Martin Seligman is Ushering the New Era of Positive Psychology

A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher, BeInkandescent Health & Wellness magazine — I have long been a fan and follower of Martin Seligman, a “father of positive psychology. While I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (BA 1986), he was a rock star on campus. In fact, he’s been teaching at Penn since earning is Ph.D. in psychology there, and for years has been the director of the school’s clinical training program.

In 1998 he was declared the president of the American Psychological Association (APA). One of his primary activities was to encourage positive psychology as a field of scientific study. Seligman’s work focuses on the concept of learned helplessness, as well as topics ranging from depression and pessimism to resilience and what makes life worth living. His books include:

What has grabbed my attention for decades is Seligman’s basic belief. “Happiness is not the result of good genes or luck. Real, lasting happiness comes from focusing on one’s personal strengths rather than weaknesses–and working with them to improve all aspects of one’s life.”

To explain how this theory works, Seligman has created the PERMA™ theory of well-being, which is an attempt to answer fundamental questions using five building blocks that enable flourishing using techniques to increase each (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment).

“Different people will derive well-being from each of these five building blocks to varying degrees,” he explains. “A good life for one person is not necessarily a good life for another. There are many different routes to a flourishing life. Positive Psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, we are not telling people what choices to make or what to value, but research on the factors that enable flourishing can help people make more informed choices to live a more fulfilling life that is aligned with their values and interests.”

Understanding the five building blocks:

  • Positive Emotion: This route to well-being is hedonic – increasing positive emotion. Within limits, we can increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g., by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g., by savoring physical pleasures and mindfulness), and our positive emotion about the future (e.g., by building hope and optimism). Unlike the other routes to well-being described below, this route is limited by how much an individual can experience positive emotions. In other words, positive affectivity is partly heritable and our emotions tend to fluctuate within a range. Many people are, by disposition, low in experiencing positive emotion. Traditional conceptions of happiness tend to focus on positive emotion, so it can be liberating to know that there are other routes to well-being, described below.
  • Engagement: Engagement is an experience in which someone fully deploys their skills, strengths, and attention for a challenging task. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this produces an experience called “flow” that is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, rather than for what they will get out of it. The activity is its own reward. Flow is experienced when one’s skills are just sufficient for a challenging activity, in the pursuit of a clear goal, with immediate feedback on progress toward the goal. In such an activity, concentration is fully absorbed in the moment, self-awareness disappears, and the perception of time is distorted in retrospect, e.g., time stops. Flow can be experienced in a wide variety of activities, e.g., a good conversation, a work task, playing a musical instrument, reading a book, writing, building furniture, fixing a bike, gardening, sports training, or performance, to name a few.
  • Relationships: Relationships are fundamental to well-being. The experiences that contribute to well-being are often amplified through our relationships, for example, great joy, meaning, laughter, a feeling of belonging, and pride in accomplishment. Connections to others can give life purpose and meaning. Support from and connections with others is one of the best antidotes to “the downs” of life and a reliable way to feel up. Research shows that doing acts of kindness for others produces an increase in well-being. From an evolutionary perspective, we are social beings because the drive to connect with and serve others promotes our survival. Developing strong relationships is central to adaptation and is enabled by our capacity for love, compassion, kindness, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, self-sacrifice, etc.
  • Meaning: A sense of meaning and purpose can be derived from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. There are various institutions that enable a sense of meaning, such as religion, family, science, politics, work organizations, justice, the community, social causes (e.g., being green), among others.
  • Accomplishment: People pursue achievement, competence, success, and mastery for their own sake, in a variety of domains, including the workplace, sports, games, hobbies, etc. People pursue accomplishment even when it does not necessarily lead to positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.

Click here to learn more about Seligman’s PERMA™ program at the University of Pennsylvania. And be sure to check out his TED Talk about the New Era of Positive Psychology.