Catching On and Letting Go: The Art and Science of Flourishing
By DANIEL TOMASULO, PH.D.
“Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think.” ~ Martin Seligman
Two things happen when you feel happier in your life. First, you catch on to the fact you have a choice in how you see the world. Second, you let go of what doesn’t work.
At least this is what I have learned. I am a happier person now than I was a couple of years ago because I have directly cultivated and experienced more positive emotion in my life. This happened through many positive interventions, but chief among them are: having gratitude, asking what went right in my day (and why), and daily attempts to scatter kindness.
These are the main ones I’ve used, but they rest on hundreds of studies of other such positive interventions. This has left me feeling a deeper engagement with my daily activities, enhanced commitment to others, and a percolating fountain of creative pursuits (The Happiness Café (The Happiness Café, n.d.) being the latest.) Interestingly, there are more new and dynamic relationships in my life, and a deeper, more profound respect for my friends and family. I also have a clearer sense of purpose and meaning, which together seem to operate like the rudder of a boat and a gentle wind in the direction of my goals.
But these changes were deliberate, not random. How I orchestrate and navigate them in my life is an art, but their design and validation came from the science.
The major advances have recently come to be known as flourishing (Seligman, 2011). As I see it there are three broad advances in theory, measurement, and the practice of well-being.
The base of understanding that change is possible and progressive is through measurement. We need a comparison so we can measure how our thoughts have changed. Barbara Fredrickson’s (2009) work on positivity created a way of measuring internal dynamics. Using a Losada ratio, a measure of positive to negative thoughts, she found a positive to negative thought ratio of 3 to 1 seems to be a tipping point of sorts for positivity. By using a self-referenced point of comparison, the internal dynamics of positive and negative thinking can be measured against themselves. For more on this click here.
I believe this is the equivalent of the discovery that we have good and bad cholesterol, HDL and LDL, and that the ratio between the two determines cardiovascular health. We need more positive than negative thoughts in the same way we need more HDL, the good cholesterol, than LDL. She has given us a barometer for assessing our mental hygiene.
Frederickson’s work is not alone in the measurement and scaffolding of a model of well-being: Seligman and Peterson (2004) created an analysis of signature strengths, a compendium of 24 character strengths and six categories of virtues intended to highlight what is right with people. This is a direct contrast to the standard psychological categorical bible Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM –IV-TR, (American Psychiatric Association and American Psychiatric Association Task Force on DSM-IV, 2000) which classifies various conditions to help clinicians diagnose disorders. Seligman and Peterson believe strengths of character and virtues are present and need to be highlighted, rather than simply identifying what is wrong as the DSM does. To take the survey and learn more check here.
My report indicated that creativity, ingenuity, and originality are my top strengths and that I like to think of new ways to do things — I am not satisfied with convention. My ability to provide perspective makes people want to turn to me for advice. Humor and playfulness round out the top tier. This list was not a surprise to me, but what captured my attention was how I used the listing of these and my other top ones as permission to let them shine. They were the encapsulated version of who I am when I put my best foot forward. Knowing this allows me to employ them more liberally than I did before taking the survey. One of the outcomes of this was to write the Proof Positive blog (Tomasulo, D., n.d.) distilling information from the literature into the popular press.
The clarity of Sonja Lyubomirsky’s (2008) work highlights the fact that some 40 percent of our happiness can be improved upon. This was a strong motivation for me to maximize that 40 percent. She tailors the interventions by matching the best of interventions with our nature. Daniel Gilbert’s (2006) sobering contribution to flourishing allowed me to step back and consider the fact that I may not be the best judge of what will make me happy. He puts forth a convincing argument that our current situation overinfluences our future determination of happiness.
But it has been the steady, persistent, challenging and immensely broad work emanating from Martin Seligman that has offered the most illuminating light in the woods (Seligman, 1992, 2002, 2011; Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2001; Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, and Linkins, 2009). Such history has (recently) yielded a new chant for the converted: PERMA is the acronym for well-being reflected in ourpositive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, andachievement. I’ll be damned: The very areas in my life I said changed me for the better in my opening paragraph.
In the same work Seligman (2011) is setting an ambitious goal for 51 percent of the world to be flourishing by the year 2051. I have used my journey as an illustration of one path. But I am acutely aware of those in my sphere who are also flourishing. They display many of the thinking patterns, zest for life and capacity for resilience that I have known. For the past two years I have begun every keynote, each clinical training, college course, psychodrama demonstration, and supervision with a quote from A Course in Miracles (The Foundation for Inner Peace, 2008). “What we see in others we strengthen in ourselves.” This profound truth about the real nature of projection casts the responsibility of what we notice directly with us.
If 51 percent of the world can catch on to that, we can let go of what we don’t need, and most of us can be flourishing by 2051. I will be 100 years old July 20th of that year. Consider yourself invited to one helluva party.
American Psychiatric Association, & American Psychiatric Association. Task Force on DSM-IV. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
Foundation for Inner Peace. (2008). Course in miracles 3rd Foundation for Inner Peace.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. Crown Archetype.
Gilbert, D. T. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York, Knopf.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1992). Learned optimism. New York: Pocket Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2001). “Positive psychology: An introduction”: Reply. American Psychologist, 56(1), 89-90.
Seligman, M., Ernst, R., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293-311.
The Happiness Café Retrieved from: