Beyond happiness: Founder of “positive psychology” movement expands his vision

The importance of being happy has received a lot of attention in recent years. Much of this stems from the pioneering work of Martin Seligman, who has spearheaded the “positive psychology” movement.

However, commentators have criticized positive psychology for being too focused on the idea of happiness, to the exclusion of other factors that constitute a good life. Furthermore, some have unfairly reduced Seligman’s ideas to such superficial levels that the idea of happiness has become self-parodying.

Sounds good

Seligman apparently has heeded some of the criticisms. He now is advancing the idea of “well-being” or “flourishing” as a more well-rounded concept for understanding and pursuing life satisfaction. John Tierney of the New York Times (link here) summarizes the new framework:

[Seligman] has also created his own acronym, Perma, for what he defines as the five crucial elements of well-being, each pursued for its own sake: positive emotion, engagement (the feeling of being lost in a task), relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

These ideas are spelled out in a new book, Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (2011).

A check on mindless “happy talk” at work?

Perhaps the most articulate critic of the “happiness movement” in America has been Barbara Ehrenreich, political and social critic extraordinaire, who took happy talk to task in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In a sub-chapter titled “Managing Despair,” Ehrenreich excoriates corporate use of motivational speakers and team-building exercises to “inspire” workers in the midst of layoffs and pay & benefit cuts, while conceding it has achieved its intended goal:

By and large, America’s white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security.

By comparison, does Seligman’s new Perma formulation — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment — help us to look at the work experience in a more holistic way? Maybe. At least it gets us beyond the purely vapid.

But if we’re going to talk about positive emotions, meaning, and the like on the job, then we cannot ignore the ugly side of work, such as workplace bullying, sexual harassment, and excessive executive compensation. After all, the absence of bad behaviors helps to fuel the good emotions.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about decent, safe work with living wages and good benefits. That kinda stuff makes people pretty darn, well, happy.

One response

  1. One can be hopeful that somewhere out there is an employer that actually walks the walk to provide a happy healthy work environment. That of course would include protecting employees from work place bullying and abuses.

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