See it at AmazonThe founder and driving force of “Positive Psychology” has summarized his lifetime of research in this accessible book for the lay reader. Though padded with the usual flab of today’s nonfiction–refutations of criticisms most readers have never encountered, tangential personal anecdotes, and repetition–the substance of his findings are practical and enlivening. Dr. Seligman even summarizes the components of a life well lived in a mnemonic acronym.

P – E – R – M – A

  1. Positive emotion,
  2. Engagement [A/K/A Flow]
  3. positive Relationships,
  4. Meaning, and
  5. Accomplishment.

I prefer FAMES, if only for the irony, since fame is at best a fleeting and ancillary aspect of a satisfying life.

  1. Flow, escaping the self through challenging activity
  2. Accomplishment & Progress
  3. Meaning, a generative story
  4. Experiencing welcome emotions
  5. Social Support

Details below.


Selected excerpts
A Visionary New Understanding of
Happiness and Well-being
by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

Atria Books. 2011-04-05
Page numbers from Kindle Edition.
[Tony’s comments in square brackets.]



PREFACE This book will help you flourish. There, I have finally said it. I have spent my professional life avoiding unguarded promises like this one. I am a research scientist, and a conservative one at that. The appeal of 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. In contrast to pop psychology and the bulk of self-improvement, my writings are believable because of the underlying science. My thinking about the goal of psychology has changed since I published my last book (Authentic Happiness, 2002) and, even better, psychology itself is also changing. (p. 1)

The theory in Authentic Happiness [superseded by the new one in Flourish] is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes:

  • positive emotion,
  • engagement, and
  • meaning.  (p. 11)

The second element, engagement, is about flow: being one with the music, time stopping, and the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity. I refer to a life lived with these aims as the “engaged life.” Engagement is different, even opposite, from positive emotion; for if you ask people who are in flow what they are thinking and feeling, they usually say, “nothing.” In flow we merge with the object. I believe that the concentrated attention that flow requires uses up all the cognitive and emotional resources that make up thought and feeling.

There are no shortcuts to flow. On the contrary, you need to deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the world in flow . There are effortless shortcuts to feeling positive emotion, which is another difference between engagement and positive emotion. …

There is yet a third element of happiness, which is meaning. I go into flow playing bridge, but after a long tournament, when I look in the mirror, I worry that I am merely fidgeting until I die. The pursuit of engagement and the pursuit of pleasure are often solitary, solipsistic endeavors. Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life . The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self, and humanity creates all the positive institutions to allow this: religion, political party, being green, the Boy Scouts, or the family.  (pp. 11-12).

I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing. This theory, which I call well-being theory, is very different from authentic happiness theory, and the difference requires explanation. (p. 13)

Authentic happiness theory comes dangerously close to Aristotle’s monism because happiness is operationalized, or defined, by life satisfaction. Well-being has several contributing elements that take us safely away from monism. It is essentially a theory of uncoerced choice, and its five elements comprise what free people will choose for their own sake. And each element of well-being must itself have three properties to count as an element:

  1. It contributes to well-being.
  2. Many people pursue it for its own sake, not merely to get any of the other elements.
  3. It is defined and measured independently of the other elements (exclusivity).

Well-being theory [Seligman’s current theory in Flourish] has five elements, and each of the five has these three properties [See list above]. The five elements are:

  1. Positive emotion,
  2. Engagement [A/K/A Flow]
  3. positive Relationships,
  4. Meaning, and
  5. Accomplishment.

A handy mnemonic is PERMA. (p. 16).

