An Evening with Martin Seligman - Revisited

Back in May 2016, Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology”, was in London, sharing his views on happiness with over 900 people in a packed venue, where at least 60% of the audience, according to Martin, were engaged in the topic! The other 40% were too busy indulging in sexual fantasies, apparently… We were there, although we won’t be saying which category of audience we fell into!

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Over the course of 90 minutes, the conversation ranged from homo prospectus’ focus on the future, how we can aspire to happiness and teach ourselves and others to achieve it, and the fact that all we’ve learnt, about learnt helplessness, is wrong!

Here’s a toe in the water of the areas Seligman covered, with a plea for additions, corrections, and thoughts.

Homo Sapiens v Homo Prospectus

We started with something “none of us would know”, which if nothing else was a leveller.  It turned out to be an introduction to Seligman’s recent work, which is encapsulated in his latest book, Homo Prospectus, which explores the idea that we are not so much homo sapiens, that is, distinguished by knowledge, as homo prospectus, that is, distinguished by the ability to imagine far into the future.

Seligman argues that the science shows us that we are constantly generating simulations and mental images of our possible futures.  As he pointed out, as he was speaking, we as the audience were thinking about what we would be doing with his words, in the future.  Personally, I was beginning to create sentences for this very piece, so he was making sense to me…

Seligman’s bigger point from a “happiness” perspective is that he does not believe we are bound by our past, in opposition to much Darwinian, Freudian and Marxian thought.  As humans we are continuously imagining the future, and anxiety, for example, is simply a deformation of how we are thinking about the future.

For more information about the science of “prospection”

At this point Seligman also asked us to accept that much of the research he and others have done since 1967 onwards, and the conclusions that have been drawn, on learnt helplessness – the idea that when we are repeatedly confronted with things we can’t control, we end up learning to accept our helplessness in the face of them – are wrong!

Seligman discussed rat studies and various parts of the brain, which was very interesting, but beyond my ability to record, but in summary, he argued, we can learn not to be helpless.


PERMA – A measure of well-being

Having excited his audience with the new work, Seligman turned to some of his old favourites for the rest of the session, explaining PERMA for the uninitiated, and throwing in some big data for the statistically minded.

PERMA is the five point measure of well-being that Seligman introduced in his 2011 book Flourish.

Positive emotion – peace, gratitude, humour, pleasure are all positive emotions

Engagement – that feeling of being “lost in the music”, we may also know as “flow”

Relationships – as social creatures we need good relationships

Meaning and purpose – serving a cause bigger than ourselves

Accomplishment – striving to get better

Seligman pointed out that there is no single element of the above five points that creates happiness, but instead that we can pay attention to each of the different elements that make up well-being, and focus on those that have most impact on us.  Each is measurable, each is teachable.

What struck me when coming across the PERMA acronym for the first time, was the fact that I’ve already heard about it, in many different other forms…  Seligman’s ideas have percolated through much of the thinking and many of the proposed responses to the challenges of modern management and organisations – just think of Dan Pink’s well-known, well-discussed video on drive and motivation and you can see PERMA coming through – mastery and purpose link directly to Meaning and Accomplishment.

To teach ourselves and others, to build PERMA, Seligman offered the following suggestions as starting points:

P – 3 good things exercise – at the end of every day, write down 3 things for which you are grateful, or which have been positive that day.  Seligman argues it’s fun to do, helpful to sleeping, and addictive!

E – identify your signature strengths and then use them.  Particularly by taking a thing you don’t like doing, and recrafting it using your strengths

R – Try to take an active/constructive approach to reliving an experience of someone close to you.  The example Seligman gave was of your partner getting a promotion, and how you would discuss it with them

M – Focus for a moment on altruism – write your vision of a positive human future in 300 words, then write your own obituary, including how you helped achieve this positive future vision

A – Focus on grit…  Seligman took a moment to promote Angela Duckworth’s new book GRIT, the power of passion and perseverance. I looked for information and found many reviews and lots to prompt me to look at this further. There’s plenty more to be found out about PERMA at:


Here Seligman took some time to show findings from “big data” about happiness, in the process arguing that there are more effective ways of assessing and predicting happiness within a group or population than by using questionnaires.  He threw up some interesting and amusing words clouds showing the different indicators of neuroticism and health, and predictors of heart disease; in this case it seems to be that the more you swear in your tweets and on Facebook, the more you might be looking at an early death…

An interesting section, but one that I only gained a superficial understanding of, as you can tell, so another area for more research and input.

As a final note on PERMA, Seligman repeatedly stated that if you want to build it in a business, the best way is to tell managers that they are accountable for building wellbeing in their area of the organization, and that you are going to measure it, at time A and time B…

During the course of the evening, and in response to questions from the floor, Seligman also looked at the relationship between well-being and education, and the differences between his approach to well-being and mindfulness.  We’d welcome comments expanding on these areas, but to summarise what I gained from the evening, I’d offer the following:

–       As humans we can retain or regain control of our futures

–       We can measure our well-being using PERMA

–       We can “teach” ourselves and others to increase our well-being in a variety of ways