…with a flourish

June 10, 2011

“Positive psychologist” Martin Seligman has a new book out, called Flourish. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve been following several weeks of media buzz about it. It seems he’s decided to move beyond “happiness” as a goal of human endeavor, and instead has tried to define a broader, more conplex notion of well-being. He’s made a nice little acronym “PERMA” to sum up the components of “flourishing” as he now sees it: P is for “positive emotion” (the sort of thing he used to promote under the label “happiness”); the others are “engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.” No hierarchy among these, no preferred way to balance or prioritize them, just the observation (supported, from what I hear, by lots of data) that each one can be sought on its own, and each makes a distinct contribution to human well being.

It does make a certain degree of sense, and I do look forward to getting hold of a copy. I do wonder about a couple of things.

First, he doesn’t seem to have much to say about one class of things widely considered a prime component of well-being: sheer physical health and comfort, and sensual pleasure. Of course pure hedonistic gratification isn’t enough for a lot of us; and of course there are ways to “flourish” even if one’s health is completely shot (Stephen Hawking!). But I’m sure that all else being equal, most of us would prefer to have some degree of bodily comfort as one part of the mix.

Second, I’m not sure “positive emotion” is really an independent component on a par with the others. I can’t imagine how to pursue it other than by means of the others. Any one of the others, alone or in combination. Including the physical element I mention above: positive emotion can follow from a good night’s sleep or a tasty meal (I distinctly remember once working myself through a bout of sad affect with a pint of chocolate ice cream). Positive emotion is for me something like an indicator that I’m doing one or more of the other things right. And if you succeed at one or more of the others and aren’t happy, maybe it’s time to consider questions of balance, priorities and so forth.

I publish this with some temerity, as my circle of potential readers, though small, includes at least two full-fledged psychiatrists…

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