Strength in a smile

A new discipline moves to centre-stage

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. By Martin Seligman. Free Press; 368 pages; $26. Nicholas Brealey Publishing; £14.99. Buy from,

The idea that it is the business of governments to cheer up their citizens has moved in recent years to centre-stage. Academics interested in measures of GDH (gross domestic happiness) were once forced to turn to the esoteric example of Bhutan. Now Britain’s Conservative-led government is compiling a national happiness index, and Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, wants to replace the traditional GDP count with a measure that takes in subjective happiness levels and environmental sustainability.

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Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, would approve. He has uncovered various structured ways of perking people up, all of them, he insists on the very first page of his new book, “grounded in careful science”. Much of this book consists of the results of various complex tests and interventions designed to reduce depression and anxiety and increase resilience and self-discipline. Writing a “what-went-well-today-and-why” diary for a week, for example, tends to lower depression levels for as much as six months, he claims.

“Flourish” represents a partial rejection of Mr Seligman’s previous work, “Authentic Happiness” (a title he says was forced on him by his publisher). To focus solely on happiness rather than the more expansive concept of “well-being”, Mr Seligman now says, is a form of “monism” that neglects important ingredients, such as “relationships” and “accomplishment”.

Consider the decision to have children. Research consistently shows that parents are less satisfied with their lives than the childless. Yet the human race continues to propagate itself. Either, says Mr Seligman, we are “massively deluded” about the effects of children on our happiness, or we take more than “life satisfaction” into account when choosing to breed.

Mr Seligman’s book is, in effect, an attempt to add dashes of both Aristotelian wisdom and Nietzschean grit to the stock of Benthamite utilitarianism that underlies much of the newer work in this field. Mr Seligman says he now rejects the Aristotelian view that all human action aims at happiness. But Aristotle’s term, eudaimonia, usually rendered in English as “happiness,” actually translates better as “flourishing”. Moreover, Mr Seligman’s emphasis on “good character” is reminiscent of the Aristotelian virtues (and chimes with recent work carried out in British think-tanks). As for Nietzsche, whose ironic writings seem to occupy another universe from Mr Seligman’s empirically grounded “positive psychology”, his idea that the “will to power” drives much human action finds ready approval here.

Mr Seligman has fans. Schools and universities around the world are using his work to craft happier, more robust students. A test designed by Mr Seligman and his colleagues to assess the psychological fitness of serving troops will, he says, be taken by all American soldiers every year. The many critics of positive psychology are unlikely to be swayed by this book, particularly given its tone, by turns cheesy and hubristic, and its sloppy editing. But they appear to be losing the argument.

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