April 19, 2020
Many words are associated with positive emotions – happy, joy, wellbeing, flourish. Why did Marty Seligman choose the word "flourish" for the title of his 2011 book?
Flourishing is a state where we experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time. In more philosophical terms this means access to the meaningful life (in contrast to the pleasant life or the engaged life). It requires the development of attributes and social and personal levels that exhibit character strengths and virtues that are commonly agreed across different cultures.
People described as flourishing have a combination of high levels of emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being. Flourishing people are happy and satisfied; they tend to see their lives as having a purpose; they feel some degree of mastery and accept all parts of themselves; they have a sense of personal growth in the sense that they are always growing, evolving, and changing; finally, they have a sense of autonomy and an internal locus of control, they chose their fate in life instead of being victims of fate.
What follows is my summary of Seiligman's book. I found that he sort of wanders around and some chapters are more worthwhile than others. I only summarized the material that I found worthwhile. Those topics include:
well being (vs happiness) and flourishing
the biology of optimism
Seligman is one of the gods of modern psychology. This is not Tony Robbins pop psychology. Seligman is a scientist and relies on the scientific method for his findings.
While his early career was focused on depression and emotional issues, he found that when he was able to help his clients, they were at best rid of their emotional issues - in other words, they were better, but not experiencing a positive emotional life. His latter work focused on how to help people experience happiness. He then realized there was even more to a positive emotional life than happiness. That what people really crave is well being and flourishing in their lives. This book is about his findings. They have changed me and my outlook on life.
"This book will help you flourish."
In 1998, as president of the American Psychological Association, I urged psychology to supplement its venerable goal of treating disorders with a new goal: exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living.
Positive psychology makes people happier.
The content itself—happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, better relationships—constitutes human flourishing. Learning that you can have more of these things is life changing. Glimpsing the vision of a flourishing human future is life changing.
Chapter 1 What Is Well-Being?
[You might find this summary of Chapter 1 somewhat repetitive. It is faithful to the presentation by Seligman.]
Thales thought that everything was water.
Aristotle thought that all human action was to achieve happiness.
Nietzsche thought that all human action was to get power.
Freud thought that all human action was to avoid anxiety.
All of these giants made the grand mistake of monism, in which all human motives come down to just one.
I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life.
The first step in positive psychology is to dissolve the monism of “happiness” into more workable terms. Much more hangs on doing this well than a mere exercise in semantics. Understanding happiness requires a theory, and this chapter is my new theory.
My 2002 theory in the book Authentic Happiness was supposed to be a theory of what humans choose, but it has a huge hole in it: it omits success and mastery. I came to realize that people try to achieve just for winning’s own sake.
The Original Theory: Authentic Happiness
Positive psychology, as I intend it, is about what we choose for its own sake.
The theory in Authentic Happiness is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. And each of these elements is better defined and more measurable than happiness.
The first is positive emotion; what we feel: pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. An entire life led successfully around this element, I call the “pleasant life.”
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. Hence, the importance of identifying your highest strengths and learning to use them more often in order to go into flow (www.authentichappiness.org).
There is yet a third element of happiness which is meaning. Human beings 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.
So that is authentic happiness theory: positive psychology is about happiness in three guises—positive emotion, engagement and meaning.
I have changed now my mind about what positive psychology is. I also changed my mind about what the elements of positive psychology are and what the goal of positive psychology should be.
I used to think that the topic of positive psychology was happiness, that the gold standard for measuring happiness was life satisfaction, and that the goal of positive psychology was to increase life satisfaction.
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.
There are three inadequacies in authentic happiness theory.
1. The first is that the dominant popular connotation of “happiness” is bound up with being in a cheerful mood. Positive emotion is the rock-bottom meaning of happiness. Critics contend that authentic happiness theory arbitrarily redefines happiness by dragging in concepts of engagement and meaning to supplement positive emotion. Neither engagement nor meaning refers to how we feel, and while we may desire engagement and meaning, they are not and can never be part of what “happiness” denotes.
2. The second inadequacy in authentic happiness theory is that life satisfaction holds too privileged a place in the measurement of happiness. Happiness in authentic happiness theory is operationalized by the gold standard of life satisfaction, a widely researched self-report measure that asks on a 1-to-10 scale how satisfied you are with your life, from terrible (a score of 1) to ideal (10). The goal of positive psychology follows from the gold standard—to increase the amount of life satisfaction on the planet. It turns out, however, that how much life satisfaction people report is itself determined by how good we feel at the very moment we are asked the question. Averaged over many people, the mood you are in determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction you report and how well you judge your life to be going at that moment determines less than 30 percent.
So the old, gold standard of positive psychology is disproportionately tied to mood, the form of happiness that the ancients rightly considered vulgar. My reason for denying mood a privileged place is liberation. A mood view of happiness consigns the 50 percent of the world’s population who are “low-positive affectives” to the hell of unhappiness. Even though they lack cheerfulness, this low-mood half may have more engagement and meaning in life than merry people. Introverts are much less cheery than extroverts, but if public policy is based on maximizing happiness in the mood sense, extroverts get a much greater vote than introverts. The decision to build a circus rather than a library based on how much additional happiness will be produced counts those capable of cheerful mood more heavily than those less capable. A theory that counts increases in engagement and meaning along with increases in positive emotion is morally liberating as well as more democratic. And it turns out that life satisfaction does not take into account how much meaning we have or how engaged we are in our work or how engaged we are with the people we love. Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful mood, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology.
3. The third inadequacy in authentic happiness theory is that positive emotion, engagement, and meaning do not exhaust the elements that people choose for their own sake. “Their own sake” is the operative phrase: to be a basic element in a theory, what you choose must serve no other master. Many people live to achieve just for achievement’s sake. A better theory will more completely specify the elements of what people choose.
