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Flourish 51

16 May 2011 | Martin Seligman

The wealthy nations of the world - North America, the European Union, Japan, and Australia - are at a Florentine moment: rich, at peace, enough food, health, and harmony. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?

History, in the hands of the postmodernists, is taught as "one damn thing after another." I believe this is misguided and misguiding. I believe that history is the account of human progress and that you have to be blinded by ideology not to see the reality of this progress. Balky, with fits and starts, the moral and economic envelope of recorded history is, nevertheless, upward. As a child of the Great Depression and the Holocaust, I am clear-eyed about the terrible obstacles that remain. I am clear-eyed about of the fragility of prosperity, and of the billions of human beings who do not yet enjoy the flowers of human progress.

But it cannot be denied that even in the twentieth century, the bloodiest of all of centuries, we defeated Fascism and Communism, we learned how to feed six billion people, and we created universal education and universal medical care. We raised real purchasing power more than five-fold. We extended the life span. We began to curb pollution and care for the planet, and we made huge inroads into racial, sexual, and ethnic injustice. The age of the tyrant is coming to an end, and the age of democracy has taken firm root.

These economic, military, and moral victories are our proud heritage of the twentieth century. What gift will the twenty-first century pass to our posterity?

At the first World Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association in June 2009 (the Second is in July 2011), James Pawelski posed this question: "What vision can we articulate that is as grand and inspiring as John Kennedy's of putting a man on the moon? What is our moon shot? What is the long mission of positive psychology?"

At this point, Felicia Huppert, the director of the University of Cambridge's Well-Being Institute, leaned over and slipped me a copy of her paper for the congress: Huppert and Timothy So surveyed forty-three thousand adults, a representative sample of twenty-three European Union nations. They measured flourishing, in ways related to my notion of the five elements of well being: PERMA

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

They found that 33% of Danes were flourishing, but only 17% of Brits, and only 5% of Russians. With this in mind, I now articulate the long mission for positive psychology.

By the year 2051, 51 percent of the people of the world will be flourishing.

Just as I understand the huge benefits of achieving this, I understand how hugely challenging it is. It will be aided, but only a bit, by psychologists in one-on-one coaching or therapy sessions. It will be aided by positive education, in which teachers embed the principles of well-being into what they teach, and the depression and anxiety of their students drop and their students' happiness rises. It will be aided by the teaching of resilience in the military, by which post-traumatic stress disorder will lower, resilience will increase, and post-traumatic growth will become more common.

It will be aided by positive business, in which the goal of commerce will not be solely profit but also better relationships and more meaning. It will be aided by positive computing and prosocial video games. It will be aided by positive journalism, in which stories of virtue will stand alongside stories of misery. It will be aided by a new politics in which government across the world will be judged by how much it increases not just GDP but also the well-being of the governed.

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Martin Seligman is a leading figure behind the positive psychology movement. His latest book is "Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being - and How To Achieve Them" (Nicholas Brealey Publishing).

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