Flourish: Notes & Review

flourish book cover

In Flourish author Martin Seligman takes stock of some of the most important results from decades of positive psychology research. 
“Flourish” is also a practical book, since alongside the theory it also presents many exercises the readers can start applying right away.

Flourish Summary

About the Author: Martin Seligman is a professor of psychology and researcher and author.
Some say that positive psychology was finally recognized as its own domain in 1998 when Seligman chose it as the theme for his presidency at APA (American Psychological Association).
Seligman has also authored “Authentic Happiness” and “Learned Optimism” (my favorite).

#1. The Keys to Well Being: PERMA

Based on positive psychology studies and researches Martin Seligman comes up with 5 keys to a happy life:

  • Positive emotions

Such as gratefulness, pleasure, joy, warmth, connection etc.

Seligman makes the point that you can consciously increase your positive emotions and consciously decrease your negative ones. 
When you reach a point of more positive emotions to negative ones, then you’re happy, flourishing individuals (“Flourish” says it’s 3:1 but that’s been thoroughly debunked and suggests Seligman knows little of math).

  • Engagement

Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow“: when we are so engaged in something we forget all the rest.
For more on flow and “peak” performance in sports or work also read: “Flow“, “Deep Work“, “Peak“, “The Talent Code“.

  • Relationships

“Happiness is real only if shared”, and plenty of studies show that the single most important factor to happiness and mental well being are positive human relationships from intimate relationships to social ones to family ties.

Relationships are so important that the majority of suicides for troops do not happen for war-related events but when home relationships got strained (for example breakups or threats to break up).

In this section, Seligman also introduces Gottman and many of his principles (if you’re interested check this relationship overview).

  • Meaning

Doing something you feel has an impact, meaning bigger than yourself.

For more information on meaning and the workplace, check out Drive, for more information on meaning in your life, check Start With WHY; and for more information on meaning from a more philosophical (but also practical) point of view, check “Man’s Search for Meaning“.

  • Accomplishment

In the sense of moving forward, not necessarily winning in the competitive, “Jack Welch” kind of winning.

Seligman says there are four skills that determine accomplishment:

  1. Speed of thinking.
  2. Learning rate
  3. Work planning and revision
  4. Effort

IQ only measures the first one, which is why in Seligman’s point of view it’s not a reliable measure of success.
Flourish also espouses Carol Dweck’s theory that a growth mindset will help you succeed (read “how to develop a growth mindset“).

#2. Can Money Buy You Love (or Happiness?)

Wealth contributes heavily to life satisfaction but not to a good mood.

As a matter of fact, the richest countries are far from being the happiest ones and with progress and widespread wellbeing depressions and suicides only increased.

Indeed, what reduces suicide rates are social hardships and, well… Wars also decrease suicides.

Money does matter though when people are below the poverty line and are struggling to feed themselves.

Money also does help if you spend it doing things that you like and enjoy. 

#3. Optimism Makes You Healthier

Seligman presents several pieces of research to show how a positive attitude makes us all healthier and more immune to diseases.

The most interesting part for me though was the reasons why optimists get less ill and heal quicker.
Optimists:

  • Believe they can change things with actions, so they act more (this is related to the “locus of control”)
  • Keep trying and don’t fall into “passive helplessness”
  • Have a better social network (they’re better at making friends and at attracting support)
  • Use their social network more 
  • Respond better to stress

For more on “learned helplessness” and how to acquire optimism check out “To Sell Is Human“, “Essentialism” or get my full guide “Ultimate Power“.

#4. Flourish Exercises: Building Happiness

“Flourish” also contains plenty of exercises to make yourself happier. 
Some of them:

  1. Write down 3 things you’re happy for during your day 
  2. Do something nice for people around you without expecting anything in return
  3. Write down how your actions helped you get things done (will get you into a mindset that your actions do matter)

#5. The Florentine Moment of Western Civilization

Martin Seligman says that the rich western countries are not at what he calls a “Florentine Moment”.

