If you’ve ever paused to wonder whether you’re getting the most out of life, you’ll probably want to know more about Martin Seligman’s quest for understanding what it takes to “flourish.”
A research scientist who has studied happiness, motivation and character, he argues that happiness alone isn’t really what gives live meaning. It’s more complicated than that, he argues.
Seligman, the author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, says that to truly live life well, we need five key elements: positive emotion (which includes happiness and life satisfaction); engagement; relationships; meaning; and achievement.
Those who focus solely on happiness are too one-dimensional, he has discovered. Happiness is fickle. It tends to naturally swing up and down and can be boosted by pointless activity that doesn’t really give live meaning, says Seligman.
But those who actually flourish combine a combination of characteristics that create a foundation for fulfillment on several levels. Seligman notes that researchers have found that to get the most out of life, we need three core features and several other additional characteristics. For example, core factors that are likely to help you flourish are:
- Positive emotion: Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?
- Engagement, or interest: Do you love learning new things?
- Meaning, or purpose: Do you feel that what you do in your life is valuable and worthwhile?
Other important features include:
- Self-esteem: Do you feel positive about yourself?
- Optimism: Do you envision a positive future for yourself?
- Resilience: Do you tend to bounce back quickly after a set-back?
- Positive relationships: Are there people in your life who genuinely care about you?
The challenge? Figure out what you can do to develop these characteristics and improve your ability to flourish.
To develop more positive emotion, Seligman suggests practicing gratitude: thinking of people who have done something positive in your life. He also recommends ending every day by running through all the things that went well, and understanding why. “The odds are that you will be less depressed…and happier,” he writes.
For example, Seligman notes that in order to find more meaning in life, you’ll need to develop self-discipline and “true grit.” He defines grit as extreme persistence or the ability to stay highly focused on your top goals.
More important than intellectual aptitude, grit allows you to push through failures, frustration and humiliation to achieve what you want. Research has shown that many people tend to give up too soon, not realizing that the skills they need require a level of commitment and time they’d not anticipated.
“The real leverage you have for more achievement is more effort,” writes Seligman. “Effort is no more and no less than how much time you practice the task.”
If you’re feeling like you need to increase your sense of purpose, Seligman warns that you need to be careful not to confuse that with achievement, which is often pursued for its own sake. You may end up accomplishing something but find that you have no positive emotion, no new sense of meaning and no improvement in relationships from the success, he notes. In other words, your achievement may not end up helping you feel that you are flourishing after all.
Seligman suggests that developing optimism may be one of the most productive ways of improving your sense of well-being, since optimists tend to enjoy better health. While it’s not fully known why research has shown a clear link between optimism and health, he thinks it’s probably a combination of those factors.
Those who tend to look on the positive side of things tend to have healthier lifestyles, including better diet and more exercise. They also take action when faced with a challenge rather than becoming passive and helpless.
In addition, optimists tend to have broad networks of social support. And some research suggests that biological mechanisms – such as lower stress levels, stronger immune systems and possibly even genetics – may be important factors, too.
Optimism seems to also be associated with better mental health .Positive health is the presence of positive emotion, engagement, meaning, good relationships and accomplishment, asserts Seligman. Similarly, “being in a state of mental health is not merely being disorder free; rather it is the presence of flourishing.”
Learn more: Flourish: A New Understanding Of Happiness And Well-Being – And How To Achieve Them; by Martin Seligman, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011.