And so, here is the new theory and how it solves these three problems - well being.
Well-being is a construct, and happiness is a thing. A “real thing” is a directly measurable entity. Such an entity can be “operationalized”—which means that a highly specific set of measures defines it.
Authentic happiness theory is an attempt to explain a real thing—happiness—as defined by life satisfaction, where on a 1-to-10 ladder, people rate their satisfaction with their lives.
People who have the most positive emotion, the most engagement, and the most meaning in life are the happiest, and they have the most life satisfaction. Well-being theory denies that the topic of positive psychology is a real thing; rather the topic is a construct—well-being—which in turn has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being.
Well-being is just like “weather” and “freedom” in its structure: no single measure defines it exhaustively, but several things contribute to it; these are the elements of well-being, and each of the elements is a measurable thing.
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 has 5 elements, and each of the five has these 3 properties. The five elements are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment. A handy mnemonic is PERMA.
Positive emotion. The first element in well-being theory is positive emotion (the pleasant life). It is also the first in authentic happiness theory.
Engagement. Also a carryover from authentic happiness theory. Positive emotion and engagement are the two categories in well-being theory where all the factors are measured only subjectively. As the hedonic, or pleasurable, element, positive emotion encompasses all the usual subjective well-being variables: pleasure, ecstasy, comfort, warmth, and the like. Keep in mind that thought and feeling are usually absent during the flow state, and only in retrospect do we say, “That was fun” or “That was wonderful.” While the subjective state for the pleasures is in the present, the subjective state for engagement is only retrospective.
Meaning. Belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. Meaning is not solely a subjective state. The dispassionate and more objective judgment of history, logic, and coherence can contradict a subjective judgment. Abraham Lincoln, a profound melancholic, may have, in his despair, judged his life to be meaningless, but we judge it pregnant with meaning.
Accomplishment. In its momentary form, and the “achieving life,” a life dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment, in its extended form. The addition of the achieving life also emphasizes that the task of positive psychology is to describe, rather than prescribe, what people actually do to get well-being. Adding this element in no way endorses the achieving life or suggests that you should divert your own path to well-being to win more often. Rather I include it to better describe what human beings choose to do for its own sake.
Positive Relationships. Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up. Doing a kindness produces the single most reliable momentary increase in well-being of any exercise we have tested.
The massive prefrontal cortex that we have is continually using its billions of connections to simulate social possibilities and then to choose the optimal course of action.
Our big brain is a relationship simulation machine, and it has been selected by evolution for exactly the function of designing and carrying out harmonious but effective human relationships.
The group is a primary unit of natural selection.
We are, emotionally, creatures of the hive, creatures who ineluctably seek out positive relationships with other members of our hive.
So the big social brain, the hive emotions, and group selection persuade me that positive relationships are one of the five basic elements of well-being.
SUMMARY OF WELL-BEING THEORY
Here then is well-being theory: well-being is a construct; and well-being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology.
Well-being has five measurable elements (PERMA):
• Positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects)
No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it. Some aspects of these five elements are measured subjectively by self-report, but other aspects are measured objectively.
In authentic happiness theory, by contrast, happiness is the centerpiece of positive psychology. It is a real thing that is defined by the measurement of life satisfaction.
Happiness has three aspects: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning, each of which feeds into life satisfaction and is measured entirely by subjective report. There is one loose end to clarify: in authentic happiness theory, the strengths and virtues—kindness, social intelligence, humor, courage, integrity, and the like (there are 24 of them)—are the supports for engagement. You go into flow when your highest strengths are deployed to meet the highest challenges that come your way. In well-being theory, these 24 strengths underpin all five elements, not just engagement: deploying your highest strengths leads to more positive emotion, to more meaning, to more accomplishment, and to better relationships.
Well-being theory is about all five pillars, the underpinnings of the five elements is the strengths. Well-being theory is plural in method as well as substance: positive emotion is a subjective variable, defined by what you think and feel. Engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment have both subjective and objective components, since you can believe you have engagement, meaning, good relations, and high accomplishment and be wrong, even deluded. The upshot of this is that well-being cannot exist just in your own head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximize all five of these elements.
Happiness theory claims that the way we make choices is to estimate how much happiness (life satisfaction) will ensue, and then we take the course that maximizes future happiness.
Maximizing happiness is the final common path of individual choice.
I disagree with the idea that happiness is the be-all and end-all of well-being and its best measure.
Happiness and life satisfaction are one element of well-being and are useful subjective
measures, but well-being cannot exist just in your own head.
The goal of positive psychology in authentic happiness theory is to increase the amount of happiness in your own life and on the planet. The goal of positive psychology in well-being theory, in contrast, is plural and importantly different: it is to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and on the planet.
One definition of flourishing is in the spirit of well-being theory: to flourish, an individual must have all the “core features” below and three of the six “additional features.”
Chapter 2 - Creating Your Happiness: Positive Psychology Exercises That Work
Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank-you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless.
Can Well-Being Be Changed?
Many aspects of human behavior do not change lastingly.
Much psychotherapy and many drugs are merely cosmetic, relieving the symptoms for a short time, followed by a dismaying return to square one.
We adapt rapidly to windfall, job promotion, or marriage, so theorists argue, and we soon want to trade up to yet more goodies to raise our plummeting happiness. If we trade up successfully, we stay on the hedonic treadmill, but we will always need yet another shot.
There are exercises (behaviors) that actually make us lastingly happier.
We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?”
Take the Values in Action Signature Strengths test on my website. This website is free.
