Read my review of Martin Seligman's latest publication, "Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being"
Let me start by noting that I’m a huge Seligman fan. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and dine and talk to Prof. Seligman several times during his visits to Australia and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that it’s not a bubbly and gregarious personality that makes me a fan! Rather, it’s the incredible intellect and the enormous body of work he’s produced over several decades of labour; and not just any work, but research and practical publications that have quite literally, changed the practice of clinical psychology and more recently, positive psychology.
As I’m sure they did for many, many others, his earlier works in Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness had profound effects on my personal and professional life. In fact it was reading and subsequently discussing the latter that among other things, led to the establishment of The Happiness Institute.
So with this in mind, and noting that I’ve read pretty much everything Seligman has written over the years along with a significant proportion of the positive psychology research largely born from his endeavours, I have to admit that it was with a degree of cautiousness that I read his latest publication, “Flourish – a visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing”.
Now I don’t mean to suggest that I know everything there is to know but I couldn’t help but ask would I really learn anything new? Would this really add to the existing research in a meaningful way? Or was this to be yet another rehash by a well known academic trying to cash in on his/her reputation?
So let me begin by address the subtitle of this new book “a visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing” and let me make it clear that if you read Authentic Happiness when it was first published, almost 10 years ago now, and nothing since, then this certainly is new and visionary. At the same time, however, if you’ve followed the development and evolution of the positive psychology movement over the last 10 years, and read the works of (among others) Fredrickson, Lyubomirsky, Peterson (and Seligman) then I have to say that this is not so much new and exciting but a great summary of contemporary thought.
But, before moving on, let me also make it clear that I highly recommend this book, as a great read, to anyone just starting to learn about the science of happiness, anyone who wants a great, recent summary, or anyone who works in this area and likes to keep up to date. Even if, like myself, you’ve read much of the work covered in this book over the last few years, “Flourishing” is a fantastic summary, very well written, and including a plethora of great stories and anecdotes from the man who’s almost certainly had more influence over this field of study and practice than anyone else in the world. It is, in short, a great book and I’ll endeavour, now, to explain why...
Flourishing starts off outlining how and why it differs from the early theories outlined in Authentic Happiness. I’ve written about this many times before so I’ll keep it brief. Basically, Seligman argues for a shift from focusing on “happiness” which he defined previously as involving pleasure or positive emotion, engagement and meaning to “well being” which still involves these three constructs plus, incorporates a greater focus on relationships and accomplishment.
Seligman then goes on to describe a number of simple, practical but powerful strategies we can all use to boost our happiness and wellbeing. Again, I’ve talked about these all before so once more, I’ll keep it brief, but some of the activities referred to are the kindness exercise, the gratitude visit, the what went well exercise and activities that involve identification and utilisation of signature strengths (maybe in a future article I’ll describe all of these, in turn and in detail, for your reading pleasure and for you to implement).
It has to be said that most the rest of the book is really a history, and a very interesting history at that, of the evolution of positive psychology over the last 10 years, from Seligman’s perspective. He writes about the Master of Applied Positive Psychology course at the University of Pennsylvania; the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program integrated into the US Armed Forces; the Positive Education program at Geelong Grammar and some of the work being carried out in the related field of positive health. Finally, Seligman concludes with a section of “The Politics and Economics of Well-being”.
Within all this, however, are practical exercises, and descriptions of the research findings in such a way as to encourage readers to think about personal and professional applications. There are also some wonderful stories about key players in the development of positive psychology and how they contributed personally and professionally. This is why, among other things, I think this is such a readable book and why I enjoyed it so much. Because even though I was familiar with much of the research the writing adds another layer to the story that brings it to life.
So is “Flourishing” new and visionary? Well I guess it depends on where you’re coming from. For the well educated and knowledgeable, probably not so much but this isn’t necessarily a negative. Would I recommend it? Definitely yes; especially if you’re a novice in the area or if, like me, you just like to read everything there is on this subject. And if you’re going to read something new on positive psychology or flourishing or wellbeing then it might as well be from Martin Seligman whose contribution to the health and happiness of the world should not be underestimated and whose ability to balance science with storytelling, research with practical applications is up there with the best of them.
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