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
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:
- Positive Emotion
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.
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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