Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Is PERMA the be all and end all of human flourishing?
Seligman’s latest book, ‘Flourish’ combines a practical focus on helping people to live better lives with the story of his contribution to the development of positive psychology, his views on what it means to flourish and a most informative discussion of relevant research findings. The best review of the book I have found so far is by Christine Duvivier.
The purpose of this post is to focus on what I see as a shortcoming in ‘Flourish’, namely the central idea that well-being theory has only five elements: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment – i.e. PERMA. Why these five elements and none other?
Seligman arrives at PERMA by asking one of the questions that Aristotle asked, without apparently recognizing that Aristotle also asked this question. Seligman actually seeks to distance himself from Aristotle because he no longer likes the idea that happiness is the be all and end all of everything.
The question that Seligman seems to have borrowed from Aristotle is: What is the good that we choose for its own sake rather than because it makes a contribution to something else that we value? Aristotle’s answer was happiness. Aristotle also asked another question: What is the good that when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing? I think he meant: What is it that makes life meaningful? Again, Aristotle’s answer is happiness. But, what Aristotle meant by happiness was more than just positive feelings, emotional well-being or life satisfaction. According to Aristotle, happiness is flourishing. Flourishing is the good that we choose for its own sake.
It seems to me that Seligman is saying the same thing when he says that the elements that comprise well-being (PERMA) are the goods that we choose for their own sake. Seligman’s formulation cuts out happiness as an intermediate step, but what Aristotle meant by happiness (which in any case is probably a poor translation of the word he used) doesn’t have much to do with the smiley face stuff that Seligman is seeking to distance himself from. Seligman’s main problem with the ‘h’ word is that it appears to be inextricably bound up with being in a cheerful mood - critics of his use of the concept ‘authentic happiness’ claimed that he was attempting to redefine happiness by dragging the desiderata of engagement and meaning into the concept. He also has a problem with life satisfaction because mood determines more than 70 percent of how much life satisfaction an individual reports. (I don’t see this as a devastating criticism, however, because most of the time it would be fairly safe to assume that mood variations wash out in calculating averages over large numbers of respondents.)
Seligman makes the strong point that well-being is more than just feeling good: it is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relations and accomplishment in your life. He also makes the point that public policy aimed only at subjective well-being is vulnerable to the ‘Brave New World’ caricature in which governments promote happiness by encouraging people to use ‘soma’ (p 26). In my view, even though there is no immediate risk that governments will go that far, there is a real danger in some parts of the world that they could order people to take more leisure on the grounds that they think that will make them happier.
Aristotle’s identification of flourishing as the good we choose for its own sake, takes us to the question of how we can flourish. His answer was that it is ‘only when we develop our truly human capacities sufficiently that we have lives blessed with happiness’. Now, this obviously poses the further question of what it means to develop our truly human capacities. What it means for a human to flourish has a lot of things in common with what it means for a sheep or some other animal to flourish, but it also has distinguishing characteristics. I think we should also be open to the possibility that what it means for one individual to flourish will differ from what it means for another individual to flourish. Indeed, Martin Seligman recognizes this in his emphasis on the differences in signature strengths that people display.
At this point it might be helpful to go back to look at the question that Seligman has borrowed from Aristotle to see precisely how he framed it to obtain the answer he obtains. Seligman suggests that well-being theory ‘is essentially a theory of uncoerced choice, and its five elements comprise what free people will choose for their own sake’. I applaud the idea that well-being is about what free people choose. It seems to me that idea has the desirable quality of recognizing truly human capacities for individual self-direction. We couldn’t say that the well-being of a sheep is about what an individual sheep would freely choose because it will instinctively stay with the mob. Humans are also social animals but, as Seligman recognizes, individual human flourishing sometimes involves opposing the mob. (At one point in this book Seligman tells the story of a true hero, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who threatened to open fire on Lieutenant William Calley and his men if they didn’t stop their massacre of civilians at My Lai in 1968.)
I agree with Seligman that the five elements he has identified are elements that individual humans choose for their own sake. One of these elements ‘meaning’ is actually something that sheep would not aspire to have. My problem is that an important element is missing.
The important missing element that is integral to our individual flourishing and sought for its own sake is control over our own lives. I find it interesting that Dan Gilbert, another famous psychologist, has argued that our passion for control of our own lives is sought as an end in itself rather than for the quality of the future it buys us. Gilbert suggests that ‘human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world in the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed’ (‘Stumbling on Happiness’, p 22). I leave it for readers to guess the name of the psychologist, with initials M.E.P.S, whose research Gilbert refers to in support of that research finding.
However, we do don't need a psychologist to tell us that our desire to have control over our own lives is integral to our flourishing as adult human beings. It must be obvious to everyone that an adult human is the kind of creature that cannot be said to be fully flourishing if important personal decisions are taken out of her control so she does not bear responsibility for them. Moreover, there is evidence – discussed in my last post – that the feelings we have of control over our own lives is not just a personality trait or a feeling of mastery of some elements of our lives, but it reflect our level of satisfaction with the amount of freedom we have in our lives. The countries in which a high proportion of people feel a great deal of control over their lives also tend to have a high proportion of people who are satisfied with the amount of freedom in their lives.
That is the end of my outburst. I hope it doesn’t put anyone off reading ‘Flourish’. In some respects this seems to me to be a better book than ‘Authentic Happiness’ which was itself a very good book. I look forward to reading Martin Seligman’s next book, which I think has the potential to be even better than this one.
My next post: 'Why can't we have a realistic basis for optimism?' is also about 'Flourish'.