Book Review: Flourish – Creating a Happiness by Using the Concept of PERMA

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Want a review and summary of Martin Seligman's book, “Flourish”?

Perhaps something with a bit of insight mixed in? If so you have come to the right place.

We humans all have the same innate desires – we all want to flourish. 

Flourish is a book from the great psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman. He wrote the books Authentic Happiness, Learned Optimism and the brand new The Hope Circuit.

He achieved his initial fame as the proponent of the theory of learned helplessness.  Seligman is also the founder of positive psychology.

Flourish has four major components I will discuss:

  1. PERMA – his new encompassing theory of happiness.
  2. Simple positivity exercises can have a profound effect when made into a habit.
  3. Success in life is based on character and motivation. IQ plays a part, but not as much as most people think.
  4. His viewpoint of psychology and psychiatry, and of the necessity of positive psychology.

1. What is the PERMA concept found in Flourish?

In Authentic Happiness Seligman explained his idea of well-being: seeking positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.

His justification is simple – we should seek more of that which we choose for its own sake. We don't buy a car for its own sake, but to get to work faster and to increase our prestige. We want to get to work faster and increase our prestige because, presumably, we actually want to increase our happiness.

Until I read Flourish, I believed in this philosophical perspective.  Originally being persuaded by a man long dead – Aristotle.  Let me explain why I changed my mind.

Seligman's new theory of well-being is called PERMA. That stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

In the next few sections I will break down the ideas of PERMA found in the book Flourish

P – Positive Emotion

Positive emotions are the ones that bring a bit of warmth to our heart.  Love, comfort, caring, joy, hope, gratitude, pride. Psychologists have long known that these emotions are keys to long term stability and happiness. We need them to thrive, and without them people are “lacking”. When people lack these emotions they will often fill the hole with negative emotions, addiction and other bad habits.

E – Engagement

Engagement has to do with Flow. Flow is a state of effortless work. You have likely experienced it any time you have lost track of time at work (or in a hobby) and suddenly realized you had accomplished a significant amount.

The best way to achieve flow is to spend time working on topics you love. When you really. enjoy what you are doing it is easy to lose track of time and enter this state of effortless work.

If you want to learn more about the concept of flow I highly recommend you check out psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow. This is the definitive guide to what flow is all about and how to easily reach this state of effortless work.

R – Relationships (meaningful)

Flourish Book Review
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This may not be that surprising. Friends and a string social network makes you happier. It makes sense.

Friends keep you from being depressed. They will make you laugh and lighten your mood when things seem to be getting a little bit dark.

Good relationships are natural anti-depressants. Strong friendships make happier lives. Simple.

The exception is that not every relationship is built equally. If you have friends who drag you down, lead you to bad decisions and generally do not try to lift you up, then you may be better without them. However, I would also argue that people who would do this were never really your friends in the first place.

M – Meaning

Meaning is about having a higher purpose. It may be something socially active like social equality or saving the environment. But might be something simple like keeping your family safe or improving your community.

Actions that have meaning fill you with pride and a sense of accomplishment. To truly flourish we all need a sense of meaning in our lives. Some higher calling that makes us reach beyond ourselves.

A- Accomplishment

The final componant of a happy life according to Flourish is accomplishment. This is the idea that you need to sometimes win to be happy.  It is winning for the sake of winning. Whether that success is in work, life or play.

I admit I have a little bit of issues with the idea of achievement from Flourish. I do actually agree that many people pursue accomplishment for its own sake. Often at the expense of other components of life. But I don't think that's necessarily a good thing. People can easily get to caught up with the idea of winning or losing.

I think it is more important to challenge ourselves. This takes winning or losing out of the equation. But it is still a way to test ourselves grow and accomplish great things that will make us feel better. You don't need to beat the other guy into submission. Working with others trying to challenge yourself is a way to have a rising tide lift all ships.

If all humans pursued all components of Flourish's PERMA equally, we would all be high-achievers that are also happy. That sounds like a double win.

2. Positive Psychology Exercises (From Flourish Book)

There are hundreds of positive psychology exercises that are people can use to improve their lives. Flourish highlights only two of these as meeting its criteria for effective happiness exercises.