This rock-solid finding disillusioned an entire generation of environmentalist researchers (me included), but it is true that most personality traits are highly heritable, which is to say that a person may have genetically inherited a strong predisposition to sadness or anxiety or religiosity. Dysphorias often, but not always, stem from these personality traits. Strong biological underpinnings predispose some of us to sadness, anxiety, and anger. Therapists can modify these emotions but only within limits. It is likely that depression, anxiety, and anger come from heritable personality traits that can only be ameliorated, not wholly eliminated. This means that, as a born pessimist, even though I know and use every therapeutic trick in the book about arguing against my automatic catastrophic thoughts, I still hear the voices frequently that tell me, “I am a failure” and “Life is not worth living.” I can usually turn down their volume by disputing them, but they will always be there, lurking in the background, ready to seize on any setback. (pp. 51-52)

“We go into companies and transcribe every word that is said in their business meetings. We have done this in sixty companies. One-third of the companies are flourishing economically, one-third are doing okay, and one-third are failing. We code each sentence for positive or negative words, and then we take a simple ratio of positive to negative statements.

“There is a sharp dividing line,” Barb continued. “Companies with better than a 2.9:1 ratio for positive to negative statements are flourishing . Below that ratio, companies are not doing well economically. We call this the ‘Losada ratio,’ named after my Brazilian colleague Marcel Losada, who discovered this fact.

“But don’t go overboard with positivity. Life is a ship with sails and rudder. Above 13: 1, without a negative rudder, the positive sails flap aimlessly, and you lose your credibility.”

“Wait just a minute,” Dave Shearon objected in his quiet Tennessee accent. Dave, a lawyer and one of the new students, heads the Tennessee Bar Association’s education program. “We lawyers fight all day long . I bet our ratios are way negative, maybe 1: 3. That’s in the very nature of litigation. Are you saying we should be forced to spend the day sweet-talking?”

“A negative Losada ratio might make an effective lawyer,” Barb shot back, “but it may have a huge personal cost. Law is the profession with the highest depression, suicide, and divorce rates . If your colleagues take that office ratio home, they are in trouble. John Gottman computed the same statistic by listening to couples’ conversations for entire weekends. 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 statement you make of your spouse. A habit of 1: 3 in a couple is an unmitigated catastrophe.” (pp. 66-67)

The “basic rest and activity cycle,” or BRAC, is characteristic of human beings and other diurnal (awake during the day) animals. On average, we are at our most alert in late morning and midevening. We are at the bottom of our cycle— tired, grumpy, inattentive, and pessimistic— at midafternoon and in the wee hours of the morning. … So we get ourselves physically active when we are at the bottom of BRAC. Positive psychology was, at its inception, peopled largely by late-middle-aged men with high foreheads. At least half of positive psychology occurs below the neck, however, and it is important that several of the MAPPsters every year are neck-down people: yoga instructors, dance therapists, sports coaches, marathoners, and triathletes. At three o’clock each day, a neck-down cadre leads us in dance, vigorous exercise, meditation, or a brisk walk. (p. 69)

The “basic rest and activity cycle”: N. Kleitman, “Basic Rest-Activity Cycle in Relation to Sleep and Wakefulness,” in Sleep: Physiology and Pathology, ed. A. Kales (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969), pp. 33– 38 . Nathaniel Kleitman, the father of sleep research, coined this term. (Footnote p. 292)

Building a robust Losada ratio (more positive thoughts than negative) by having positive emotions more frequently builds psychological and social capital. This strategy is just as important in a military setting as it is in the boardroom, in a marriage, or in raising teenagers. (p. 139)

I practiced TM [Transcendental Meditation] faithfully, forty minutes a day for twenty years. I cultivated slowness, … Going slow allows executive function to take over. Executive function consists of focusing and ignoring distractions, remembering and using new information, planning action and revising the plan, and inhibiting fast, impulsive thoughts and actions. (p. 112)

[For free, simple meditation instructions, click here.]

