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Well-Being Goes Deeper than Happiness and Steers Away from Focus on Misery

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December 5, 2014
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Boston Evening Therapy Content

martin-seligman-authentic-happinessHappiness may be an elusive concept, but psychologist Martin Seligman, a leader in the “positive psychology” movement, continues on a global mission to spread his emphasis on well-being and nudge the route of mental health work away from an over-concentration on mental illness.

“I spent the first 30 years of my professional life working on misery and death,” Seligman told mental health and education professionals in his presentation “Global Advances in Well-Being Science” at the conference “Towards a State of Well-being” in Adelaide, South Australia in February 2014.

One growing resource for well-being on large scale, said Seligman, is “big data.” For instance, data from millions of Tweets and Facebook postings offers insight about mental health by age group and county in several U.S. regions. Data has been collected on words and phrases such as “bored, homework, beer, beautiful day, blessings and God.” The data can be used to plan, encourage and educate people and organizations on what Seligman has determined are the five elements of well-being, which he outlines with the acronym PERMA: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment.

While the implementation of programs to increase of PERMA can vary widely from individuals to schools to the military to entire countries, Seligman said the five elements of well-being are the essence of human satisfaction.

The author of the 2002 book Authentic Happiness, Seligman broadened that concept a bit in his 2012 book Flourish, where elements of meaning, being part of something larger than oneself and having positive relationships are layers that help create a deeper and longer-term sense of well-being, as opposed to what some may consider the overly simplified idea of happiness.

Engagement, for instance, when time seems to stop, or what is sometimes called “being in the flow” that can occur in creating music or art or in sports, is an essential element of long-term well-being, Seligman said.

The elements that improve mental outlook don’t always require face-to-face communication with a therapist, Seligman in his lecture in South Australia. He said he calculated that there aren’t enough therapists in Australia to treat the diagnosable cases of depression. So he offers, for Australians or anyone else in the world, self-assessments and exercises, which are free with online registration on his website

Seligman’s global push for positive psychology may not be the complete answer for many who face deep and complex psychological issues, but some elements may be part of the answer.

For the curious who want to try out some of Seligman’s assessments and positive psychology training exercises, they’re available on the website. If you take the Authentic Happiness Inventory, for example, you’ll find questions where you respond to a range of options, from “I spend all of my time doing things that are unimportant” to “I spend every moment doing things that are important.” Or, in another example, “I experience more pain than pleasure” to “My life is filled with pleasure.”

If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to think about your life and what contributes to your own personal “authentic happiness.”



Seligman, Martin, University of Pennsylvania, Authentic Happiness


Seligman, Martin, Lecture: Global Advances in Wellbeing Science, Adelaide, South Australia, Feb. 13, 2014.

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