Signature Strengths Exercise
The purpose of this exercise is to encourage you to own your signature strengths by finding new and more frequent uses for them. A signature strength has the following hallmarks:
•. A sense of ownership and authenticity (“This is the real me”)
• A feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
•. A rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced
• A sense of yearning to find new ways to use it
• A feeling of inevitability in using the strength (“Try to stop me”)
• Invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the strength
• The creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around it
• Joy, zest, enthusiasm, even ecstasy while using it
After you have completed the test, perform the following exercise: this week create a designated time in your schedule when you will exercise one or more of your signature strengths in a new way either at work or at home or in leisure—just make sure that you create a clearly defined opportunity to use it.
Chapter 3 - The Dirty Little Secret of Drugs and Therapy
Cure Versus Symptom Relief
The first dirty little secret of biological psychiatry and of clinical psychology is that they both have given up the notion of cure. Cure takes too long if it can be done at all, and only brief treatment is reimbursed by insurance companies. So therapy and drugs are now entirely about short-term crisis management and about dispensing cosmetic treatments.
Every single drug on the shelf of the psychopharmacopoeia is cosmetic.
Taking an average over the entire huge literature, for each you get a 65 percent relief rate, accompanied by a placebo effect that ranges from 45 percent to 55 percent. The more realistic and elaborate the placebo, the higher the placebo percentage.
Based its official approval of the antidepressant drugs, there was no difference between placebo and drug.
In general, talk therapy techniques all share the property of being difficult to do, no fun at all, and difficult to incorporate into your life. In fact, the way we measure how efficacious talk therapies are is by how long they last before they “melt” once treatment ends. Every single drug has exactly the same property: once you stop taking it, you are back to square one, and recurrence and relapse are the rule. By contrast, try this next positive psychology exercise. It is fun to do and self-maintaining once you catch on.
ACTIVE AND CONSTRUCTIVE RESPONDING
There are four basic ways of responding, only one of which builds relationships:
If you find you are not particularly good at this, plan ahead. Write down some concrete positive events that were reported to you recently. Write down how you should have responded. When you wake up in the morning, spend five minutes visualizing whom you will encounter today and what good things they are likely to tell you about themselves. Plan your active, constructive response. Use variants of these active and constructive responses throughout the week. In contrast to fighting the mountain, this technique is self-maintaining. But it does not come naturally to most of us, and we need to practice it with diligence until it becomes a habit.
Dealing with Negative Emotions
Historically, the therapist’s job was to minimize negative emotion: to dispense drugs or psychological interventions that make people less anxious, angry, or depressed. Today, too, the healer’s job is minimizing anxiety, anger, and sadness. Parents and teachers have taken on the same job. But there is a more realistic approach to these dysphorias: learning to function well even if you are sad or anxious or angry -- in other words, dealing with it.
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.
Negative emotions and the negative personality traits have strong biological limits, and the best a clinician can ever do with the cosmetic approach is to get patients to live in the best part of their set range of depression or anxiety or anger. Think about Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, two severe depressives. They were both enormously well-functioning human beings who dealt with their “black dog” and their suicidal thoughts. Both learned to function extremely well even when they were massively depressed. So one thing that clinical psychology needs to develop in light of the heritable stubbornness of human pathologies is a psychology of “dealing with it.” We need to tell our patients, “Look, the truth is that many days—no matter how successful we are in therapy—you will wake up feeling blue and thinking life is hopeless. Your job is not only to fight these feelings but also to live heroically: functioning well even when you are very sad.”
So far I’ve argued that all drugs and most psychotherapy is only cosmetic and that the best they can do is to approach 65 percent relief.
Removing the disabling conditions, however, is not remotely the same as building the enabling conditions of life. If we want to flourish and if we want to have well-being, we must indeed minimize our misery; but in addition, we must have positive emotion, meaning, accomplishment, and positive relationships. The skills and exercises that build these are entirely different from the skills that minimize our suffering.
As a therapist, once in a while I would help a patient get rid of all of his anger and anxiety and sadness. I thought I would then get a happy patient. But I never did. I got an empty patient. And that is because the skills of flourishing—of having positive emotion, meaning, good work, and positive relationships—are something over and above the skills of minimizing suffering.
Treatment should not end when suffering is relieved. Patients need to learn the specific skills of positive psychology: how to have more positive emotion, more engagement, more meaning, more accomplishment, and better human relations. Unlike the skills of minimizing misery, these skills are self-sustaining. They likely treat depression and anxiety and they likely help prevent them as well. More important than relieving pathology, these skills are what flourishing is, and they are crucial to everyone’s search for well-being.
Chapter 4 – Teaching Well Being
We can now teach the skills of well-being—of how to have more positive emotion, more meaning, better relationships, and more positive accomplishment.
Positive emotions broaden and build abiding
Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is under way, that psychological capital is accumulating.
Companies with better than a 2.9:1 ratio for positive to negative statements are flourishing.
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.”
Positive psychology is the study of positive emotion, of engagement, of meaning, of positive accomplishment, and of good relationships.
Appreciative Inquiry, however, tells us just the opposite. Merciless criticism often makes us dig in our heels in defense, or worse, makes us helpless. We don’t change. We do change, however, when we discover what is best about ourselves and when we see specific ways to use our strengths more.
Being in touch with what we do well underpins the readiness to change
What is the biggest change in my life now? I compromise more. I get and give a lot more hugs. I smile more. I speak and hear the words “I love you” much more often. I have a new nickname. Most important, I have someone I can trust, whom I love, and who loves me.
Vocation—being called to act rather than choosing to act—is an old word, but it is a real thing.
Sociologists distinguish among a job, a career, and a calling. You do a job for the money, and when the money stops, you stop working. You pursue a career for the promotions, and when the promotions stop, topped out, you quit or become a time-serving husk. A calling, in contrast, is done for its own sake. You would do it anyway, with no pay and no promotions.