A highly effective happiness exercise must have three traits:

  1. It must be self-motivating. Just as an effective diet is one you can use for the rest of your life (does such a thing exist…?), an effective exercise must be something that people will do, day in and day out.
  2. It must increase happiness (duh!).
  3. It must fight hedonic adaptation; (Unlike the shiny new car you bought last year. You know the one. The one you are already a bit tired of.)  You will need to make a habit out of these exercises. Doing them day in, day out over a long time period.

There are two happiness exercises that meet these criteria. Let's check them out.

3 Good Things (from Flourish book):

We do not get more out of our happiness because we get used to it. That makes sense from a biological perspective. Remember the last time you were praised by another human being.

Praise can give our happiness a large initial boost.  Unfortunately this happiness boost quickly fades. Within minutes or hours, it wears off. If it didn’t, we’d be content and never seek out more praise.

The problem is that we let our biology take us too far.  People are constantly seeking more toys, more prestige, more praise, and generally more of everything.

The solution to this according to the flourish book is simple. Take a few moments every night to record 3 good things that happened to you that day. By recording why you think they happened, we can fight our hedonic adaptation, develop gratitude, and cultivate more happiness.

Signature Strengths (from Flourish book): 

Do more of what you are good at. It’s as simple as that – we find joy, flow, engagement, and more from doing that which we are good at. In the past two months, I’ve found myself much happier, and it is in part because I’ve been doing a lot more of what I’m good at: learning and analytic thinking.

3. Character is more important than IQ for success

An IQ measurement has always been a cornerstone of measuring how people will do in life. However, there are many near-geniuses who have frittered their lives away while many people with standard IQ's have become a huge success. So something is amiss with the idea that IQ = Success.

IQ is obviously not a good metric for success.

Flourish points out that IQ is basically speed of thinking.  It not about having the ability to find and learn the right answers it is only about getting them quickly. While IQ is one of the four metrics for success it is no more important than the other methods of accomplishment

Four Metrics of Accomplishment:

(From the Flourish book)

  1. Speed of thinking.
  2. Planning your work and revising what you have done.
  3. A fast learning rate.
  4. The effort you give.

As you can see. IQ matters, but it certainly is not everything.

4. Psychology and Psychiatry Don't Work

Seligman makes five main points in Flourish:

  1. Pyschopharmacopoeia has given up trying to cure depression, and instead just seeks symptom relief. I'm sure psychologists and psychiatrists would disagree with this idea.
  2. The impact of treatments are extremely small, oftentimes just slightly higher than the plecebo-control group. My father is a psychiatrist, and has expressed similar complaints, but he believes that individually tailoring the drug cocktail for each patient can fight this reality. Seligman calls this the 65% barrier – for cognitive therapy and SSRIs (a type of anti-depressant), you get a 65% relief rate, as compared to a placebo effect of 45% to 55%.
  3.  Talk therapy is not self-reinforcing: that is, “talk therapy techniques all share the property of being difficult to do, no fun at all, and difficult to incorporate into your life.”
  4. “Once you stop taking it [drugs], you are back to square one, and recurrence and relapse are the rule.” Again, my father readily admits that relapse rates are high, but believes that drugs can be used to snap people out of depressions.
  5. Psychology and psychiatry have slipped away from evidence-based practice. The gap between the science research and the actual application has slowly gotten larger and larger.

No doubt there is some truth in what he claims. However; as the leader of the positive psychology movement, there is also, no doubt, some bias in his thinking against his forefathers.

Flourish Book Review: Who should read Flourish?

  • People who want to increase their happiness.
  • Those who desire to improve their lives in general and are willing (and able) to add a few small habits to their daily routines to improve their lives.
  • Therapists and clinical psychologists looking for some interesting ideas on how to try some new positive psychology strategies to improve the lives of their patients.
  • Parents and teachers. who want to improve the lives of their children/students.

This is just a summary of the ideas found in Flourish. It is a thought-provoking book. I highly recommend you check it out.

I hope you enjoyed this Flourish book review. Please leave your comments below, and let me know what you think about this book.

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