the claims he makes for the importance of positive psychology.

Let's begin by returning to the point we have just made on the absence in Seligman's theory of anything related to personal freedom or what Self-Determination theorists refer to as 'autonomy'. This is not about individualism and freedom from obligations to others: it is the ability to regulate your own life in important ways such as saying 'yes' or 'no' for yourself.  This is a hugely important motivation which we can detect from even a cursory inspection of current news coverage. For example, it is a desire for freedom and personal control which provides the energy behind 'the Arab Spring' as well as the underlying philosophy of the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In her BBC Reith Lectures she outlined and explained the 'universal human aspiration to be free and the spirit which drives people to dissent'. The people on the streets of Syria or Libya are attempting, in part, to enhance their well-being by gaining more control over their lives yet this is a  desire which Seligman's theory does not even recognise.

Paradoxically, Seligman's whole theory of well-being is predicated on the idea that people have choice in life. In the large quote above on the advantages of his new theory Seligman actually states: 'The way we choose our course in life is to maximise … ' what he identifies as the five elements of well-being. (Our emphasis.)

Seligman's assumption that people have personal control is partly understandable given that he is not living in Burma, China  or the middle east. But we must remember that his ambition for positive psychology is that it will influence the world and not just be of value to western individuals. What's more, western freedom is still limited: lack of control is an important check on people's well-being even in democratic countries. The famous Whitehall study of civil servants conducted by Professor Michael Marmot et al showed that those who were most stressed (and had poorer health and less well-being) were not those at the top who, no matter how busy, had control over their lives. It was those at the bottom whose working lives were decided by others who had the worst well-being. 

Seligman also ignores the impact of culture – for example, the way that the media shapes people's views of themselves and their motivations – preferring instead to present individuals as largely in control of their individual lives.  Where he does recognise problems (such as with pessimistic thinking) he suggests that this is easily rectified by appropriate training. The impact of the media on culture, and culture's impact on individuals, is a huge blindspot not just for Seligman but for the whole positive psychology movement as it is hardly mentioned in the literature and is not the  focus of research. Nonetheless there is a great deal of social psychological research showing how damaging consuming media can be for individuals' relationships and self-perceptions.

We believe that Seligman's complete disregard of the importance of topics such as control, autonomy, freedom, consumerism or inequality - a huge subject in its own right - in his theory of well-being leads to a naïve and politically conservative view of the world.

This leads to our second main concern with Seligman's theory. Seligman is far too optimistic – cavalier even – in his calculations about the problems facing us in modern times.  Leaving aside inequality or individuals' lack of personal control, there is no acknowledgement of the challenges facing us as human beings such as global warming, changing weather patterns (already affecting parts of the world) or the threats posed by over-consumption of resources or escalating food prices. Again this is important given that he has set the 'long mission' for positive psychology as 51 percent of the world's people flourishing by the year 2051.

This cavalier optimism can be seen in the part of the book where he explains his own anxiety about the loss of some life savings as a result of the recession as he then tells us that part of his consolation was knowing:

The recession of 2008-9, even if it had gotten much worse, would have been cushioned by the safety net that every wealthy nation has created since the Great Depression: no one would starve, medical care would be intact, and education would still be free. (p. 232)

The majority of the world do not live in wealthy nations and even in the USA the picture is very different from what Seligman describes here. The charity Feeding America proclaims:

In many ways, America is the land of plenty. But for 1 in 6 Americans, hunger is a reality. Many people believe that the problems associated with hunger are confined to small pockets of society, certain areas of the country, or certain neighborhoods, but the reality is much different.

Right now, millions of Americans are struggling with hunger.  These are often hard-working adults, children and seniors who simply cannot make ends meet and are forced to go without food for several meals, or even days.

Even if we accept that few, if any, Americans actually starve to death, given the above statistics, hunger is certainly undermining the well-being of a  sizeable number. What's more, it is estimated that 47 million Americans have no health insurance  and while there is provision for free basic health care many go without. For a developed nation the USA has a low life expectancy – lower than Chile's and Cuba's.

Getting access to good schools in the USA is also a major challenge, and stress, for lots of parents as the recent film 'Waiting for Superman' showed. Seligman would agree with the problem of low standards as he and his wife have chosen to homeschool  their children.  

The issue here is not that Seligman hardly mentions problems such as these but that he seems wilfully blind to them and when he does acknowledge real life problems (as in the above quote) tries to render them redundant or easy to eliminate if someone begins to think more optimistically.

