Flow, happiness and the future of positive psychology
Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, recently gave an important TED talk (which can be viewed below). In his overview of what humans require in order to attain more life satisfaction, Seligman outlined how flow is a major part of the Holy Grail.
The talk starts by explaining the successes of traditional psychology. Psychology was originally born out of the disease-led model and existed to find solutions to mental illnesses that were rife in society. It has succeeded to date by successfully treating fourteen disorders and curing two. More importantly it has provided a scientific approach towards understanding mental illness.
We have been able to measure previously fuzzy concepts such as depression, alcoholism and schizophrenia, and learned about the various causalities. We have also been able to invent and test treatments, and have successfully been able to make ‘miserable people, less miserable‘, as Seligman put its.
However, and it’s a big one at that, one of the main failures has been the focus on making the average person happier or improving normal lives. This traditional approach to psychology has not found out how to nurture talent or which positive interventions are more successful than others.
Positive psychology has taken giant strides in the last decade towards rectifying this issue. Interestingly it has found that the happiest people are not those that have more money, a religious affinity or a more comfortable life. But there is one significant correlational result; the happiest people are those that are social – “Each of them is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends”, says Seligman.
Happiness is also a vague concept that has been used and abused over the years, and is often very misleading. As a result, happiness has been defined into three types of lives.
Firstly is the pleasurable life, which is attained by creating pleasure and as many positive emotions as possible. This is the type of life Hollywood sells, as do the many marketing campaigns that so readily litter our environments. Although these positive emotions are pleasurable they are very habitual; meaning that “it’s all like French vanilla ice cream, the first taste is a 100%; by the time you’re down to the sixth taste, it’s gone” as Seligman puts it. He goes on to say that the pleasurable life is not very malleable and heritable.
The second life is a good life. Now listen up, because this is where flow comes in. This life is about engagement, total absorption in what we are doing. It is void of positive emotion, as time stops and we become connected with the task at hand. To attain this lifestyle we must identify our signature strengths and re-craft our life to use these strengths in our work, love and play. Interestingly, people who experience these flow moments that make up the ‘good life’ are not consumed by positive emotion that the many marketing campaigns will desire us to search for.
Lastly is the meaningful life – where we use our strengths for something bigger than ourselves. These altruistic actions leave a lasting level of happiness way past the actual event.
Seligman goes on to say that to understand life satisfaction we have studied these three types of lives: “And we’ve done this in fifteen replications involving thousands of people – to what extent does the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of positive emotion, the pleasant life, the pursuit of engagement, time stopping for you, and the pursuit of meaning contribute to life satisfaction?…. Our results surprised us, but they were backward of what we thought. It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong. Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure’s the whipped cream and the cherry. Which is to say, the full life — the sum is greater than the parts, if you’ve got all three. Conversely, if you have none of the three, the empty life, the sum is less than the parts.” He goes on to say that life satisfaction is more significantly found through finding flow and meaning in what we are doing.
So to attempt to summarise a 20-minute talk into a sentence and relate it to us flow seekers out there: Keep going. Keep searching for flow in everything we do and along the way find our own meaning to what we are doing. If we can experience flow for a meaningful purpose, then we are on the road to the Holy Grail of happiness.