They are rich and well-fed to the point where they face an important decision.
They can either decide to keep investing in “growth for growth’s sake” or they can do what Florence did during the Renaissance: invest in beauty, arts and happiness.

The author makes the point that wealth to produce more wealth is a hollow pursuit and we should include in our economic indicators better nuances to include psychological well being and personal flourishing.

flourish book cover 

Flourish Criticism

Positive Psychology, Seligman and “Flourish” are not without criticism from the scientific community.

Overall, I am still convinced of the high positive impact that this branch of philosophy can have on our lives, but we must also be aware of its limitations and dangers.

Some of the criticism:

High positivity correlates with illusion

Illusion means distortion of reality and living in one’s own unreal world.

This is something that I have personally often criticized to some of the self-help literature and which has led to some exaggerations such as “law of attraction” and “building one’s own reality”.

Many highly successful businessmen such as, for example, Ray Dalio, made it a point to look at reality as crudely as possible (for more on reality-based living also read “Principles” and “The 50th Law“).

I believe though that one can easily achieve a happy medium of being positive without creating one’s own reality.
Furthermore, one can bend reality on certain topics, while remaining more reality-based on others, which is something Seligman also suggest in successive books.

One size fits all

Positive psychology, and “Flourish” as well speak a lot in general terms. And some principles do are generalizable to a large swath of the population.
But “large” is not necessarily all.

And even then, there are important exceptions.

For example, I consider myself very driven and, as of now, I don’t make happiness a high priority of mine.

I’d rather be a happy one or two days a week only and the other days be neutral or even slightly negative but while being highly efficient.

Positive psychology and the ideas present in “Flourish” can still help me -and everyone else in a similar situation- to “switch one” during those times that we want to go from “efficient” to “happy and flourishing”.

Poor Judgment of Behavioral Economics

The author, in a long and drawn effort to dismantle all criticism to positive psychology, ends up discussing why optimism is good for stocks and does not create bubbles.

I was aghast at how simplistic -and wrong- that analysis was.
I have written my thesis of how psychological biases helped fueled the crisis and “irrational exuberance” as in “unwarranted, exaggerated optimism” is a major cause of financial bubbles.

For more on behavioral economics also check out “The Undoing Project“.

Replication failures

One of the selling points of positive psychology is that it’s like self-help but backed by science.

Well, it turns out that “science” is not always as thorough as it should be -or as its proponents would like to present it-.
As part of the current replication crisis in psychology, some important studies have come under fire, and that includes studies that were present in “Flourish”.

The 3 to 1 positive ration is one such example and the came can be said for “Grit” by Angela Duckworth.
You can read more here:

Flourish Quotes

On socialization and positivity:

Misery may love company, but company doesn’t love misery

On the difficulties of measuring happiness:

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. 

On how feeling secure allows us to receive criticism:

This is related to the Losada ratio. To enable us to hear criticism nondefensively and to act creatively on it, we need to feel secure.

Note: But note that the Losada ratio has been debunked and is today a heavily discredited “theory”.

Flourish Gold Nuggets

  • Don’t use the word “happiness”

It’s so over-used and so general it has lost its meaning and it’s not useful.

  • Life is too complex for monism

The author says that past giants of philosophy all made the mistake of reducing the “meaning of life” to one simple variable.

Nietzche (power), Aristotle (happiness) and Freud (avoid anxiety) all ended up with too simplistic theories by basing their philosophies on just one main concept.

And I couldn’t agree more.

  • Group selection better explains 

Seligman makes the point in “Flourish” that the group accounts for far more than evolutionary biology has so far been willing to grant.
He mentions “The Selfish Gene” as the book and theory that got us off-track with the idea that we’re all about maximizing returns for ourselves.

He says that group theories of evolution better explain human social dynamics of altruism and mutual support.

I really liked this part and I think there is much truth in it. But I don’t with Seligman when he proposes the group as the primary unit of selection. 
Not it’s not. The group is important but it’s not the primary one.