“Try to stop me!” is what your heart cries when you are thwarted.
Chapter 5 Positive Education: Teaching Well-Being to Young People
Words we use to describe how we want our children - “happiness,” “confidence,” “contentment,” “fulfillment,” “balance,” “good stuff,” “kindness,” “health,” “satisfaction,” “love,” “being civilized,” “meaning,” and the like. In short, well-being is your topmost priority for your children.
What do schools teach? “Achievement,” “thinking skills,” “success,” “conformity,” “literacy,” “math,” “work,” “test taking,” “discipline,” and the like. In short, what schools teach is how to succeed in the workplace.
Notice that there is almost no overlap between the two lists. The schooling of children has, for more than a century, paved the boulevard toward adult work. I am all for success, literacy, perseverance, and discipline, but I want you to imagine that schools could, without compromising either, teach both the skills of well-being and the skills of achievement. I want you to imagine positive education.
Two good reasons that well-being should be taught in schools are the current flood of depression and the nominal increase in happiness over the last two generations. A third good reason is that greater well-being enhances learning, the traditional goal of education.
Positive mood produces broader attention, more creative thinking, and more holistic thinking. This is in contrast to negative mood, which produces narrowed attention, more critical thinking, and more analytic thinking. When you’re in a bad mood, you’re better at “what’s wrong here?” When you’re in a good mood, you’re better at “what’s right here?” Even worse: when you are in a bad mood, you fall back defensively on what you already know, and you follow orders well.
Both positive and negative ways of thinking are important in the right situation, but all too often schools emphasize critical thinking and following orders rather than creative thinking and learning new stuff.
The result is that children rank the appeal of going to school just slightly above going to the dentist. In the modern world, I believe we have finally arrived at an era in which more creative thinking, less rote following of orders—and yes, even more enjoyment—will succeed better.
Chapter 6 -- GRIT, Character, and Achievement: A New Theory of Intelligence
Why is intelligence be so closely related to mental speed?
The more components of a task you have on automatic, the more time you have left over to do the heavy lifting.
What distinguishes a great bridge player or a great surgeon or a great pilot from the rest of us mortals is how much they have on automatic.
When the bulk of what an expert does is on automatic, people say she has “great intuitions.” Therefore, speed is very important.
Achievement = Skill × Effort.
A major component of skill is how much you have on automatic, which determines how fast you can complete the task’s basic steps.
There is more to intelligence and high achievement, however, than sheer speed. What speed does is give you extra time to carry out the nonautomatic parts of the task. The second component of intelligence and achievement is slowness and what you do with all that extra time that being fast affords you.
What does slowness accomplish in the equation achievement = skill × effort? 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.
Mental speed for any given task reflects how much material relevant to that task is already on automatic. We call this material “knowledge,” how much you already know that is relevant to the task.
Is there such a thing as mental acceleration, the increase of mental speed over time, how fast you can acquire new knowledge—the increase in how much of a given task can be put onto automatic over time and experience? We call this the “rate of learning”: how much can be learned per unit time.
One criterion of the quality of a car is its speed. Mental speed is a very good quality because it is a surrogate for how much old knowledge is on automatic. But acquiring new knowledge that is not yet on automatic can be slow or fast. Acceleration, how much speed increases per unit of time, is the first derivative of speed, and it is an additional criterion of the quality of a car. Mental acceleration, the rate at which new stuff is learned per unit of time devoted to learning, is another part of the package we call “intelligence.”
So far in our theory of achievement, we have explored the following:
• Speed: the faster, the more material on automatic, the more one knows about the task.
• Slowness: the voluntary, heavyweight processes of achievement, such as planning, refining, checking for errors, and creativity. The faster the speed, the more the knowledge, and thus the more time left over for these executive functions to be used.
• Rate of learning: how fast new information can be deposited into the bank account of automatic knowledge, allowing even more time for the slow executive processes.
Self-Control and GRIT
The three cognitive processes described above (speed, slowness and rate of learning) all make up “skill” in our basic equation, achievement = skill × effort. But the big game we were hunting was not the cognitive processes in academic achievement but the role of character and where character enters the equation is as “effort.” Effort is the amount of time spent on the task, the noncognitive ingredient of achievement. The noncognitive ingredients of achievement are summarized by effort, and effort in turn simplifies to “time on task.”
Ericsson has argued that the cornerstone of all high expertise is not God-given genius but deliberate practice: the amount of time and energy you spend in deliberate practice.
What determines how much time and deliberate practice a child is willing to devote to achievement? Nothing less than her character. Self-discipline is the character trait that engenders deliberate practice.
How is self-discipline measured? IQ and academic performance are part of a well-worked-over field with lots of established measures, but self-discipline is not. So we created a composite measure that encompassed the different aspects of self-discipline that eighth graders show: the Eysenck Junior Impulsiveness Scale (yes/no questions about doing and saying things impulsively), a parent and teacher self-control rating scale (“compared to the average child , this child is maximally impulsive  to maximally self-controlled ”), and delay of gratification (over a range of dollars and times; for example, “Would you rather I gave you one dollar today or two dollars two weeks from today?”).
In a study, the highly self-disciplined eighth graders
• earned higher grade point averages,
• had higher achievement test scores,
• were more likely to get into a selective high school,
• spent more time on their homework and started it earlier in the day,
• were absent less often, and
• watched less television.
Self-discipline outpredicts IQ for academic success by a factor of about 2.
Underachievement among American youth is often blamed on inadequate teachers, boring textbooks, and large class sizes. We suggest another reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential: their failure to exercise self-discipline. We believe that many of America’s children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement.
Girls’ self-discipline was again the major factor in their superior classroom grades.
