American Psychological Association

119th Annual Convention
Washington D.C., August 4-7 2011



ASYNCHRONOUSLY LIVE from Washington, DC...

Next up on this whirlwind day at APA 2011: Martin Seligman on positive health, “Flourish” and PERMA. If it sounds a bit cryptic: me too! At least at first.

I’ll do my best to make it clear – but essentially his new book “Flourish” reflects the latest revision to his own model of "positive psychology". Seligman's model focuses on several primary aspects. Within each aspect there are “elements”, with components within the elements. It takes some concentration and graphics to "get" the new lexicon and model, but certainly followers of Seligman's illustrious career can appreciate the depth to which he develops and presents his ideas.


Invited Address - Martin Seligman:
Flourish


Martin Seligman - 2011


Dr. Martin Seligman was introduced by APA past (and possibly future) President, James Bray. Dr. Bray noted that while many know of the legendary contributions to psychology, not many know of the breadth of Seligman's interests and skills - for example being a "world class bridge player...online". Seligman took the podium, thanked Bray for the introduction and said that indeed, he plays bridge online several hours every day.

From bridge to ancient philosophy, Seligman focused on the point in time where philosophy merged with Freud and the resultant emphasis was solely "to reduce suffering.... a profound moral and political error." How many of us lie in bed worrying about either how to go from -8 to -5,or from +2 to +5?

So what is worthwhile to promote? Wellbeing. What is wellbeing? That is the substance of his new book, Flourish, and his new 5-factor model, PERMA.

Even thinking positively, it would be impossible to describe fully in the course of one lecture, much less 'here', all of the research and nuance involved in this newly-broadened model of well-being and its teaching. I therefore defer to Seligman, his book, and his website for a more detailed and annotated explanation of the many concepts and acronyms within PERMA and Flourish. Hopefully this will at least convey some of the "main idea".

Suffice to say, Seligman presented many charts, graphs, and diagrams pertinent to his latest theoretical overview. He described it as "the most important change in my thinking".

Seligman said that he would like to see well-being as a national goal. Already one country has been utilizing a well-being index, and 23 countries are now looking specifically into "the Flourish Factor".

Noting that supposedly "proven" fad diets end up being useless (as the weight typically returns, and then some) and how even lottery winners who suddenly experience great 'happiness' typically return to their baseline after 3 years, Seligman believes the potential durability of PERMA to be unlike that of any diet. In fact, he is so 'positive' about this model of wellbeing and the potential for widespread adoption - "it is measurable, teachable and even 'gameable'" - that he has set a goal of global implementation by 2051. "That seems reasonable", he said, no matter if he and others present in the room today might not get to see it first-hand.

The road to well-being is premised on the PERMA model, which consists of 5 elements, or " the 5 PERMA Pillars":

Fleshing out the PERMA pillars a bit:

Positive Emotion entails "optimism and positive health".

Engagement refers to ones use of "Signature Strengths"

Relationships are seen in terms of Active Constructive Responding (ACR).

Meaning is defined as "Belong to and Serving Something Bigger than Self". Concerns also: Altruism vs Pleasure

Accomplishment involves GRIT - never giving up, getting the job done. He cited one example at West Point (military academy) and another in a high school setting.

A few general comments. First, there is much more to Positive Emotion than a label. It refers to "subjective well being... people choose to be happy." As for books and articles about so-called "positive psychology: "Please don't put a smiley-face on the cover. There is much more to positive psychology." Engagement. He looked around the room and joked that probably 70% are 'in flow', while the other 30% are immersed in fantasy. If you ask people what they are thinking, 80% will say 'nothing'.

Is 'health' an "element"? Is 'responsibility'? Here he referred to available resources and questionnaires at his site,
authentichappiness.org.

One of the nice things about PERMA is that it is "gameable". He understands how much people love games, his own example being 4 hours a day playing bridge. Australia has many games and as a table revealed, "Denmark leads the list" in terms of adopting some version of PERMA/Flourish. They even have a national index: the Wellbeing GDP.

"I made a list of 20 things my grandmother didn't know about positive thinking. Look at optimism - something I did for about 30 years... You can be depressed, have cancer, and still have positive health. It seems a contradiction." He cited a number of studies in healthcare which suggested that the presence of subjective factors (e.g., optimism) decrease the cost of healthcare. He noted too the Japanese concept of (phonetically) "eegagai" - reason for living.

Where health assets are greater than risk factors one can see improved health. Notwithstanding the "giant Lipator industries" a proper focus might more productively be, Seligman said, teaching positive health. He mentioned how the US Army is working with 29 health data bases going forward, including psychological records. 1.1 million people.

"Close your eyes and think of something you hate doing, at least once a week." Next, he would recommend taking the Signature Strength Test on his website, and then doing something using your greatest area of strength, as the test identifies. Using strengths to act positively. Seligman bemoaned some of the common approaches to problems, taking particular issue with marital therapy. It's 'the worst therapy possible', he believes. "People are miserable, they lie to you, they lie to each other..." and essentially what the 'treatment' does is teach them to fight better. Is this a worthwhile goal, he wonders, "to turn an insufferable marriage into a barely tolerable marriage"? He thinks not.

