Flourish – A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being


Dr. Relly Nadler: This week we are so excited to have Dr. Martin Seligman who is the founder of Positive Psychology and its leading proponent and practitioner. He is going to introduce and has introduced revolutionary concepts of what happiness really is in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. In a fascinating evolution of thought, Dr. Seligman now believes that wellbeing, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology. Wellbeing is a richer and more nuanced state in which we cultivate our talents, build deep, lasting relationships, feel pleasure, and contribute meaningfully to the world. In short, we “Flourish.”

While happiness remains a significant aspect of wellbeing, Dr. Seligman places special emphasis on meaning and purpose as the most important contributing factors. We’ll discuss some of the topics in his book Flourish, which revises and expands upon conclusions found in his New York Times bestseller, Authentic Happiness.

Building upon his decades of pioneer work in optimism, motivation, character traits; he has written a highly accessible and very interactive book about what happiness and well-being means, where they belong in psychology and why happiness is not a goal in and of itself, but it’s part of a bigger vision of what life is about.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Martin, I hope I don’t embarrass you, I just want to say a few things about you before we bring you on. Sometimes the introduction seems to be half the radio show, but I’ll try to cut it short although it’s hard with Marty Seligman.

A kidney transplant surgeon, a public health advisor for the CEC, an orthodontist, a nurse educator, the Managing Director of Credit Suisse, a former Catholic Priest, a UN Civilian Peace Keeper in the Sudan, and a professional comedian walk into, well, a profoundly life-changing experience. These were the first students to attend the now world-famous MAP Program; Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, which Dr. Seligman founded at the University of Pennsylvania. Now with over 150 graduates to-date.

Martin E.P. Seligman, works on subjects across psychology including positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and most notably on optimism and pessimism. He is currently Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman is the former President of the American Psychological Association.

Since 2000 his main mission has been to promote the field of positive psychology which is a discipline including the study of positive emotion, positive character traits, and positive institutions.

As the science behind these becomes more firmly grounded, Dr. Seligman is now turning his attention to training positive psychologists through programs like MAP, whose practice will make the world a happier place, a better place in a way that parallels clinical psychologists unfortunately making the world a less happy place.

His work has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Templeton Foundation. He is well known in both academic and clinical circles. He is, of course, a best-selling author.

His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and he has been a best-seller both in America and abroad. He’s obviously been featured on the front page of The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Readers Digest, Redbook, Parents, Fortune; I could go on. Not to mention TV and media appearances.

His work includes over 20 books and 200 articles on motivation and personality. Among his best known works are Learned Optimism: What You Can Change and What You Can’t. Of course, he is so well known for so much of his work, but we know him most as the Founding Father of Positive Psychology from his ground-breaking work now of course that we have all read, published as Authentic Happiness, and now, his latest work on the subject, called Flourish.

It’s no coincidence that Dr. Seligman, a Founding Father himself, lives in Philadelphia and he is one of the most famous Founding Fathers of positive psychology among the other numerous famous founding fathers in our nation.

The goal of positive psychology and well-being theory, he says, is to increase the amount of flourishing in your own life and on the planet. So with that introduction, Dr. Martin Seligman, welcome to the show.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I want to ask you a bit of a personal question, first, if I may. We try to keep the program conversational, but we love to ask all of our guests, who have been the most influential people in your life and how have they shaped your work to date?

Dr. Martin Seligman: I’ve been asked a few times about mentors. I don’t believe in the notion of mentorship. I believe there are forks in life in which people give us advice that puts us on one fork rather than another. There have been three forks in my life in which I got my three best pieces of advice.

The first one occurred in my senior year at college and in the case it was Robert Nozick who went on to become one of America’s greatest philosophers. He was a 24 year old at the time and I was a 20 year old, this was in April of my senior year at college. There were three things I was contemplating doing. One was doing what I did, become a psychologist. The second was becoming a philosopher and I had a fellowship to Oxford. The third was becoming a professional Bridge player.

I went to Bob and asked him what I should do. He gave me the cruelest and I think best advice that I ever had. He looked at me and he said, Marty, philosophy is good preparation for doing something else. Indeed, that both communicated to me that he didn’t think I was quite up to snuff in philosophy and put me on a path that I think I was better at. So Bob was the first.

The second was Tim Beck, this would have been about six or seven years later, so I was at the University of Pennsylvania. Tim Beck had been a friend of mine and someone who had given me advice and someone I worked with. He’s ninety years old now. We still have lunch once a month. In this case we are having lunch and I was an experimental psychologist at the time doing experiments with animals on learned helplessness and Tim said to me, Marty, if you continue to be an experimental psychologist you are going to waste your life. I choked on my grilled Rueben, and that was the fork that put me on to the kind of psychology I do now.

Then the third best piece of advice that I ever had was from Richard Pine, who has been my literary agent for the last 20 years, a very close friend. People, I was told 20 years ago, killed to get into his office. I went into his office in New York and he said to me, you know Dr. Seligman, it’s not pessimism you work on its optimism that you are working on. People make religions out of that, I pray you will write a book for the general public on optimism.

So Cathy, those were the three turning points, the three forks in my career, the best advice that I’ve ever had, or the best advice that I have taken that I ever had.