Self-control predicts matters academic, but how does it predict other outcomes?
If we want to maximize the achievement of children, we need to promote self-discipline.
Many believe self discipline is the queen of all the virtues, the strength that enables the rest of the strengths. There is, however, an extreme trait of self-discipline: GRIT. Indeed, we went on to explore grittiness, the combination of very high persistence and high passion for an objective.
Note: As Angela Duckworth defines it, grit is passion and sustained persistence applied toward long-term achievement, with no particular concern for rewards or recognition along the way. It combines resilience, ambition, and self-control in the pursuit of goals that take months, years, or even decades.
The shape of genius—with the top performers outdistancing the average excellent performer by a much greater margin than they would in bell-shaped distributions—follows from multiplying, rather than adding, the underlying causes of genius. William Shockley, the Nobel laureate who invented the transistor, found this pattern in the publication of scientific papers: a very few people published many papers, but most scientists published none or only one.
Very high effort is caused by a personality characteristic of extreme persistence. The more GRIT you have, the more time you spend on the task, and all those hours don’t just add to whatever innate skill you have; they multiply your progress to the goal.
What have we discovered about GRIT? The more education, the more GRIT. Not surprising, but which comes first? Does more education produce more GRIT, or more likely, do gritty people persevere through many failures and humiliations and so go on to get more education? This is still unknown. More surprising is the fact that, controlling for education, older people have more GRIT than younger people, with those over 65 years old having much more than any other age group.
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.
So if your goal is higher achievement for yourself or your child, what should you do?
Not much is known about how to build the first factor: speeding up thought. What speed accomplishes, however, is knowledge; the faster you are, the more knowledge you acquire and put on automatic for each unit of time you spend practicing. Hence, spending more time on the task will build achievement. So even if your child is not innately gifted, deliberate practice will help enormously by building his knowledge base. Practice, practice, practice.
Building slowness allows space for executive function—planning, remembering, inhibiting impulses, and creativity—to grow. As psychiatrist Dr. Ed Hallowell says to children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, “You have a Ferrari of a mind, and I’m a brake specialist. I am here to help you learn to apply the brakes.” Meditation and cultivating deliberation—slow talking, slow reading, slow eating, not interrupting—all work. For young children, Tools of the Mind may work. We need to know much more about how to build patience, an unfashionable but critical virtue.
As far as I know, rate of learning—how much is acquired per unit time—is almost never measured in isolation from the amount of knowledge itself. So nothing is known about how to increase your rate of learning.
The real leverage you have for more achievement is more effort. Effort is no more and no less than how much time you practice the task. Time on task acts in two ways to increase achievement: it multiplies existing skill and knowledge, and it also directly increases skill and knowledge. The best news is that effort is very malleable. How much time you devote to a task comes from the exercise of conscious choice—from free will. Choosing to devote time to an endeavor comes from at least two aspects of positive character: self-control and GRIT.
Higher human accomplishment is one of the four components of flourishing and yet another reason that will and character are indispensable objects of the science of positive psychology.
My hope (actually, my prediction) is that this decade will see major discoveries in how to increase GRIT and self-control.
Chapter 7 Army Strong: Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF)
[In this chapter, Seligman discusses a program he stood up for the Army as part of the Army's CSF program. The bulk of his work focused on developing resilience. You might find my notes here a bit hard to follow and not complete thoughts; this was the weakest of the chapters in the book, in my opinion. He seeks to describe a training program without revealing the details of the training program.]
Take Advantage of Your Emotions
To “take advantage” of positive emotions is not to suggest that you are going to be walking through life only seeing the positive in everything and having a big smile on your face at all times. The yellow smiley face icon is not the objective. By knowing how they work and what they signal, you will learn to (a) become an active participant in capitalizing on the opportunities that come from positive emotions, (b) find ways to increase the number of instances and the duration of positivity, and (c) be a good citizen of your community.
This training is to give you the tools to become an active participant in your own emotional life. In fact, positive emotions are heavy hitters in the emotional system: it is through cultivating the positive that we are able to learn, grow, and flourish. Note that this is not the pursuit of some far-off concept of “happiness.” This is just the simple cultivation of moments of different types of positive emotions that can lead you on the path to success. Positive emotions: the resource builders.
The key to taking advantage of positive emotions is to regard them as “resource builders.” Think of a really clear example of a time when you felt one of the positive emotions—pride, gratitude, pleasure, satisfaction, interest, hope—whether it happened today or last week. After you recall some of the details of that event, give it a name (for example, “thinking about the future”), and specify which emotion it was.
Now that you have an example to keep in mind, let’s go back to what we know about emotions: the feeling (the emotion) works for us in two ways, by (1) drawing attention and (2) coordinating a response. Positive emotions shine a light on things that are going particularly well for us or that have the potential to do so—that is, situations that are congruent with our goals. These can be thought of as opportunities for resources to be built; for example, if you are interested or inspired, or if you feel that someone has been particularly kind. Let’s take some examples.
• If you feel admiration toward someone, it means you think they did something to display great skill or talent. As a paragon of success (at least in that domain), if you pay attention this individual, you may pick up on how he or she performs that skill. It would certainly save you a lot of trial-and-error time to do so. Your admiration alerts you to the chance to rapidly learn a culturally valued skill.
• If you feel great joy, it means that you have gotten (or are getting) what you desire. Perhaps you received a promotion, had your first child, or are simply enjoying the company of good friends at dinner. Joy represents a satisfied state, which provides the opportunity for growth. In that moment, you are not worried about other things, you are feeling safe and open. Your joy alerts you to opportunities for new experiences.
• If you feel pride, it means that you believe you have personally demonstrated some culturally valued skill or talent. Pride gets a bad reputation because, like too much of anything, people can get carried away with their pride, and it becomes self-aggrandizing hubris. However, in appropriate doses, pride alerts you to your own skills and talents, allows you to take credit for them, and sets you up for future successes.