This leads to our third concern about Seligman's new theory. Seligman expressly states at the beginning of Flourish that he is opposed to 'monism' – in this case the idea that there is only one human motivation such as the pursuit of happiness or the alleviation of anxiety. By basing his well-being theory on five broad pillars he thinks he has escaped the problems of monism. But monism is usually defined as the idea that only one kind of thing exists in the universe, and that everything is reducible to this one thing. In this book Seligman hardly acknowledges any realm outside of human psychology and so we believe that he is culpable of psychological monism.

Despite these fundamental differences in opinion with Professor Seligman's approach we still think the book has value. The chapter entitled 'The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy' is certainly worth reading as is the chapter on physical health. There's little doubt that people interested in mental health or ways to promote well-being will find some of what Seligman presents insightful and useful.

However, saying this gets us back to the nub of the problem with Flourish. Positive psychology was born as a result of a growing opposition by psychologists like  Seligman to the negativity of business-as-usual empirical psychology which had become obsessed with what was wrong with people and blind to their strengths and the positive aspects of human life. Positive psychology was originally a breath of fresh air – a welcome attempt to round out psychology and make its tools and practices more helpful to those seeking respite from mental health problems as well as those interested in improving mental well-being.

But in recent years positive psychology has become increasingly grandiose – convinced of its unique ability to solve the problems of the modern world by boosting the subjective well-being not only of those in well-heeled, democratic countries but also developing countries such as China and India. In so doing it has to ignore two things. First, that its tool kit of 'interventions' is extremely limited -  hardly capable of boosting and sustaining individual, organizational or community well-being in western cultures let alone global flourishing. Secondly it inevitably ignores (as Seligman does in Flourish) the real life constraints on flourishing such as unemployment, inequality, economic instability and materialism.

Thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich's book Smile or Die, Seligman is familiar with this line of argument and he is belligerently dismissive:

What Ehrenreich appears to be after is a world in which human well-being follows from externalities such as class, war, and money. Such a crumbling Marxist worldview must ignore the enormous number of reflexive realities in which what a person thinks  and feels goes on to influence the future. The science of positive psychology (and this book) is entirely about such reflexive realities. (p. 236, our emphasis)

Later he adds, 'I am all for realism when there is a knowable reality out there that is not influenced by your expectations. When your expectations influence reality, realism sucks." (p. 237)  Of course, Seligman acknowledges briefly from time to time the value of 'justice, democracy, peace, and tolerance, to name a few other desiderata that might or might not correlate with well-being' (p. 240)  but as this quote shows they are simply an afterthought, little more than a throw away line. It is subjective experience, not the objective world, which matters in Seligman's theory of well-being.

As a Centre we certainly do not subscribe to economic determinism but neither do we uphold, as Seligman does,  psychological determinism. We do not think it helpful to pit objective reality against 'reflexive reality' – they interact and influence one another. Let's take unemployment as an example. Seligman does not mention the topic in Flourish yet copious research shows this has a major impact on psychological well-being and physical health. Of course, Seligman's type of perspective could be helpful: an employee who loses his/her job can take an optimistic stance and this may help that individual get another by ensuring she or he devotes energy to job-seeking and comes over well at interview. However, an Ehrenreich critique is also valid: so many jobs may have been shed in his/her locality or sector (e.g. what's happening in many areas of the USA) that no matter how positive an individual is he or she still won't get hired. What is Seligman's view on the  matter? Does he really believe that whether an individual finds employment is simply a function of his/her expectations and the actual state of the economy and labour market a complete irrelevance – little more than the flotsam of a 'crumbling Marxist analysis'?

Those of us involved with the Centre are keen to understand, and disseminate, some of what positive psychology has to offer such as the role that optimism can play in life and the importance of positive emotions, relationships and meaning. But we believe it is wrong to make out, as Seligman does, that these are the fundamentals of human flourishing and well-being.  Indeed we think psychological reductionism not only diverts attention from important socio-economic and environmental challenges but also that the growing positive psychology obsession with the balance of positive to negative emotions ('the Losada ratio') implicitly encourages people to shy away from the critical analysis we require to square up to some of the big issues of our time.

We do not think these are inconsequential points.  Indeed to borrow one of Seligman's phrases we think these arguments are 'of real moment' to anyone interested in social change, well-being and the promotion of human flourishing. 

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