  • Anti-depressants work little

Anti-depressants do work somehow. But so does placebo. Anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac do very little compared to placebo.

To be accurate, on severe depression drugs work well.
But for mild and moderate depression, the effects were non-existent.

  • Leader’s positivity is crucial

Positive coaches had measurable better results than negative ones (as measured in the MBAs).

But I wasn’t convinced by Seligman’s choice of expressions that were supposed to indicate “positivity” or “negativity”.
For example “we lost because of the referee decisions” was included in “positive thinking”, which to me made no sense

CONS

While the above “Flourish criticism” section refers to positive psychology in general, this is what I didn’t like specifically to the book “Flourish”:

  • Correlation used as proof

In a few instances, I felt Sigman presents correlation as “proof” of something. But correlation is not causation.

For example, he introduces a coach who built “character strength exercises” to improve the team’s performance.
But that says little about the effectiveness of such exercises. And it says little about its effectiveness as compared to different exercises that could have been done.

Seligman also seems to show a poor understanding of correlation in his own life. 
He talks about his efforts of hiring a Ph.D. candidate simply because she was a woman who borrowed money, walked into a poker tournament and won it.
That really sounded ridiculous and I’d recommend Martin Seligman he checks out Nassim Taleb work, starting from “Fooled by Randomness“.

  • Shallow analysis of Facebook and its social impacts

Martin Seligman delivers highly positive praise of FB and its effects on happiness and flourishing.

I found it out of place and way overblown. Many other authors also agree that Facebook’s net effect is probably more negative than positive on many users (Brene Brown, Mark Manson).

  • Very enthusiastic (but not always scientifically thorough)

I found “Flourish” to be very enthusiastic but not always equally scientifically thorough.

When Seligman introduces Angela Duckworth, for example, he sounds like an awe-struck kid who can’t stop blowing Duckworth’s horn.

But Grit has failed to replicate, is no different than conscientiousness and has come under heavy -and convincing- criticism from much of the scientific community.

PROS

  • Enlightening on the importance of positivity

I found Flourish by Martin Seligman to be an enlightening treasure trove of information when it comes to the importance of positivity and psychological emotional health.

  • Enlightening on how we can control our emotional states

Flourish is also enlightening as to how much we can do to make ourselves happier, healthier, and flourishing human beings.

Flourish Review

Flourish is an important book on positive psychology.
Not because it added much on the literature of positive psychology -it’s more like a summary of researches-, but because it sparked further research and it helped spread the interest of positive psychology both among scientists and in the general public.

From my point of view, I can say it’s always a pleasure to read a self-help book from an actual scientist and psychologist.

Some refer to positive psychology as a “new branch of psychology”, but I found that term slightly misleading.
Thinkers have been deliberating on happiness and on meaningful life for thousands of years. They weren’t called “psychologists” back then, but if you read any stoicism the resemblances are striking to say the least (check: “The Little Book of Stoicism” and “The Obstacle Is The Way“).

But that’s not to say that I’m not a big fan of positive psychology. Because, as a matter of fact, I am a big fan of positive psychology.

Positive psychology also started as a reaction to the outsized dominance and influence that psycho-analysis has held for decades. And also with that, I couldn’t agree more.

Finally, I particularly liked and appreciated the point that Seligman makes on government’s policy.
Seligman says that policymakers should focus a bit less on economic growth for growth’s sake and start looking more and more at how we can all become more flourishing individuals.
I totally agree. And I think that we don’t need to wait for policymakers. We can do that change ourselves.

P.S.: I really had to stop, rewind and smile when Seligman talks about “Tiergarten” in Berlin since my flat is a short walk away and it’s been a favorite destination of mine during summer.

In short: 
Flourish is an OK resource for becoming happier and it provides a good overview of positive psychology.
But also presents some shallow analysis and some heavily discredited science as well. Disappointing for the founder of Positive Psychology.

Check the best psychology books or get the book on Amazon

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