positive psychology Dr Martin Seligman

Get a flourishing life through positive psychology

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Think positive. Always look on the bright side of life. Search for the silver lining. Sure, they’re dusty old adages, but according to the fast-growing field of positive psychology, they’re not just words to live by—they’re an outlook that will help you flourish, live longer and stay healthier.

Yet it takes more than just a happy disposition and winning attitude to tap into positive psychology, says Dr Martin Seligman, internationally-recognized as the “father” of positive psychology and author of the recently-released Flourish (Simon and Schuster).

“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.”

Positive psychology: PERMA

Based on his own groundbreaking work into ‘happiness theory’, Seligman says positive psychology is about developing well-being by working on five major aspects of your life: PERMA or positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships and accomplishment.

Positive emotion: Feeling truly content and happy? Chances are what you’re really feeling is joy—a blend of pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth and comfort, says Dr Hal Urban, a renowned positive psychology educator and author of Lessons from the Classroom. According to him, mere “happiness is what we feel when we’re having fun. Joy is more of a feeling of contentment that we’re living the way we should be living.”

Engagement: Listening—really listening—to a guest speaker, feeling the sound of waves flowing over you, becoming completely absorbed in a good book are all moments of what Seligman calls ‘flow’. “Engagement is about flow: being one with the music,” he says, “time-stopping, the loss of self-consciousness during an absorbing activity.”

Meaning: Unlike Jean-Paul Sartre who wrote that “hell is other people” in his play No Exit, Seligman says it is “connections to other people and relationships are what giving meaning and purpose to life.” Whether it comes from a fulfilling job, your friendships or the volunteer work you do, meaning gives structure to our lives.

Positive relationships: “When was the last time you laughed uproariously? The last time you felt indescribable joy? Even without knowing the particulars, I know their form: all of them took place around other people,” he observes. “Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up.”

Accomplishment: Far from just being about winning accolades or earning more money, accomplishment is about the “achieving life,” says Seligman, “a life dedicated to accomplishment for the sake of accomplishment.”

Taken together, each element contributes to a sense of well-being that, rather than focusing on life’s setbacks, helps to overcome them. And the benefits are very real. Aside from leading a more fulfilling, joyful life, studies from Holland, the UK, Japan and Canada have all linked a decreased risk of heart disease to an upbeat personal outlook. For example, the longitudinal Women’s Health Initiative that tracked 97,000 women found that optimists had 30 percent fewer coronary incidents than the pessimists.

Then there’s optimism’s effect on viruses. Two Carnegie Mellon University studies that personality tested volunteers then exposed them to the flu and common cold found optimists were less likely to fall sick. According to Seligman, the reason is the effect of personal philosophy on immunology. “The key difference is interleukin-6, a protein that causes inflammation,” he explains. “The higher the positive emotion, the lower the interleukin-6 and so the less the inflammation.”

Although research is ongoing, Seligman says there are several theories that explain why optimists are less vulnerable to infection and disease.

  • 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.” Upbeat people are more likely to take care of themselves, too. “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,” he adds.
  • Optimists have better social support. Misery may love company, but company doesn’t love the miserable. While most of us need to grumble every now and then, studies show that “the more friends and the more love in your life, the less illness. (Harvard psychologist) George Vaillant found that people who have one person in whom they would be comfortable calling at three in the morning to tell their troubles were healthier.” Social connectedness and positive outlook doesn’t dim with age, either. A study at Yale University found that elderly people who are positive and feel useful live an average seven years longer.
  • Optimists may be wired differently. In one often-cited study, Seligman compared the blood immune response of elderly optimists and pessimists. “The blood of optimists had a feistier response to threat—more infection-fighting white blood cells called T lymphocytes were produced—than the pessimists.” Those plagued by negativity also experience more stress, he adds. “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. Repeated episodes of stress and helplessness might set off a cascade of processes involving higher cortisol and lower levels of the neurotransmitters known as catecholamines, leading to long-lasting inflammation.”

Yet negative thinkers are not entirely to blame for their health woes. Despite the western world’s high standard of living—or perhaps because of it—“depression rates have increased tenfold in the last fifty years,” he says. “Rates of anxiety have also risen. Social connectedness has dropped with declining levels of trust in other people and in governmental institutions—and trust is a major predictor of well-being.”

That, along with the recent natural disasters that have left people homeless and economies battered, create an even grimmer outlook, says Urban. “There’s a lot of things that are not our fault. Bad things happen to good people.” Even so, he says, “we’re left with choices in how we deal with it. Life’s greatest lesson is about living by choice, and not by chance.”

Learning to recast thinking into a more positive, flourishing frame of mind isn’t easy, Urban adds, but it begins with expressing gratitude, thankfulness, kindness and integrity. “I once read that when your life reaches its lowest point, you have to say ‘thank you for the circumstances and the victory that will come out of it’. That’s a powerful thing to say when you’re being battered by life.”