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249] On: 10 February 2013, At: 16:07 Publisher: Routledge Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice
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Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them, by Martin E.P. Seligman
Ronan Conway
a a

School of Psychology, NUI, Galway, Ireland Version of record first published: 16 Dec 2011.

To cite this article: Ronan Conway (2012): Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them, by Martin E.P. Seligman, The Journal of Positive Psychology: Dedicated to furthering research and promoting good practice, 7:2, 159-161 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2011.614831

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The Journal of Positive Psychology Vol. 7, No. 2, March 2012, 159161

BOOK REVIEW Flourish: a new understanding of happiness and wellbeing and how to achieve them, by Martin E.P. Seligman, London, Free Press, 2011, 321 pp., US$26.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-4391-9075-3 Happiness and well-being are topics of discussion that have a special allure. The philosophical musings of Socrates on virtue, the hedonistic dialogues of Aristippus of Cyrene and the modern television preachings of Oprah are all distinct illustrations of the way the human mind has turned to the subject of happiness and well-being, that pinnacle of life evolving and often elusive pursuit of the masses. When I was a psychology undergraduate student, the discussion of happiness and well-being was regularly met with a gentle smile and a nonchalant dismissal from professors this is a subject of effusion for the enthusiastic, na ve scholars not yet privy to the hard-nosed reality of psychological research. In the words of the nineteenth century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, happiness is just an illusion caused by the temporary absence of reality. At the same time, even professors of psychology may hope for some modicum of happiness in their life, and some may even harbour a desire to flourish. Flourish, the new book by Dr Martin Seligman, attempts to broaden the revolution of positive psychology and the scientific study of happiness and wellbeing. The goal of the book is quite simple; to help readers to increase their well-being and to help everyone flourish. This goal is elaborated by reference to a new definition of well-being, in addition to a plethora of research findings and descriptions of practical exercises aimed at encouraging readers to apply psychological science to their life. Seligman describes the evolution of positive psychology from its inception and proposes a re-focus of positive psychology beyond happiness to the broader concept of well-being. The first half of the book (Chapters 16) presents the argument for the shift in theoretical orientation towards well-being, with a focus on defining the ingredients of well-being, and a number of strategies that can be used to boost well-being. Chapter 1 seeks to differentiate well-being from happiness, and establishes a conceptualisation of well-being around the five pillars of: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA). Chapters 2 and 3 describe exercises for increasing well-being and illustrate the utility of positive psychology in contrast to the limited traditional psychology approaches of drugs and therapy. The central message of these chapters is that well-being is amenable to change, in general and, most encouragingly, in clinical populations. An optimistic new approach to curing lifes maladies espouses a view on treatment as more than merely relieving symptoms and minimising negative emotions, to building the enabling components of wellbeing throughout the life course (e.g. PERMA). Chapter 4 describes how well-being interventions can be delivered to a wider audience, and details the establishment and ongoing work of the Masters in Applied Positive Psychology at Penn University. Chapter 5 describes efforts to teach positive psychology and promote well-being in young people in educational settings, while arguing that by implementing a positive psychology focus in schools it is possible to decrease the prevalence of depression, increases life satisfaction and improve learning and creative thinking. Examples of the Penn Resiliency Program and Geelong Grammar School provide concrete, and possibly generalisable, examples of how positive education may be assimilated into school communities. Chapter 6 describes the underlying ingredients of achievement from Seligmans perspective. Intelligence, self-control and GRIT (a combination of perseverance and drive) are seen as central to accomplishment, and consequently flourishing. In the second half of the book (Chapters 710), Seligman moves to describe specific examples of how positive psychology and the theory of well-being have been applied in different settings. In Chapters 7 and 8, a vision of the benefit of a psychologically fit army is portrayed. In line with the previous chapters which espoused a shift in perspective, these chapters look to move the focus of army psychology from reaction to adversity (i.e. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) to advancing resilience and growth. Chapter 9 turns to positive psychology and physical health. The chapter outlines the applicability of positive psychology in promoting resilience to illness, with a special focus on cardiovascular disease, infectious disease and all-cause mortality and cancer. The key message from this chapter is that those who suffer from a variety of illnesses may benefit from increases in positive mood and learned optimism. Seligman also

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ISSN 17439760 print/ISSN 17439779 online http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2011.614831 http://www.tandfonline.com


