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by Corey L. M. Keyes and Jonathan Haidt (Editors)
American Psychological Association, 2003
Review by Jack R. Anderson, M.D. on Apr 7th 2003

Flourishing

I

Many of the chapters of this book are based on presentations given at the first Summit of Positive Psychology, held at The Gallup Organization in Lincoln, Nebraska, September 9—12, 1999.

In the Foreword, Martin E.P. Seligman writes that he began to think about positive psychology shortly after he was elected president of the APA in 1997. He lists three “pillars” of positive psychology:

1.      Positive subjective experience about the past, present and future—contentment,  satisfaction and well-being regarding the past; happiness, “flow,” ecstasy and sensual pleasures in the present; and optimism and hope about the future.

2.      The investigation of positive individual characteristics—strengths and virtues such as future-mindedness, leadership, kindness, integrity, originality, wisdom and intimacy. 

3.       The study of positive institutions and positive communities.

These three pillars provide a pattern for a social-engineering project. If we could just build positive institutions and communities, they would produce positive individual characteristics—strengths and virtues—which would ensure that individuals would enjoy positive subjective experience—contentment, satisfaction, well-being, happiness, flow, ecstasy, sensual pleasures, optimism and hope. Sir Thomas More and Samuel Butler would undoubtedly have approved of such a project as it promises even more than “Utopia” or “Erewhon.”

The two editors collaborate to produce the Introduction. They believe that during the past four or five decades psychology has focused too narrowly on human “illnesses, problems and weaknesses,” and that “more work is needed in the areas of virtues; character strengths; and the social, psychological, and biological factors that enable human beings to flourish." To flourish is not only to be free of mental illness, but also to have positive mental health—to be filled with emotional vitality and to function positively in the private and social realms of life.

There are 13 chapters in the book. The first 12 chapters are divided evenly among four sections which represent “major imperatives about living a good life:” RISE TO LIFE’S CHALLENGES; ENGAGE AND RELATE; FIND FULFILLMENT IN CREATIVITY AND PRODUCTIVITY; and LOOK BEYOND ONESELF. The 13th chapter, LOOKING AHEAD: A CALL TO ACTION was written by one of the editors, Corey L.M. Keyes.

Altogether, there are 23 contributors to this book, including the two editors. They hail from 9 different colleges and universities in the USA; The Gallup Organization in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany. The chapters are all well organized, well written and extensively documented, some with several pages of references. As would be expected in articles presented at The Gallup Organization, qualitative and quantitative data and methods are described in detail.

II

The idea of positive psychology is not new. For example, M.Scott Peck’s monumental The Road Less Traveled, published in 1978, carries the subtitle: “A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth.” The “positive” nature of Doctor Peck’s psychology is illustrated by one of the sub-headings of his book: “The Healthiness of Depression.” He explains that personal growth always requires giving up some familiar and loved, but maladaptive,  aspect of the character, and “since giving up or loss of the old self is an integral part of the process of spiritual growth, depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon.” You can’t get much more positive than that.

 In the second chapter, “Turning Points as Opportunities for Psychological Growth,” Elaine Wethington expresses much the same opinion as Dr. Peck in the first paragraph of her Conclusion:

“Does tragedy only reap sorrow? People who report having experienced psychological turning points, even those that involved extremely stressful situations, also reported (sic) the experience of positive psychological growth. The major findings of these analyses is that perceptions of growth and strength are often born out of suffering and setbacks, as well as accomplishments and achievements.”

III

In chapter 13, Corey L.M. Keyes defines “languishing” as the absence of mental health. She says it is more prevalent than “major depression disorder, ” (sic) that languishers are neither mentally ill nor mentally healthy, and that “languishing is associated with emotional distress and psycho-social impairment at levels that are comparable to the impairment associated with a major depressive episode.” From these partial definitions I would guess that languishing could be coded as 313.82, Identity Problem; V62.89, Religious or Spiritual Problem; or V62.89, Phase of Life Problem, as listed in DSM-IV-TR. Some examples given of languishing might even qualify for the diagnoses: 300.4, Dysthymic Disorder; 311, Depressive Disorder, NOS; or even 296.21, Major Depressive Disorder, Single Episode, Mild.

At the other end of the mood continuum is the emotion the other editor, Jonathan Haidt, calls “elevation,” in chapter 12. He derives the term from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson which said in part that the physical feelings and motivational effects experienced by the reader of a good novel may be as powerful as those resulting from a real episode—that well-written fiction may “elevate his sentiments…”  (italicizing is mine).

Haidt explains that the three dimensions of social cognition are solidarity, hierarchy and elevation:

 Solidarity is a horizontal dimension, in that some people are closer to the self, and others farther, in terms of affection and social obligation.

 Hierarchy is a vertical dimension, in that some people are higher than the self, and others lower, in terms of power or status.

 Elevation is also a vertical dimension, with the idea of pollution or disgust at the lower, or negative end, and inspiration, peak experience and moral transformation at the upper or positive end.

In his Conclusion, Haidt writes: “Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

At first glance I thought the elevation-languishing dichotomy was similar to that of mania and depression. However, although languishing is similar to depression, elevation seems to be more of a moral rather than a general high and is always positive, rather than leading to the self-destructive excesses of mania.

IV

This is a fascinating book to read. I highly recommend it to everyone who has responsibility for other people—parents, teachers, ministers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, mental health practitioners, salesmen, business executives, husbands, wives, lovers—the list goes on indefinitely. The various chapters raise important issues regarding our responsibilities toward each other and how we can better honor them.

On the other hand, when I think of Kierkegaard and the other existentialists, I wonder how much we should rely on communities and institutions for our “flourishing.” After all, isn’t life pretty much what we make it by our own decisions?

Perhaps Existentialism and Positive Psychology are compatible. Perhaps we can individually decide to build better communities and institutions so that we can develop the strengths and virtues we need to experience contentment about the past, happiness in the present and optimism about the future.

V

One of my favorite advocates o positive psychology is Henry David Thoreau, who wrote:

”If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, starry, and immortal, that is your success.”

© 2003 Jack R. Anderson

Jack R. Anderson, M.D. is a retired psychiatrist living in Lincoln, Nebraska.