Book review: Flourish, by Martin Seligman

Eighty-two percent of Brits are not flourishing, say researchers. Emma Mahoney is doubtful that the wellbeing expert's latest work will do much to address that.

by Emma Mahoney
Last Updated: 03 Oct 2011
For anyone steeped in the world of positive psychology who followed the debate a decade ago when happiness, rather than GDP, was the byword for measuring a government's success, US psychology professor Martin Seligman is the president-elect. He wrote Authentic Happiness in 2002, which became the handbook for believers, while the UK's Professor Richard Layard, a New Labour thinker, took up the debate here and persuaded government to look at maximising wellbeing rather than gross domestic product. Happiness rankings sprang up everywhere, showing how well companies, schools or public bodies were doing, and then, suddenly, it all went a bit quiet.

The chilly winds of austerity blasted through the US and Europe, and all people were concerned with was keeping their job. Nobody was doodling smiley faces at work any more.

Well, you may be pleased to hear that, despite the lull, the positive psychologists have not been idle. Indeed, as Seligman's Flourish shows, quite the opposite. They have been optimistically applying the 'science' all over the place.

It is nine years since Seligman published Authentic Happiness, and he begins Flourish with a new definition for how schools, government and the military should improve themselves. It appears the word 'happiness' is all wrong, indeed Seligman 'detests' it, along with the word 'authentic', which he describes as 'a close relative of the overused term "self" in a world of overblown selves'.

The previous title was flawed because it was built around life satisfaction, which, Seligman argues, 'essentially measures cheerful mood, so it isn't entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than happiology'. After substituting wellbeing for happiness we learn that: 'Wellbeing theory denies that the topic of positive psychology is a real thing; rather the topic is a construct - wellbeing - which in turn has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to wellbeing, but none defining wellbeing.' Hmmm.

It isn't until you get past all this academic apology stuff, that the real meat of the book emerges, and it is engaging stuff. However, Flourish works better as a memoir, rather than a how-to handbook.

I was fascinated to learn of the success of Tayyab Rashid at the University of Pennsylvania (where Seligman also works) in creating positive psychotherapy (PPT) for depressed patients seeking treatment. Writes Seligman: 'Positive psychotherapy relieved depressive symptoms on all outcome measures better than treatment as usual, and better than drugs. We found that 55% of patients in positive psychotherapy, 20% in treatment as usual and only 8% in treatment plus drugs achieved remission.' When you consider that the World Health Organisation rates depression as the most costly disease in the world, and the treatments of choice are drugs and psychotherapy, this is no small finding.

Meanwhile in the UK, Felicia Huppert and Timothy So, of the Wellbeing Institute at Cambridge University, have defined and measured 'flourishing' in each of 23 EU nations. 'Denmark leads Europe, with 33% of its citizens flourishing, while the UK has about half that, with 18%; Russia has 6% of its citizens flourishing.'

Seligman's forays into positive computing and his meetings with Facebook also tap into the Zeitgeist, where the professor advises on a 'personal flourishing assistant app', devised by Rosalind Picard, which 'maps where you are, who you are with, and what your emotional arousal level is'. It gives you relevant information and exercises; for example, 'The last time you were right here at this time, your happiness was maximal. Take a photo of the sunset and transmit it to Becky and Lucius.'

There is little doubt that, where mental health is concerned, we have moved on from the Freudian view that mental health is the absence of mental illness and towards Seligman's view that 'it is the presence of flourishing'.

But it is when he talks about optimism that alarm bells ring for me. However many studies he offers showing 'high optimists die at a lower rate than average', his insistence on making optimism more important than anything else irritates.

On health he warns: 'Eschewing optimism is bad, potentially lethal, medical advice, because it is not unlikely optimism will cause a better medical outcome'. On economics, he writes: 'The claim optimism caused the meltdown is twaddle. The opposite is the case. Optimism causes stocks to rise; pessimism causes stocks to go down. Viral pessimism caused the economic meltdown'.

Suddenly his point-of-view - along with his prediction that 'by the year 2051, 51% of the world will be flourishing' - seems too simple and neat for the messy and unpredictable world we live in. I am sure he would say that is because I am a Brit who is languishing with the 82% of other, non-flourishing, Brits, but time will tell. If he hasn't redefined the word 'optimism' again by then.

Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and wellbeing - and how to achieve them
Martin E P Seligman
Nicholas Brealey Publishing £14.99

- Emma Mahoney is a writer and a journalist for the Financial Times

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