Your Life Can Be Better — Without Winning the Lottery

Let me guess…

You’ve heard about “The Power of Positive Thinking” and consider the idea bunk.  One cannot will themselves happy, you think. It is nonsense that pretending to be cheery is the best medicine for troubling life events or circumstances.  Barbara Ehrenreich spoke for many in her book “Bright-Sided” when she cautioned that what the world needs is hard-nosed realism.  Ehrenreich’s critique is helpful to dispel the fluff.   There is a difference between the positive thinking of self-help prose like “The Gift” and the actual science of positive psychology.  Positive psychology is an academic discipline that works on ways to objectively measure levels of well-being.  Practitioners include the world’s foremost psychologists who design sophisticated double-blind, placebo-controlled experiments to figure out how people can flourish.

Most people still lump together positive psychology and self-help jibberish.  This is unfair.   Here’s the one-sentence definition of the field: If traditional psychology is about relieving misery, positive psychology is about helping non-miserable people flourish.

More should know about positive psychology, because it has implications for all of us.  You should read (or at least skim) three books on it…

1. FlourishMartin Seligman — Seligman is the Godfather of positive psych, and Flourish is his latest summary of the current state of the field.  He explains that well-being can best be categorized in five spheres using the acronym PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.  What is usually thought of as “happiness” (i.e. being cheery) is only the first part of that definition, positive emotion.

“Life satisfaction essentially measures cheerful mood, so it is not entitled to a central place in any theory that aims to be more than a happiology.”

2. FlowMihaly Csikszentmihalyi — The oldest of the three, Flow refers to a state of being where one is completely engrossed in what they are doing.  The E of PERMA (Engagement) is essentially Flow.  This is one of the first books I read on the subject and continue to be entranced by it.

“Inner conflict is the result of competing claims on attention.”

3. The Happiness HypothesisJonathan Haidt — The book takes ten famous pieces of advice over the years and explains how they mesh with modern understandings from the scientific world of positive psychology.  There is no single book about weaving this discipline into one’s real life that is as clear or well-presented.  Many (including me) believe that his “Rider and the Elephant” analogy is the single best explanation for what we can and cannot control about well-being.  For the “real” science folks out there, Nature‘s review of Haidt noted, “by some margin the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the positive psychology movement.”

 “A good place to look for wisdom, therefore, is where you least expect to find it: in the minds of your opponents.”


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