Dr. Relly Nadler: I’m a psychologist and had one class in my doctoral program on the healthy personality, and I just wanted to ask you where you have transcended; maybe some of the drawbacks you see in therapy and then moving into the work of positive psychology and then the aspect that you talk about in Flourish, PERMA.

Dr. Martin Seligman: Well Relly, I’ve been a therapist most of my life. In fact I was President of the largest labor union for therapists in the world, The American Psychological Association. But I have to say that I have got my reservations about therapy as we know it.

The dirty little secret of both political psychology and biological psychiatry is that they have completely given up the notion of cure. This comes from managed care and drugs. In fact, the entire psychopharmikapia in almost everything in modern, clinical therapy, is cosmetic. There are two kinds of drugs. There are cosmetic drugs like quinine for malaria in which if you take it, it relieves the symptoms, but there are side effects.

Then there are curative drugs, like antibiotics in which the bacteria actually is killed by the antibiotics. Every drug in they Psychopharmakapia is palliative. Once you stop taking it you are back at square one.

I’ve written five editions of Abnormal Psychology textbooks over 25 years. I was astonished that from the first year to the 25th year we were at a 65% barrier for virtually every form of psychopathology and every therapy, which is to say, no matter how you slice things, 65% of people or 65% of symptoms get relieved, verses about 40-50% placebo. This is true pretty much of every psychotherapy and every drug with only two exceptions.

Now the questions is; why is there a 65% barrier? Some of my psychiatry and clinical friends say well, we just don’t know enough. We haven’t yet found the magic drug or the magic therapy. I don’t think that is what is going on here. I think actually, it’s real and we have reached the limit at 65% of what therapy, palliative therapy, can achieve.

I think we are missing two things to go above the 65% barrier. So Relly, let me say what I think the two things are.

The first I call “deal with it.” To explain that I have to say how snipers are trained. I’m not endorsing sniping, here, I’m talking about how you train a sniper. It turns out that if you are going to be a sniper, it takes on the average about 24 hours to get into position and about 24 – 36 hours before you get your shot off. What that means is that when you shoot you are dead tired. The question is; how do you train a sniper? If you gave it to a psychiatrist or psychologist they might give you a drug to wake up when you have to get your shot off or do some of the wake up exercises that I know.

But that is not how you train a sniper. You train him by keeping him up for three days and having him shoot when he is dead tired so that he learns how to deal with it. That is, he learn how to take the state he is stuck with and preform beautifully. One of the things that we don’t do in therapy, and we should, if you are dealing with a depressed or an anxious, or angry patient, is say, you know, 50% of that turns out to be genetic, and even though I’ve got a bunch of tricks that I can teach you to mitigate depression, the chances are two out of three days you are going to wake up feeling sad. So what I really need to teach you is how to deal with it. That is, how to accept the fact that you are going to feel sad a lot of your life, but still function beautifully. So that is one of the two reasons; the ways of getting above the 65% barrier, teaching people how to deal with what they are stuck with.

The second, Relly, I think is positive psychotherapy. Therapy ends for the last 120 years when you get rid of the dysphoria’s, when you get rid of all of her anxiety, all of her anger, all of her sadness, that’s when therapy ends. But it turns out that the skills of PERMA, of positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, having meaning in life, having accomplishment; are completely different from the skills of not being sad, anxious or angry. I think the other thing that we need to do to get above the 65% barrier is to teach people how to Flourish.

Dr. Relly Nadler: I think that is so right on and we are going to hear more about that. But, in the therapy room, just the difference, before I switched to coaching, just asking people about what went well, asking people about what they feel good about, asking people about their strengths; they follow our lead as a therapist—same thing as a leader. So the power of the questions, and I’m sure you have seen it over and over as I have, you can see the energy go up as you choose to talk about what is positive; their relationships, or what they feel engaged about.

Dr. Martin Seligman: It’s just bazar that therapy had the idea that if you get people talking about what their worst at, what they are most deficient at, that that is a good way of making rapport. Well the best way of making rapport is to get people talking about what they are really good at and what they are proud of and how they can project it further into their lives. That is the premise of positive psychology.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: When you were using words positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, accomplishment; Marty, these are the five measurable elements that come out of your book. Could you talk about those a little bit and why you’ve chosen those specific words?

Dr. Martin Seligman: When I first started to think about happiness I wrote a book, Authentic Happiness, in which I said that life’s satisfaction was the final common path to everything we have chosen to do and that happiness was a good measure. I’ve been convinced over the last decade, and this is the reason I wrote my new book, Flourish, that that really didn’t work. That happiness was not the final common path, that it was problematic, and that if you wanted to know what free people chose to do, happiness is one of the five things we chose to do, but we also choose, and I call it PE (Positive Emotion), we also choose engagement, we choose things in which time stops for us and we feel nothing at all except one with the music. We choose “R”; we choose to have relationships even if they don’t bring happiness and they don’t bring engagement. We choose to have meaning and purpose in life even if it gets in the way of the others.

Mother Teresa, for example, was a grouchy curmudgeon who no one would have said was happy, but she led her life around meaning. Human beings choose to accomplish, choose to have mastery, choose to achieve, so PERMA is my first approximation to what free people choose to do now. I think it does better than the modeism of happiness.

You can hear the rest of the interview above!


Leave a Reply