Free online GRIT assessment  (p. 121)

Building the Elements of Success

Let’s review the elements of achievement that have emerged from the theory that achievement = skill × effort:

  1. Fast. The sheer speed of thought about a task reflects how much of that task is on automatic; how much skill or knowledge relevant to the task a person has.
  2. Slow. Unlike underlying skill or knowledge, the executive functions of planning, checking your work, calling up memories, and creativity are slow processes. The more knowledge and skill you have (acquired earlier by speed and deliberate practice), the more time you have left over to use your slow processes and, hence, the better the outcomes.
  3. Rate of Learning. The faster your rate of learning— and this is not the same factor as your sheer speed of thought about the task— the more knowledge you can accumulate for each unit of time that you work on the task.
  4. Effort = Time on Task. The sheer time you spend on the task multiplies how much skill you have in achieving your goal. It also enters into the first factor: the more time spent on the task, the more knowledge and skill that accrete, or “stick” with you. The main character determinants of how much time you devote to the task are your self-discipline and your GRIT. (p. 124)

[TEAMWORK] David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson (unrelated genetically), the most forceful advocates of group selection as a supplement to individual selection, ask us to consider the lowly chicken :

How would you select hens to maximize egg production? The selfish gene tells farmers to select the individual hens that produce the most eggs in generation one, breed them, and do the same thing for several generations. By generation six, the farmer should have much better egg production, correct? Wrong! By generation six, using this scheme, there is almost no egg production, and most of the hens have been clawed to death by their hyper-aggressive and hyper-egg-laying competitors.

Hens are social, and they live in clutches ; so group selection suggests a different way to maximize egg production. Breed the entire clutch that produces the most eggs in each successive generation. Using this method, egg production does indeed become massive . The same logic of natural selection seems to hold for the social insects as well. These enormously successful species (half the biomass of all insects is social) have factories, fortresses, and systems of communication, and their evolution is more compatible with group selection than with individual selection. Human beings, on this account, are ineluctably social, and it is our sociality that is our secret weapon. (p. 145)

This divergence between well-being and gross domestic product can be quantified. Life satisfaction in the United States has been flat for fifty years even though GDP has tripled . Even scarier, measures of ill-being have not declined as gross domestic product has increased; they have gotten much worse. Depression rates have increased tenfold over the last fifty years in the United States. This is true of every wealthy nation, and, importantly, it is not true of poor nations. Rates of anxiety have also risen. Social connectedness in our nation has dropped, with declining levels of trust in other people and in governmental institutions, and trust is a major predictor of well-being . (p. 224)

There are some things we care about instinctively: water, food, shelter, sex . But most of what we care about is learned. Freud called what we learn to care about cathexis: a negative cathexis occurs when some neutral event, such as seeing a snake, co-occurs with a trauma, such as getting your hand smashed in a car door. Snakes become heinous. A positive cathexis occurs when a previously neutral event is paired with ecstasy:

My solution was “prepared” Pavlovian conditioning. Rats that get a bell and a sweet taste paired with foot shock learn to be afraid only of the bell, but they continue to love the sweet taste. When the same bell and sweet taste are paired with stomach sickness, in contrast, they hate sweets thereafter but remain indifferent to the bell. This is called the Garcia effect, after John Garcia, the iconoclastic psychologist who discovered it in 1964 and thereby overthrew the first principle of learning theory and of British associationism: that any stimulus that just happens to be paired with any other stimulus will become associated by the mind. … Learning is biologically selective, with evolutionarily prepared stimuli— taste and illness, but not bell and illness— learned about very readily. Prepared fear conditioning (a picture of a formerly neutral spider paired with a shock to the hand) occurs in one trial, does not readily extinguish when shocks no longer follow the spider, and it defies rationality, remaining full-blown even when the shock electrodes are removed. … Easy learning, resistance to extinction, and irrationality are the very properties of cathexis and of the functional autonomy of motives.

I reasoned that prepared learning might not just be species-wide (all monkeys learn to fear snakes in just one viewing of an older monkey scared of a snake), but it might be genetically heritable within a family: specific fears run in families , and identical twins are more concordant for depression —and for almost all personality traits— than fraternal twins. So the disposition to cathect to breasts or to stamps or to the life of the mind or to liberal politics might be biologically prepared and heritable: easily learned, hard to extinguish, and below the cognitive radar. That’s my story, quite speculative and incomplete, but I believe it is on the right track, and I’m sticking to it. (p. 230).