• Finally, if you feel gratitude, it means you think that someone has just demonstrated that he or she cares about you as a person and will be there for you in the future. Gratitude marks opportunities to solidify relationships with people who seem to care.
Having established that positive emotions can be very useful, it is critical to pause and draw attention to the fact that people often do not know that they have such power within them.
You have the power within you to figure out what inspires you, what makes you laugh, or what gives you hope, and to cultivate those emotions. This can help you optimize your life by setting up moments of genuine positivity for yourself. Do not underestimate the benefits of doing this. These moments can help you to build your own personal and social resources that can be drawn upon in the future. Moreover, the positive effects of your emotions can spread to other people. As you become happier and more satisfied with your life and the things in it, you will have more to give to others.
Happiness is even more contagious than loneliness or depression.
The entire thrust of this book is that optimal performance is tied to good well-being; the higher the positive morale, the better the performance.
Optimistic teams did better than expected after a defeat; pessimistic teams did worse.
The contagion of happiness and the powerful role of the leader make selecting for positivity and nurturing the well-being of those in command of an army unit especially crucial.
There is considerable evidence that a higher level of spirituality goes hand in hand with greater well-being, less mental illness, less substance abuse, and more stable marriages.
The person’s spiritual core forms the foundation of the human spirit and is comprised of an individual’s most central values and beliefs concerning purpose and meaning in life, truths about the world, and vision for realizing one’s full potential and purpose.
Self-awareness involves reflection and introspection to gain insights into life’s pressing questions. These questions pertain to identity, purpose, meaning, truth in the world, being authentic, creating a life worth living, and fulfilling one’s potential.
Sense of agency refers to the individual’s assumption of responsibility for the continuous journey to develop one’s spirit. This requires people to accept their shortcomings and imperfections and to realize that they are the primary authors of their lives.
Self-regulation involves the ability to understand and control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behavior.
Self-motivation regarding the human spirit entails the expectancy that the individual’s path will lead to the realization of one’s deepest aspirations.
Social awareness refers to the realization that relationships play an important role in the development of the human spirit. Particularly important is the recognition that other people have the right to hold different values, beliefs, and customs, and that one must, without giving up one’s own beliefs, show others due consideration and openness to alternate viewpoints.
Chapter 8 Turning Trauma into Growth
To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who’d been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three—raped, tortured, and held captive for example—were stronger than those who had two.
Building Mental Toughness
The theme of this part is learning the skills of resilience. We start with Albert Ellis’s ABCDE model:
C (the emotional consequences) do not stem directly from A (the adversity) but from B (your beliefs about the adversity).
This simple fact comes as a surprise, dispelling the common belief that adversity sets off emotion directly. The students work through a series of professional A’s (You fall out of a three-mile run) and personal A’s (You return from deployment, and your son does not want to play basketball with you), with the goal of being able to separate the adversity (A) from what he says to himself in the heat of the moment (B) and from the emotions or actions his thoughts generate (C).
By the end of this skill session, the students can identify specific thoughts that drive particular emotions: for instance, thoughts about trespass drive anger; thoughts about loss drive sadness; thoughts about danger drive anxiety. We then focus on thinking traps. For example, to illustrate the thinking trap of overgeneralizing (judging a person’s worth or ability based on a single action), we present the following: “A soldier in your unit struggles to keep up during physical training and is dragging the rest of the day. His uniform looks sloppy, and he makes a couple of mistakes during artillery practice. You think to yourself, He’s soup sandwich! He doesn’t have the stuff of a soldier.”
Following this case, the students describe the thinking trap and discuss its effects on the soldier he is leading and on the sergeant himself. One student commented, “I hate to admit it, but I think that way a lot. I write people off if they screw up. I guess I’m not big on second chances because I think you can judge a person’s character through their actions. If that guy had a strong character, he wouldn’t be dragging and his uniform wouldn’t be in disarray.”
The students then ask, “What specific behaviors explain the situation?” learning to focus on behaviors, as opposed to the soldier’s general worth.
We then turn to “icebergs,” deeply held beliefs that often lead to out-of-kilter emotional reactions (such as, “Asking for help is a sign of weakness”), and they learn a technique for identifying when an iceberg drives an out-of-proportion emotion. Once the iceberg is identified, they ask themselves a series of questions to determine: (1) if the iceberg continues to be meaningful to them; (2) if the iceberg is accurate in the given situation; (3) if the iceberg is overly rigid; (4) if the iceberg is useful. The iceberg “Asking for help shows weakness” is frequent and poignant, because it undermines the willingness to seek help and rely on others. This iceberg requires sergeants to do a lot of work to change because historically soldiers felt stigmatized if they sought out help and were often ridiculed for not being strong enough to handle their own problems. Many sergeants commented that they believe the culture around help seeking is now shifting in the army. One sergeant commented, “There was a time when I would have called a soldier a [expletive] for seeing a counselor or going to a chaplain. And if I didn’t say it to his face, I sure would have thought it. I don’t see it that way anymore. Multiple deployments have taught me that we’re all going to need help from time to time, and it’s the strong ones that are willing to ask for it.”
Following icebergs, we deal with how to minimize catastrophic thinking. We are bad-weather animals, naturally attracted to the most catastrophic interpretation of adversity, since we are the descendants of people who survived the Ice Age. Those of our ancestors who thought, It’s a nice day in New York today; I bet it will be nice tomorrow, got crushed by the ice. Those who thought, It only looks like a nice day; here comes the ice, the flood, the famine, the invaders, oy! Better store some food! survived and passed down their brains to us. Sometimes thinking and planning for the very worst is useful; more often, however, it is paralyzing and unrealistic, so learning to calibrate the catastrophic realistically is a crucial battlefield and home-front skill.