Seligman presented his 4x4 model of active vs. passive, and destructive vs. constructive. This is a framework in which he sees more validity. Example (one he's given before and which I have previously reported) - A spouse comes home to announce a big raise at the job, as a reward for great work. The active/constructive says "You know, I was reading your plan it really is wonderful!" The active/destructive says "Oh great, now we're in a higher tax bracket." Passive/constructive says 'congratulations dear, you deserved it', the end. Passive/destructive says "What's for dinner?"

These reflect some key elements within his framework. He is trying to teach active/constructive communication skills within the military. He has (as usual) been using his own techniques and after a while focused on this technique he found his own son asking, "Is this really you, Daddy?" Some aspects which are a good fit with the military include his notion of GRIT, never giving up - and also aiming for authentic happiness. He cited some studies and noted that "self-discipline counts for twice as much variance as IQ". So he and the Penn Resilience Training project have been focused on schools. His goal is "to teach teachers the skill of PERMA". [Here I feel compelled to add that Sir Michael Rutter last year tore into the notion of "teaching resilience like the ABC's" in schools, saying it is "bound to fail". Maybe there's a huge difference between the two foci, and certainly PERMA is not rote learning like the ABC's - but a discussion between these two on the topic of
resiliency might be very interesting! Certainly for schools and educators.] Seligman's program, as he described it, entails training diverse samples of students, led by teachers, in learning "decision-making and resiliency".

Working within large organizations may indeed seem daunting. Seligman recalled a meeting he was called to at the Pentagon, where a senior officer "growled at me", there's all this suicide, and panic... what does psychology have to say about that? Well... there are always people 'at the edge' who fall apart, and their lives are ruined. In the middle are people who are resilient. At the other end are those who adopt the posture, "if it doesn't kill me it will make me stronger" - sometimes leading to what he terms 'post-traumatic growth'. Back at the Pentagon, General Casey ordered that positive psychology and resiliency were to be taught and measured throughout the entire military. Great. So Seligman asked, "Now what about the teachers? You have teachers?" "Yes! 45,000 drill sergeants educating 1. 1 million soldiers." Seligman showed graphs of the first study results, and they were impressive in terms of averting suicides in particular. He can't speak yet as to PTSD applications but noted that the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation is going to be producing a huge amount of data soon.

Other applications? "Measuring building wellness should be a national, planetary goal."

A primary intellectual controversy he observes at the moment has to so with the concepts of well being and happiness. He was told, 'all of well being feeds into a common path which is happiness', but he disagrees. He believes there needs to be a 'dashboard' rather than just a single measure of life satisfaction. PERMA has a lexicon - over 2000 words to reflect a range of feeling - love, hate, etc. There are over 45,000 photos too, and collaboration with Facebook and Twitter. They have the ability to take live readings of PERMA, such as was done during the recent mining rescue in Chile. Researchers found the Chile PERMA rates went up but not those in Argentina. Something seems to have been tapped. And "we are in a privileged position. The world is changing from a pathology focus. " Again, Seligman would like to see his model widely utilized in schools especially, and in the military. The Penn Resilience Training project (PRP) has already yielded some significant results, as illustrated for example in charts and graphs of grades obtained by 9th grade English Language Arts students taught PERMA - whose escalated grades remained stronger than a control group into the 10th grade as well. There were also positive results within the military context, where overall sense of well being as well as suicidal acts and gestures were dependent measures and the results were very promising.

Finally, Seligman briefly described the measurement process, which is one of the strengths of PERMA. There are both subjective and objective ratings. One can see results either through a 'dashboard' or single-subject lens. And PERMA is gameable in addition to measurable.


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And now, off to another forward-looking presentation, this on "Innovative Technologies for Psychological Intervention, Consultation and Training".

Hmm, I could swear I presented a similar sounding topic - yes I did! In 2002, with John Suler, Azy Barak, and David Nickelson
: Cyberspace Travels for Psychological Researchers, Educators, and Practitioners Still worth a read! How far have we actually traveled, as a culture and as a discipline? Let's see... something called Facebook, this thing called social networking, Twittermania, wireless "smart" devices everywhere, Kindle, iPads, advances in computer programs, virtual environments, and a few other not insignificant developments.

So, off I go to the next presentation, continuing the quest to get a sense of where we are now and we are heading, from a 21st-Century Psychology perspective.


2011 Convention Highlights:
2011: eHealth Odyssey | Googling, Twittering, Poking | Zimbardo: Reflections + Enduring Lessons from 40 Years Ago: Stanford Prison Experiment
Opening | Avatar-based Treatments | Canine Cognition: Chaser | Aaron T. Beck @90 | CCBT | Technology, Psychology & Virtual/Augmented Reality
Online Relationships 3.0 | Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids | Telehealth & Telehealth Licensure - Barriers and Possible Solutions


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2008 Convention Highlights:

Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now


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