“The human spirit isn’t measured by the size of the act, but by the size of the heart”
Positive psychology is a science which strives to understand what makes life worth living, and the enabling factors that allow individuals to thrive. At the very heart of positive psychology is well-being (Seligman, 2011, pp. 13). One model for describing subjective well-being is embodied in the acronym PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement; each of which individuals strive for their own sake (Seligman). The ultimate outcome variable here is increased well-being (optimal human functioning and experience), and the standard for measuring it is flourishing.
Seligman, one the visionaries behind positive psychology, recently ignited a radically inspiring challenge, stating that the mission of positive psychology is that “by the year 2051, 51 percent of the population will be flourishing” (Seligman, 2011, pp. 240). But can we even dream of reaching such a lofty vision? I believe we can, but doing what we have done so far will merely get us the same results as before.
In this self-absorbed world, where people are often more concerned about feeling good than doing good, striving for more individual well-being might just end up feeding the wrong wolf. Would we perhaps be better off in calling for more moral responsibility, as unappealing as it might sound? In the following two posts I will claim that harnessing virtue and the systemic networks in which we all live may offer a functioning framework for creating a more flourishing world by 2051. And as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
Virtuous Life as a Key to Subjective Well-being and Flourishing Societies
Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) have questioned whether pleasure, as one indicator of well-being, is the right thing to be measured. Instead, they bring our attention to the social context: how effective is the individual improving the lives of others? I assert that we need to change the very moral and ethical script upon which our society is written. The violent school shooting in Connecticut just before Christmas and the several mortifying rape cases in India and in Ohio (which made it to the public consciousness nearly simultaneously) are yet another painful reminder of this.
- The key to well-being is to promote a life of virtue, which leads to more ethical choices and altruistic behavior, as well as acknowledging the significant role we each play within the systems of social networks in which we are embedded. The road to measuring this is to evaluate how much good we have done, and how much value we have added to our surrounding environment: positive thinking should manifest itself as positive action. The focus then becomes the cultivation of ethical actions which benefit us as a society.
Emphasizing well-being over virtue can only take us so far; changing the world requires cooperative effort and we may likely have to learn a new, more altruistic way of communicating with each other. Getting serious with PERMA51 (creating a more flourishing world by 2051) will require us to tap into what is good in every one of us, cultivate it for its own sake, and facilitate and measure its spread through social networks. This calls for acknowledging individual responsibility as part of the process of improving the world.
Aristotle described happiness as the result of actively engaging in habits which cultivate virtues (Melchert 2002). “We are not studying to know what virtue is, but to become good”. (p.188). Positive psychology has taken the same active stance and declares that it is in our power to change our lives, through building strengths of character (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Lyubomirsky, 2007). Often these strengths are sought to obtain well-being, but not merely for their own sake.
In today´s world, ´virtue´ has taken on a rather soft connotation. To Aristotle, virtues are not emotions or capacities, but are dynamic in nature. Not only should one maintain the practice of a chosen habit, but in order to truly enjoy the benefits one should relentlessly strive for excellence (Melchert 2002). Virtues can be learned, and are not rigid features inherent in one’s character. This means that in order to keep them, one must also diligently maintain them through continuous practice. Plutarch once said `Character is simply habit long enough continued.´ Practically speaking, virtues are attitudes, dispositions and character traits which capacitate us to act according to the ideals we have adopted. Being virtuous is a state in which our emotions are guided by reason (Melchert).
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131
Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy (4th ed., pp. 186-195). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schwartz, B., & Sharpe, K. E. (2006). Practical wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 377-395.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.