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Sunday
Dec302012

Flourishing

I just finished reading "Flourish," Martin Seligman's most recent book, and wanted to share with my readers some of the very simple and empirically tested exercises that, Seligman discovered, can lead to a significant and lasting elevation of mood and thus to overall life satisfaction.

Martin Seligman is one of the most prominent living figures in psychology, the founder of the Positive Psychology school / movement and former President of the American Psychological Association.  Quite unlike the stance of traditional psychotherapy, which focuses on diagnosing and extensively exploring people's emotional dysfunction in an attempt to rid them of it, Positive Psychology focuses on identifying, exploring, and enhancing people's strengths and life developments.  It is foundational tocthe work that I personally do with my clients. Not only is this approach more enjoyable for both the practitioner and the client, it tends to yield demonstrable results much more quickly. (N.B. the use of the word "client" rather than "patient," the former being a more neutral term than the  latter, which clearly implies a problematic issue that needs to be corrected).

Seligman's last book, the mega best seller "Authentic Happiness," written a decade ago, posited three dimensions that constituted a happy life: positive emotion (i.e. "feeling good"); engagement (often referred to as "flow," a state of intense concentration on and involvement in a task in which we generally don't "feel" at all); and meaning, the sense that one belongs to and/or is involved in something bigger than oneself.  In "Flourish" he acknowledges that there are two other dimensions that contribute to happiness: accomplishments and positive relationships.  And he redefines happiness (which he feels carries too much of a "smiley face" connotation) as "flourishing" (hence the book's title).  I very strongly recommend your reading it.

Now, on to a couple of the exercises.  The first is entitled "what went well.". To quote / paraphrase Seligman: "Every night for the next week set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep and write down three things that went well today and why they went well. It is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote, so use a journal or a computer.  The three things need not be of great importance ('my husband picked up my favorite flavor of ice cream on the way home from work') but they can be (my sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy).  Then, next to each positive event write WHY it happened (e.g. 'my husband is really thoughtful sometimes' or 'she took good care of herself during her pregnancy'). Writing about why these events happened may seem awkward at first, but if you stick with it it will get easier."

The effects of this exercise can be measured even six months later.  Why? Because this exercise begins to shift our perceptual field away from the negative events that evolution required us to focus on (alertness to danger helped insure survival) and towards the positive which, in the 21st century, is far more achievable than it was for our early ancestors.  Just a week's practice is enough to make a significant impact, but ideally you should keep doing this exercvise until it becomes second nature to notice what went right rather than what went wrong or disappointed you.

The second exercise is more challenging.  "Close your eyes and call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone whom you never properly thanked, someone you could meet face-to-face next week.  Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person.  The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words (around 1/3 the length of this post): be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life.  Mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing!  Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you'd like to visit, but be vague about the purpose (this exercise is much more fun when it's a surprise). When you meet, take your time reading the letter and ask her to listen to the whole thing before she comments."

The effects of this exercise for most people are also enduring, because it magnifies the pleasant memory of a significant and positive life event, strengthens a relationship, and improves the ability to notice things about   which to be grateful.

I am filing this post under the "Personal Development" category, but it can have strong career and relationship effects as well, since greater satisfaction in either realm leads to better "performance" than does a focus on what's wrong.  Not to say that we shouldn't pay attention to issues that arise at work or with friends and family, but for many of us it's all too easy to notice that the glass is half empty.  These two exercises will help you better notice that it's (at least) half full.

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