Book Review with research findings, thus providing a book that is entertaining, useful and scientifically appealing. Although the book divulges an appealing narrative full of fascinating detail, there is still room for criticism. Since the goal of the book is to increase flourishing in ones own life and on the planet, a discussion of the pillars of flourishing above the individual, subjective level would have been useful, for example, flourishing communities and institutions (interpersonal level), and the dynamic interrelations between the individual and context. Seligman describes evidence of the utility of positive character (e.g. empathy) from an evolutionary perspective, and presses for the inclusion of well-being indicators in addition to gross national product as measures of prosperity, but he fails to explicitly describe how cultivating character is good for anything beyond the individual (e.g. group problem solving and adaptation of groups to complex, dynamic environments). While Seligman strives to broaden the theory of happiness, he misses the opportunity to provide a functioning framework to elucidate the complex and multidimensional nuances that compose well-being for both an individual and a society. For example, even at the subjective level, the complexity of the relationship between personality and well-being is illustrated in the context of research suggesting that people are generally neither simple pessimists nor optimists, but have complex personality structures where it is possible to be both strongly optimistic and strongly pessimistic, depending on the circumstances (Norem, 2001). Furthermore, at the group design level, Seligman says nothing about the problem of catalysing collective action and designing environments that foster wellbeing (Warfield, 2006). For example, pragmatic systems science may provide a perspective, an integrative framework, and set of methodologies in which the multilayered science of well-being may be best conceptualised and applied at the group design level rdenas, 1994), but (Warfield, 2006; Warfield & Ca Seligman has nothing to say on the subject of pragmatic systems science. Furthermore, an area that has immensely benefited from a systems theory approach is contemporary developmental theory and research. This research has focused on understanding systemic (bidirectional) relations between individuals and contexts as providing the basis of human behaviour and developmental change (e.g. Damon, 1998; Lerner, Dowling, & Anderson, 2003). Ultimately, Seligmans proposed theory is firmly camped in the science of description. The theory of well-being, simplified to PERMA, will eventually require a framework derived from systems science to further support the use of evidence from the sciences of description (biological, psychological and social science) in the context of a science of design, complexity and collective action. It is only then that positive

attempts to posit tentative pathways by which wellbeing may protect an individual from illness. Chapter 10 is Seligmans description of positive psychologys moon-shot. As positive psychology learns to measure the pillars of flourishing, it should be possible to measure levels of flourishing throughout nations, cities, corporations, communities, schools and homes. Seligmans belief is that by creating a public policy perspective that emphasises the attainment of well-being as the ultimate goal of society, above and beyond the attainment of wealth, we can begin to design a world where flourishing is the focal point of all decisions. This is similar to the argument proposed by Sam Harris in his recent book, The Moral Landscape. However, unlike Harris, Seligman at least attempts to generate a theory of the components of well-being, each of which is presumably open to reliable and valid measurement. The theory of well-being, made up of the pillars of PERMA, is the centrepiece of Seligmans book. The refocus beyond happiness to well-being allows the field of positive psychology to attend to the character of individuals, and it helps Seligman to dismiss any idea of hedonic quests within this field of science. By attending to these qualities of lives, namely positive emotion, engagement, close relationships, meaning and accomplishment, well-being can be increased, and life maladies can be decreased or prevented. For example, the Strath Haven High School programme was designed based on the pillars of PERMA. A range of encouraging outcomes were observed, for example, increased student enjoyment, increased engagement in school and increased well-being, while simultaneously enhancing the traditional goals of classroom learning and reducing bad conduct. The description of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness training (Chapter 7) is also intuitively useful, with modules designed specifically for emotional, family, social and spiritual psychological fitness. The writing style of the book is varied, as Seligman offers a summary of contemporary thought alongside a plethora of autobiographical stories and anecdotes. The autobiographical stories that are generously peppered throughout the text, including the description of cloak-and-dagger meetings with anonymous donors who hand over large multi-million dollar cheques, also engage and draw the curious reader into the exciting world of positive psychology. On the other hand, Seligmans tone is unnecessarily pointed and aggressive when describing detractors of optimism (e.g. Barbara Ehrenreich). A more tempered discussion of criticisms, such as the brief discussion of reflexive reality (Chapter 10), may have been better in other places throughout the text. However, overall, Seligman captivates the reader as he weaves together the historical developments, colourful anecdotes and useful positive psychology exercises, all the while supporting his stance

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Book Review psychology will have the profound impact that Seligman hopes for at the public policy and societal design level. Using research findings and anecdotal illustrations, Flourish describes contemporary thought in the field of positive psychology in an engaging and colourful manner. Although a more coherent flow and logical approach to argumentation may have been useful in places throughout the book, Seligman provides an interesting account of developments within the field of positive psychology. From a student-centred perspective, this book provides a very rich and broad introduction to work in the positive psychology movement and therefore would be an excellent introductory text for students entering this field of study. Seligmans work has helped to make happiness and well-being an energised focus of ongoing scientific research. Seligman has helped to facilitate a new cultural revolution and a welcome evolution in psychological thought over the past decade. By building an underlying perspective on systems and systems design, Seligman and other positive psychologists may well be instrumental in achieving the broader goal of synthesising knowledge and practice


from multiple lines of basic and applied traditional and positive psychology research and thus, push a resolved psychology field forward in its purpose of enhancing lives and enriching society.

Damon, W. (Ed.). (1998). Handbook of child psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Wiley. Lerner, R.M., Dowling, E.M., & Anderson, E.M. (2003). Positive youth development: Thriving as the basis of personhood and civil society. Applied Developmental Science, 7, 172180. Norem, J.K. (2001). The positive power of negative thinking. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. Warfield, J.N. (2006). An introduction to systems science. Singapore: World Scientific. rdenas, A.R. (1994). A handbook of Warfield, J.N., & Ca interactive management (2nd ed.). Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press. Ronan Conway School of Psychology, NUI, Galway, Ireland Email: r.conway4@nuigalway.ie

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