The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: “Flourish”

I now know I do not actually want to be happy. “Happy,” as per Martin Seligman, author o f Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being , isn’t really enough to make me happy . Regular, casual happy can come from a donut or a sunny day or a night off on the couch with a bag of chips, but those things, as Seligman himself puts it, can leave us feeling like we’re “merely fidgeting until we die.” There’s no engagement, meaning, or accomplishment in a bag of chips, and without those things, we might tick off “happy” on a survey of life satisfaction at any given moment, but our long-term well-being hasn’t improved at all.

A great deal of that is semantics, and those semantics absorb the first few chapters of Flourish . You could, of course, define “happy” to include feeling engaged, accomplished, or as though your life holds meaning, but Seligman fears that we just don’t. We think of happiness as rainbows and smiley faces and ordinary good cheer, and so we’re missing out, as individuals and as a society, on giving the proper value to the things that make us really happy (or as Seligman prefers, the things that help our well-being flourish). Parents respond to a survey indicating less life satisfaction than non-parents, and we argue for hours over why anyone would have children if they don’t make you happy. The redefined version of “happy” as “well-being” makes the answer simple: Children engage us and add to our sense that our life has meaning, even if, from a purely hedonistic point of view, a donut might offer more value.

It’s largely after Seligman is finished explaining why his field of “positive psychology” is about something more than “that awful yellow smiley face” that Flourish becomes engrossing and engaging. Seligman writes that as individuals, parents, educators and citizens, we’re losing something when we focus on happiness (or mock the value of “happiness”) at the expense of considering well-being. He explains why drugs and traditional therapy may make a depressed individual feel better, but will never help that individual to actually be better, and offers concrete, tested alternatives-in essence, exercises that bypass the need for feeling cheerful and move on towards increasing a sense of those other elements of meaning, engagement and accomplishment.

But Flourish is far more than a self-help manual (in fact, its self-help elements feel largely incidental). Seligman is spinning with ideas, and he’s packed so many of them into this book that it’s like a primer on how just about everything to do with well-being could be done better. He takes that individual advice and expands it, applying it to everything from preparing a psychologically fit army, helping soldiers (and their families) move past the wounds and stress of war, to the psychology of illness and how governments should consider well-being before GDP.  If you’re the kind of reader who likes to worry about whether the tide’s gonna reach your chair with one part of your mind while stretching the other around ways to improve and change your life and the lives of the people around you, then Flourish is the beach book for you.