Book Review, Martin Seligman, Flourish

20 Jan

Something about Flourish just screams “I am making my legacy” in big letters.  While some of the ideas here are interesting, Flourish ends up being a testimony of Seligman’s career more than a real step forward in positive psychology per se.  As such, I have reservations about suggesting it as any sort of self-help book, but it’s interesting if a little sprawly.

I think the book can’t decide whether it wants to be a theoretical book, a study, or a biography so through all of Flourish I found myself wandering from paragraph to paragraph wandering from subject to subject.  It’s a little like hanging out with your friendly ex-professor grandfather–he’s not going to just lecture you, but wander into some stories, and bring up family stories to boot.  It’s kind of charming in its own way, but at times it really taxes the patience (Seligman really likes bridge and can discuss that forever I feel like, and his professional history sometimes butts in like having a flashback in the middle of a Nova special).

As for his Flourish theories, they’re so broad sometimes I wonder if they’re really providing tools at all.  He has some specifics: keep a gratitude journal, think about your strengths and how to apply them, express sympathetic joy, things like that.   While they are wonderful bits of advice, I don’t see how ordering them and creating a test around them constitutes a new theory.  It lacks the meat somehow.  Also, while I feel some parts focus on areas that positive psychology generally didn’t touch before, it seems like this is mining similar territory as The Happiness Project–valid ways to make healthy people live richer lives, and also ways to sort of prevent mental instability later, but I question their qualifications in dealing with people who have serious mental diseases.  I mean, how is his method anything different than a more systemized version of Oprah magazine?

Also, when is this sort of well-being psychology moving into the realm of magical thinking?  Must we always be happy and content, or trying to be happy and content?  Isn’t there some use for discontentedness?  Must everything be sunshine and no shadow?  I’m not always certain that Seligman’s view of what a healthy human looks like is the same that I would have it be.  Happy but maybe a little bit bland.

At the same time I applaud a serious psychiatrist focusing on applicable science rather than making more theories as to how people act the way they do.   Though his sense of what a healthy human is gives me pause sometimes, I appreciate that he is trying to define that rather than focusing on the ways we are broken or malfunctioning.   He certainly has qualifications to boot, and he does speak about using his model in many different environments.  Also, and I must stress this, he seems like someone who is happy and well adjusted himself.

All-in-all, I think the book is ok.  If you want some new ideas to think over, I think there’s more edgy stuff out there, but Seligman has some very good points, and honestly isn’t out to chart new territory anyway.

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