“Learned Optimism” and “Flourish” by Martin Seligman

When last was your entire day ruined by receiving a traffic citation, or by somebody who cut you off in the check-out line, or some similar trivial event? And despite knowing that this is a mere blimp on the radar of what should be a beautiful day, you spend the next 24 hours under thunderclouds. If this sounds familiar, read on …
Much is written about positivity. Very little of it is written by scientists.

Martin Seligman PhD has been at the scientific forefront of the Positive Psychology movement for the last three decades. Seligman was initially inspired to pursue research in this field by Professor Aaron Beck, a world-renowned psychiatrist who is universally recognized as the grandfather of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – a discipline that underlies much of my own work, and is at the core of BodyWHealth’s “Power of Belief“.

Seligman pioneered hard data-driven research in a field with a reputation for soft observational theory. He was fiercely determined to conduct rigorous experiments to demonstrate beyond doubt the validity of his theories.

He is a prolific writer, with 6 popular books, several validated research questionnaires and a host of scholarly articles to his name. Two of his works are central to my own lexicon. They have a prominent place on my bookshelf and have helped shape my intellectual landscape.

“Learned Optimism – How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”

This was the first Seligman title to attract my attention … and who wouldn’t be enticed by this promise? It offers the enthralling suggestion that our future is in our own hands – a central desire for most creative individuals.

Surprisingly, the book starts by describing Seligman’s work on learned helplessness. Ouch! Is that a real thing? Can we just as easily acquire helplessness as the positivity we desire? Yes, you can! And for those of us who pick up this book with the hopes of taking control of our own life, this is a powerful warning!!

But there is hope, and through the pages of the book, you will find that we’re all vulnerable to what Seligman calls our innate explanatory style. This default bias has a profound impact on our lives. When our explanatory style is pessimistic, we interpret events negatively. Conversely, with an optimistic explanatory style, we interpret these same events in a more positive light. The difference in consequent mood and overall happiness should be obvious.

Most important, as the title suggests, Seligman offers simple suggestions for shifting from a pessimistic default to an optimistic one. Worth reading. Worth practicing. Worth perfecting!

“Flourish – A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being”

As with many academics, Seligman’s subsequent book reflects expanded mastery of his subject. “Flourish” goes beyond pessimism and optimism to explore a more comprehensive prescription for well-being.

He chooses the mnemonic PERMA for his 5 proposed essential elements, and applies each in a very practical way to several domains of modern life. Positive emotion, Engagement, (positive) Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment are the 5 courses in Seligman’s well-being recipe. He covers many trending psychological interests, such as grit, resilience and post-traumatic stress disorder, in his wide-ranging discussion of the human condition.

Serious Reading for Serious Work

Neither book is light reading. This is a good thing for the reader who wants their personal development guided by real science. The text is littered with accounts of his most important scientific experiments as well as examples from the real world of  his theory in action.

I encourage all serious students of BodyWHealth to add these two works to your lifetime reading list. I was lucky to meet Seligman in 2016 at a prestigious event we both attended – he, as keynote speaker. His gritty academic passion is tangible, and I’m grateful to have benefited on my personal journey from proximity to his lively intellect. I hope that his ideas will similarly engage your interest, and that you will benefit from exploring his influential work.

So next time, somebody tries to rain on your beautiful day, grab your copy of Learned Optimism, refresh your skills in responding positively, and use the experience to fuel a grand life in which you truly Flourish.

 

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