I’m currently reading Martin Seligman’s Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them.
Seligman points to five key elements of well being which are positive emotion, engagement (flow), meaning (working towards a cause which is higher than us), positive relationships (with others) and accomplishment.
He points out that for example if life were only about happiness then we wouldn’t choose to have children for example, because statistically people with children are less happy than those without. We also wouldn’t look after our old parents if we were only concerned about being happy. We do these things because they give us meaning and create positive relationships.
As in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, Seligman tells us that we can lift our mood by for example going out of our way to do kind things for others.
He also suggest we do the ‘What went well’ exercise everyday, when you write down three things that went well for you that day (everyday) and why.
Seligman is the father of positive psychology. Most often psychologists are focused on dealing with people’s issues and the healing process, trying to gett them back to normal, rather than actually making them happy. Positive psychology on the other hand takes people from feeling normal to flourishing.
This is the ratio of negative versus positive statements in conversations. An experiment was done where meetings were taped in 60 companies and measured for positive and negative statements. Companies that had a 2.9:1 ratio for positive to negative statements are flourishing, below that ratio companies are not doing well economically. But being too positive is not good either. Companies with a 13:1 ratio did not do well as they didn’t have enough critical thinking.
John Gottman did another experiment like this with couples ‘A 2.9.1 means you are headed for a divorce. You need a 5.1 ratio to predict a strong and loving marriage – five positive statements for every critical one you make to your spouse. A habit of 1:3 in a couple is an unmitigated catastrophe.’
Positive psychology in treating depression
Depression has been treated more successfully by positive psychology than with standard treatments. In an experiment ’55 percent of patients in positive psychotherapy, 20 percent in treatment as usual, and only 8 percent in treatment as usual plus drugs achieved remission.’
Why then don’t all psychologists use these techniques to cure depression? Firstly, because positive psychology is only in its beginning stages and more tests need to be done. Secondly, Seligman writes that clinical psychology has given up on curing people, because it takes too long and it’s too expensive. The problem is that all drugs against depression are only cosmetic, so once someone stops taking them they stop working. By contrast positive psychology creates lasting habits, which in turn have lasting effects.
Active constructive responding
Seligman writes that this form of responding builds better relationships. When someone has good news you need to actively and constructively respond to them. You need to say how happy you are for them, ask them questions about it, relive it with them, celebrate it with them. Your body language should display signs of positive emotion, such as genuine smiling, touching, laughing, maintaining eye contact.
The opposite of this would be if you made a negative comment, or didn’t acknowledge their success at all or just saw the bad side of it.
Teaching positive psychology
Seligman argues for flourishing to be taught at school from a young age and incorporated into the curriculum. There have already been experiments with this which have been highly successful.
I certainly would have welcomed classes like this at school. It would have saved me having to learn all this later in life. Hopefully the next generations will be lucky enough to have these basic skills taught to them at school.
Seligman also has a website, where there are lots of tests, if you want to check where you are on the flourishing scale.