Now we introduce a three-step model, “Putting It in Perspective,” for disputing catastrophic thinking: worst case, best case, most likely case. You’ve called home several times and haven’t been able to reach your wife. You think to yourself, She’s running around on me. That’s the worst case. Now let’s put it in perspective. What’s the best possible case? “Her patience and strength never waver even for a second.” Okay, now what’s the most likely case? “She’s out with a friend, and she’ll email me later tonight or tomorrow. My wife will rely on others instead of me while I’m deployed. I will be envious and angry when my wife relies on others; she will feel lonely and scared while I’m away.”
After the most likely outcome is identified, they develop a plan for coping with the situation, and then practice this skill with both professional examples (a soldier has not returned from a land navigation drill; you received a negative review from a superior) and personal examples (your child is doing poorly at school, and you are not home to help; your spouse is having a hard time managing the finances while you are deployed).
Fighting Catastrophic Thoughts in Real Time
These skills are used when there is a task that requires immediate attention, and performance will be compromised if the soldier is distracted by “mental chatter.” Examples include: going in front of a promotion board, leaving the forward operating base to check for improvised explosive devices, demonstrating your combat skills, or pulling into your driveway after a stressful day on post.
There are three strategies for challenging the catastrophic beliefs in real time:
using optimism, and
putting it in perspective.
Sergeants learn how to use these skills and how to correct unrealistic errors midstream (one time/one thing, owning the situation, and taking appropriate responsibility. This skill is not about replacing every negative thought with a positive one. It is designed to be a stopgap so that the soldier is able to focus right now and does not put himself (or others) at greater risk because of paralyzing, unrealistic thoughts. There is a time and place to focus on persistent negative thoughts because often there is something that can be learned from them.
For example, one sergeant said that he was constantly barraged by negative thoughts about whether his wife truly loved him and that these thoughts often interfered with his ability to stay focused. He believed the theme of his thoughts came from the iceberg “I’m not the kind of guy women love.” It is important to fight off these thoughts at certain times, such as when trying to get much-needed sleep or when engaging in high-risk maneuvers. It is also important to pay attention to these beliefs and thoughtfully evaluate them during the more appropriate breathing spells. It is important that these mental-toughness skills perfectly capture the skills of learned optimism, the skills that resist learned helplessness.
The aim of Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is to move the entire distribution of trauma responses toward more resilience and post-traumatic growth. But this should also have a preventive effect on post-traumatic stress disorder (the tail of the distribution). PTSD is a nasty combination of anxiety and depressive symptoms, and resilience (optimism) training has a clear preventive effect on both. It is, moreover, the soldiers in the bottom 15 percent in mental fitness and physical fitness who are particularly vulnerable to PTSD, so arming them in advance with antianxiety and antidepression skills should be preventive.
In a 2009 review of 103 studies of post-traumatic growth, researchers found that optimism was a major contributor to growth. So the theory suggests that building mental toughness should both move soldiers toward growth as well as prevent PTSD.
Throughout the program, the sergeants keep a gratitude journal (also called a three-blessings journal). The purpose of “Hunt the Good Stuff” is to enhance positive emotions; our rationale is that people who habitually acknowledge and express gratitude see benefits in their health, sleep, and relationships, and they perform better. Each morning of the MRT course, several of the sergeants share something that they had “hunted” from the day before, as well as their reflection on what the positive event meant to them. These range from “I had a great conversation with my wife last night; I used what we learned in class, and she said it was one of the best conversations we’ve ever had,” to “I stopped and talked to a homeless guy, and I learned a lot from him,” to “The owner of the restaurant didn’t charge us for our dinner as a way to say thank you to the army.” As the week unfolds, the blessings become more personal.
The morning of the final day, one sergeant said, “I talked to my eight-year-old son last night. He told me about an award he won at school, and usually I’d just say something like ‘That’s nice.’ But I used the skill we learned yesterday, and I asked a bunch of questions about it: Who was there when he got the award? How did he feel receiving it? Where’s he going to hang the award?
Building Strong Relationships
The four styles of responding: active constructive (authentic, enthusiastic support), passive constructive (understated support), passive destructive (ignoring the event), and active destructive (pointing out negative aspects of the event). Only the first one helps build strong relationships.
Chapter 9 - Positive Physical Health: The Biology of Optimism
Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
The skills of enjoying positive emotion, being engaged with the people you care about, having meaning in life, achieving your work goals, and maintaining good relationships are entirely different from the skills of not being depressed, not being anxious, and not being angry. These dysphorias get in the way of well-being, but they do not make well-being impossible; nor does the absence of sadness, anxiety, and anger remotely guarantee happiness. The takeaway lesson from positive psychology is that positive mental health is not just the absence of mental illness.
It is all too commonplace not to be mentally ill but to be stuck and languishing in life. Positive mental health is a presence: the presence of positive emotion, the presence of engagement, the presence of meaning, the presence of good relationships, and the presence of accomplishment. Being in a state of mental health is not merely being disorder free; rather it is the presence of flourishing.
Traditional psychotherapy is not designed to produce well-being, it is designed just to curtail misery—which is itself no small task.
Origins of Learned Helplessness Theory
I was part of the group which discovered “learned helplessness” in the mid-1960s. We found that animals—dogs, rats, mice, and even cockroaches—later become passive and gave up in the face of adversity once they had first experienced noxious events that they could do nothing about. After that first experience with helplessness, thereafter they merely lay down in mildly painful shock and took it, just waiting it out, with no attempt to escape. Animals that first had exactly the same physical shock—but the shock was escapable—did not become helpless later on. They were immunized against learned helplessness.
