Seligman is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and is generally recognized as the founder of the "positive psychology" movement which has attracted enormous attention in the last few years. The basic idea is psychology mostly focused on pathology for most of the twentieth century, "relieving misery and uprooting the disabling conditions of life", as he puts it. In 1998 he gave a speech to the American Psychological Association arguing that the discipline needed to look at healthy situations as well, a new goal of "exploring what makes life worth living and building the enabling conditions of a life worth living."
I find the book pathbreaking and persuasive in many ways. It solves some of the major problems with using "happiness" as an indicator. It is an argumentative and quirky insight into how research and academic politics work in practice. And it is remarkably engaged with real problems, such as trying to help US army veterans with their family relationships and their resilience when they return home from Iraq or Afghanistan. It is not simply theory, it is applied policy and something whih can be tested in terms of the difference it makes to real people's lives. And the difference seems to be considerable, at least on present evidence.
Of course, one of the principal reasons I find it so interesting is that it helps deal wtth the fundamental question I've been grappling with on this blog - what happens when you have abundance of material goods? How should the economy work then and what should we aim for in order to deliver more of what we actually want?
The positive elements of well-being Seligman identifies are an important part of the answer to that question.
To start off with, though, it is important to look at how his own thought has evolved. He had a major change of mind after writing a seminal book on happiness, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, in 2002.
He explains why he changed his mind, and lays out his theory of well-being. It is substantially different from the one he advanced in his previous work. This in itself fascinating, an exampe of a very prominent academic changing his mind in resonse to argument and evidence.
He begins by saying happiness is not one thing, or even a useful term.
.. I actually detest the word happiness, which is so overused it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or for any practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing your personal life. The first step in positive psychology is to dissolve the monism of "happiness" into more workable terms.(p9)
He argued until recently in favor of life satisfaction as the major objective. His original theory in the 2002 book broke "happiness" down into three more measurable and tractable elements which together made up life satisfaction.
The first is positive emotion, which means the presence of positive feelings like pleasure, warmth, or ecstasy.
The second is engagement, which is essentially flow - being utterly absorbed in an activity. This is the same as in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly's famous book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
The third of his components is meaning. The meaningful life, he says, "consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self".
Now he has changed his mind. The new theory emphasizes well-being over life satisfaction. Life satisfaction is too influenced by cheerful mood alone at a point in time, he says, and not enough by how you judge your life to be going.
What is more, there are other things we pursue for their own sake beyond happiness. And this must be taken into account. "Positive psychology, as I intend it, is about what we choose for its own sake". (p11). So he needs a wider concept.
Well-being is a construct, he says, with different elements that contribute to it. It is not a single measure. Instead, like "weather", it consists of different components that you can measure, such as rainfall, temperature, pressure or windspeed.
He keeps positive emotion, engagement and meaning from the previous theory. But he adds, first, accomplishment - winning, achievement and mastery for its own sake. People do pursue it for its own sake "even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning and nothing in the way of positive relationships." It may not bring happiness in the more restricted sense.
The final element is positive relationships. "Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up." (p20). Indeed, he notes the new theories that the human brain evolved in size to deal with complex social calculations.
Put the five elements together and you have the acronym PERMA.
The rest of the book discusses practical exercise and studies. These actually appear to produce positive outcomes in schools and the US army. He talks, for example, of the power of "what went well" exercises, "signature strength" studies and the value of teaching skills in processing emotions. He looks at the outcomes of positive emotion on biological health.