We all want to live a good life. We want to be happy, we want those we love to be happy, we even want our pets to be happy. But what does this really mean? Does it mean that our main objective is to live a life filled with only positive emotions- pleasure, comfort, excitement?
Most of us are aware enough to realize that perpetual happiness is an impossible dream. Many of us are also aware that we desire more than just happiness; we want meaning, purpose and engagement in our lives. We may have a desire to serve something greater than ourselves even when it is hard and pushes our limits. Many of us choose painfully challenging experiences because we feel a sense of purpose or a desire to grow. We cultivate and maintain relationships with others even when this can bring us pain and loss because instinctively, we know that engaging with other humans is vital to our overall well-being.
In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman, asks us to look beyond happiness when measuring the “good life.” Since Seligman is one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, this shift away from focusing on positive mood as a measurement of life satisfaction may be surprising, but he makes this shift for good reason. In Flourish, Seligman furthers his previous work on what creates authentic happiness by reworking it into a new theory, call Well-Being theory. He believes that the focus of positive psychology should be well-being: measuring it and learning how to increase it.
Flourish begins by explaining Well-Being theory. The measurable elements that make up well-being are:
1) Positive emotion
4) Positive Relationships
A handy mnemonic is PERMA.
How is well-being related to flourishing? Is this the good life?
Seligman states “Removing the disabling conditions of life is not 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 mush 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.” Unlike traditional psychology, which focuses on diagnosing and treating mental illness, positive psychology focuses on studying which elements comprise well-being, and how to measure and cultivate it in our lives.
Consider a comparison to healthcare for a moment. In most cases, visits to the doctor are for the diagnosis and treatment of symptoms. Often health screenings and well visits are used to check for symptoms, not to promote wellness, and if no symptoms are found, no treatment or suggestions are offered. Now think of the ever growing wellness industry that promotes exercise, healthy eating, stress relief, clean living, supplements, juicing, and on and on. While traditional medicine might not focus on promoting these things, we nevertheless seek them out and know that we feel better when we focus on preventative health care. In my view, focusing on mental well-being, aka: flourishing, is just as important, and maybe more so, than maintaining physical health.
Could it be that we are going about it backwards? We are trying to increase our mental well-being through physical means when we could go straight to the source? If we had greater mental well-being would we naturally make better choices and take better care of our bodies?
I would argue an unequivocal yes! So many of our lifestyle choices are made to increase our pleasure in life or to numb our negative emotions and many of those choices are not good for our bodies and are only temporarily ease our minds. If your life was full of positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment, would you want for anything else? Would you over eat, drink too much, or overwork to the point that you had no energy left for anything else?
Although I must say that Flourish felt like a collection of several books bound into one, covering related but incohesive topics, I am SO glad I read it because I believe that the concept of flourishing details the shift in mental health care that we desperately need. It transforms the “good life” from something wispy and illusive that you may or may not be lucky enough to find, into something that you can achieve through intention, skill and perspective.
How much of your precious time would you devote to pursuing wealth if you recognized what you really wanted was to flourish?
Studies have shown that once our basic needs are met, wealth does not significantly increase our happiness, but still we pursue it, believing it will, because we don’t know any other way. If we recognized exactly what elements create well-being, and we were taught how to encourage them in our lives, would our focus shift away from the erroneous pursuit of happiness through wealth?
For another thought experiment, imagine a government that is focused on enacting policies that create flourishing, instead of those that lead to the most economic growth? As gross domestic product has increased, measure of ill-being have not declined. Depression rate have increased tenfold over the last fifty-years in the United States and anxiety rates have also risen. What the data seems to show is that the majority of us are trying to create the good life by climbing a mountain which has no peak, and we are weary. We could instead stop climbing and cultivate positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment right where we are.
Teaching others to recognize the components that create well-being, teaching the skills to cultivate these aspects, and then walking the path together with a common goal: flourishing.
I believe well-being theory is incredibly important. If this view of mental health became widely used, it could create a very profound shift in our overall culture. With rising rates of depression and anxiety and skyrocketing teen suicides, we need to wake up to the fact that we are doing something very wrong. We are living lives that create negative emotions and mental illness and then we are masking the symptoms without understanding or addressing the causes. We need to shift focus here, and this work could lead us in the right direction. Thank you to Martin Seligman for helping me to hone in on my mission of helping others flourish, and for bringing to light the science that backs up what many of us intuitively know.
Thank you for reading ❤
Aimee O’Neil LLMSW