July 21, 2023

"Flourish by Martin Seligman: A transformative book"

What does it mean to be flourishing? In short, to flourish as a human being is having the ability to grow through good times and through life struggles.

This book review must have been one of the hardest I’ve ever written. How to summarise Dr. Martin Seligman’s work in the book Flourish? What to put in and what to leave out? An almost impossible task, but if you’ll read through I promise you you’ll find great knowledge and practices for your everyday well-being. 

So what does it mean to be flourishing? In short, to flourish as a human being is having the ability to grow through good times and through life struggles. According to the “founding father” of flourishing, Dr. Martin Seligman, there are 5 factors (PERMA) that contribute to our flourishing:

  1. Positive emotions - such as gratitude, kindness, and joy.
  2. Engagement - being in the flow.
  3. Relationships - good, close relationships.
  4. Meaning - finding meaning in the events in our lives.
  5. Achievement - achievements aligned with our values.

Here are a few things to consider regarding each of the above elements.

  1. Positive emotions

Did you know that being in touch with what we do well, underpins our readiness to change?

Positive emotions are not only a feel-good driver, but they build our resilience, and can even be a powerful driver for change. Traditionally we’ve been taught that we change when something is wrong, but have you ever felt overwhelmed after a 360-degree review? 

David Cooperrider tells us that we change when we discover what is best about ourselves and when we see specific ways to use our strengths more. I bet this type of change will be easier to implement and more sustainable. In order to be able to do that, David Cooperrider co-founded Appreciative Inquiry, as a way to focus on what's good and what could be better? It’s all about working with individuals, teams and organizations to uncover existing strengths, advantages, or opportunities.

We can all notice, take more advantage, create more positive emotions and truly override our automatic negativity bias. So what if we all became a bit more intentional about really asking ourselves what is good and how could it be better? Wouldn’t that be a more sustainable way of living, building and nurturing our relationships, and improving as individuals, teams and even organizations?

  1. Engagement

Did you know that the amount of times you feel like the time stops predicts your level of engagement?

So when was the last time that time stopped for you? What were you doing? Were you completely absorbed by the task? That’s what it feels like to be in the flow. Flow was a concept introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and if you're thinking that flow is a state reserved for artists or specific activities like painting, dancing or music, let me tell you that’s not the case. 

We experience flow when we use our strengths to tackle a task that is challenging, but we feel equipped to overcome it. When we go into flow, we are fully engaged which leads to more positive emotions, more meaning, to more accomplishment and to better relationships. 

We all experience flow at work and outside work and we can all create more opportunities for flow. The first step is to remove distractions and consciously give ourselves the time to focus on a specific task, and when our strengths are aligned to the challenge at hand we can create opportunities for flow. 

  1. Relationships

Did you know that how you celebrate is more predictive of strong relationships than how you fight?

Shelly Gable, professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, demonstrated that how we respond can either build relationships or undermine them. We have all been taught about empathy and compassion when someone is going through something bad, but how do we respond when someone shares something good? Shelly tells us the key is to use an active, constructive response

When someone shares something good with us, an active and constructive response means we are excited and engaged in the conversation, asking for further details, asking follow-up questions, maintaining eye contact and displaying positive emotions.

This is the key to turning good relationships into excellent ones. So if you feel up to it, become aware of how you respond to other people’s good news and if need be start shifting towards a response that is active and constructive. 

  1. Meaning

Did you know that connection to other people and relationships are what give meaning and purpose to life?

We tend to search for meaning in life as individuals and often we mistake meaning with achievement and expect achievement to provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life. However, as human beings, we feel meaning when we feel that we belong and serve something that we believe is bigger than the self. Therefore, by its own definition, meaning is not individualistic.

Meaning is not only about answering questions such as “What makes life worth living?”, but also spending time noticing and appreciating the meaning present in our lives. We can all find meaning in life, in our everyday life, create opportunities for more meaning at work and outside work.

Now think to yourself, on a scale from 1-10 how much do you agree with the following statement? “I generally feel that what I do in my life is valuable and worthwhile.”  

  1. Achievement 

Did you know that self-discipline out predicts IQ for academic success by a factor of about 2?

Achievement is an independent element of well-being, meaning that achievement can be pursued for its own sake, even when it brings no positive emotions, no meaning and has no positive impact on our relationships. 

The definition of achievement is the result of skill multiplied by the effort put into the task, (effort referring to the amount of time spent on the task). Therefore, the ability to be self-disciplined is a driver of achievement.

The highest level of self-discipline is what we call grit. Grit is the combination of very high persistence and high passion for an objective. The more grit you have the more time you will spend on a task, therefore improving your skill and enabling progress towards your set goal.

Both self-discipline and grit are linked to a person’s ability to delay gratification. Even more, in a world where instant gratification is so preeminent, we need to work towards achieving higher levels of self-discipline and grit. 

30 years of research in positive psychology has given us answers on how to care for our well-being, but why do we need to teach well-being? Isn’t it intuitive? Well, as it turns out, well-being can be taught and should be taught starting with our schools, throughout our professional career and can even be beneficial later in life to maintain us healthy and happy. While there are things that we can know and do intuitively, the science of positive psychology studies what people that flourish do and aims to provide the society at large with the details. Below you can find three of the most well-researched practices to increase our well-being:

1. The gratitude visit.

  • Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked. Got a face?
  • Your task is to write a letter of gratitude and deliver it to this individual in person. 
  • Surprise the person by starting to read this letter. Take your time reading your letter to this person.
  •  After you have read the letter (every word), discuss the content and your feelings for each other. 
  • You both will be happier at the end of this exercise, and the relationship will be stronger for it.

2. What went well (also called "Three blessings").

  • Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. 
  • 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 (either a journal or a file in your computer. 
  • Next to each positive event, answer the question: "Why did this happen?" 
  • Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. 

3. Signature strengths exercise

  • If you haven 't done it yet, please take the strengths survey at 
  • Review the results. Were there any surprises for you? Next, review your five highest strengths one at a time. Those are your signature strengths. 
  • For one week, set a specific time in your schedule when you will exercise one or more of your signature strengths in a new way - either at work or at home or in leisure.
  • Afterwards, write about your experience. How did you feel before, during, and after engaging in the activity? Was the activity challenging? Easy? Did time pass quickly? Did you lose your sense of self consciousness? Do you plan to repeat the exercise?

Lastly, I’d love to share this list of movies curated by Dr. Martin Seligman that, according to him, convey positive psychology better than lectures full of words:

  1.  Groundhog Day - positive personal transformation; 
  2. The Devil wears Prada - a movie about integrity; 
  3. The Shawshank Redemption - redemption; 
  4. Chariots of Fire - motives to win;
  5. Sunday in the park with George - transcendence; 
  6. Field of Dreams - based on the novel Shoeless Joe. 

Well-being is about knowing what is good for us and doing what is good for us. Follow me to continue to learn and do more of what increases your well-being.

Have you read the book? Let me know your comments and thoughts on the book or my summary above. If you are getting ready to read Flourish, happy reading!

Written by Andreea Pap

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