Psychology and medicine get turned on their heads when we ask about the opposite of pathology: about the strengthening effects of benevolent events. Indeed, any endeavor—nutrition, the immune system, welfare, politics, education, or ethics—that is fixated on the remedial misses this insight and does just half the job: correcting deficits while failing to build strength.
Psychology of Illness
With regularity, about one-third of people (and one-third of rats and one-third of dogs) never became helpless. With regularity, about one-tenth of people (and one-tenth of rats and one-tenth of dogs) were helpless to begin with, and they required no laboratory events to induce passivity. It was that observation that led to the field called learned optimism.
We wanted to find out who never became helpless, so we looked systematically at the way that the people whom we could not make helpless interpreted bad events. We found that people who believe that the causes of setbacks in their lives are temporary, changeable, and local do not become helpless readily in the laboratory. When assailed with inescapable noise, they think, "It’s going away quickly, I can do something about it, and it’s just this one situation." They bounce back quickly from setbacks, and they do not take a setback at work home. We call them optimists. Conversely, people who habitually think, "It’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything, and there’s nothing I can do about it," become helpless. They do not bounce back from defeat, and they take their marital problems into their jobs. We call them pessimists.
Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
Of the sixteen most pessimistic men, fifteen died from a heart attack. Of the sixteen most optimistic men, only five died from a heart attack..
Sense of mastery was measured by seven questions:
1. I have little control over the things that happen to me.
2. There is really no way I can solve some of the problems I have.
3. There is little I can do to change many of the important things in my life.
4. I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life.
5. Sometimes I feel that I am being pushed around in life.
6. What happens to me in the future mostly depends on me.
7. I can do just about anything I really set my mind to do.
These questions capture the continuum from helplessness to mastery. Death from cardiovascular disease was strongly influenced by a sense of mastery,
Pessimism was very strongly associated with mortality, particularly when holding all the other risk factors constant. Optimists had only 23 percent the rate of CVD deaths of the pessimists, and only 55 percent the overall death rate compared to the pessimists. Interestingly this protection was specific to optimism, a future-oriented cognition, and present-oriented mood items such as “Laughter often occurs” and the items such as “Most of the time, I am in good spirits,” did not predict mortality.
There is one trait similar to optimism that seems to protect against cardiovascular disease: ikigai. This Japanese concept means having something worth living for, and ikigai is intimately related to the meaning element of flourishing (M in PERMA) as well as to optimism. There are three prospective Japanese studies of ikigai, and all point to high levels of ikigai reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, even when controlling for traditional risk factors and perceived stress.
It is commonplace that happy people do not complain much: they report fewer symptoms of pain and illness, and they report better health generally. In contrast, sad people complain more about pain, and they report worse health. It is plausible that both actually have the same physical symptoms, but sadness and happiness change only how they perceive their bodily symptoms. Alternatively, this could merely reflect a bias in reporting symptoms, with sad people obsessed with negative symptoms, and happy people focused on what is going well.
People with high positive emotion before the rhinovirus develop fewer colds than people with average positive emotion. And they, in turn, get fewer colds than people with low positive emotion. The effect is bidirectional, with high positive emotion strengthening volunteers compared to average, and low positive emotion weakening volunteers compared to average.
I conclude that optimism is robustly associated with cardiovascular health, and pessimism with cardiovascular risk. I conclude that positive mood is associated with protection from colds and flu, and negative mood with greater risk for colds and flu. I conclude that highly optimistic people may have a lower risk for developing cancer. I conclude that healthy people who have good psychological well-being are at less risk for death from all causes. Why?
Why Optimists Are Less Vulnerable to Disease?
How might optimism work to make people less vulnerable and pessimism to make people more vulnerable to cardiovascular disease? The possibilities divide into three large categories:
1. Optimists take action and have healthier lifestyles. Optimists believe that their actions matter, whereas pessimists believe they are helpless and nothing they do will matter. Optimists try, while pessimists lapse into passive helplessness. Optimists therefore act on medical advice readily - it is the optimists who give up smoking, not the pessimists. Optimists may take better care of themselves.
More generally, people with high life satisfaction (which correlates highly with optimism) are much more likely to diet, not to smoke, and to exercise regularly than people with lower life satisfaction. According to one study, happy people also sleep better than unhappy people. Optimists not only follow medical advice readily, they also take action to avoid bad events, whereas pessimists are passive: optimists are more likely to seek safety in tornado shelters when there is a tornado warning than pessimists.
2. Social support. The more friends and the more love in your life, the less illness. People who have one person whom they would be comfortable calling at three in the morning to tell their troubles were healthier. Lonely people are markedly less healthy than sociable people. In an experiment, participants read a script over the phone to strangers—reading in either a depressed voice or a cheerful voice. The strangers hang up on the pessimist sooner than on the optimist. Happy people have richer social networks than unhappy people, and social connectedness contributes to a lack of disability as we age. Misery may love company, but company does not love misery, and the ensuing loneliness of pessimists may be a path to illness.
3. Biological mechanisms. There are a variety of plausible biological paths. One is the immune system. In one study we took blood from elderly optimists and pessimists and tested the immune response. The blood of optimists had a feistier response to threat—more infection-fighting white blood cells called T lymphocytes produced—than the pessimists. We ruled out depression and health as as confounds.
Another possibility is common genetics: optimistic and happy people might have genes that ward off cardiovascular disease or cancer. Another potential biological path is a pathological circulatory response to repeated stress. Pessimists give up and suffer more stress, whereas optimists cope better with stress. Repeated episodes of stress, particularly when one is helpless, likely mobilize the stress hormone cortisol and other circulatory responses that induce or exacerbate damage to the walls of blood vessels and promote atherosclerosis.