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Francesca Elston

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Book review: Flourish by Martin Seligman

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Professor Seligman opens Flourish by stating that he is abandoning his lifelong caution and scepticism in favour of the extravagant claim that his book will indeed help the reader to flourish. The book is a fun read and, if the exercises are carried out, may well help the reader. But it might have been quite a lot better if he’d stuck to the cautious scepticism.

Flourish is a book of many parts. It wanders between being a textbook in positive psychology, an account of Seligman’s last ten years at the forefront of applied positive psychology research and a guide to using positive psychology in practice. It does some of these things much better than others.

There’s a lot of good in the book. Seligman is a compelling writer and extremely witty. He sends himself up as much as he mocks the profession of psychology. There’s a lot in the book, and given how much ground it covers, it doesn’t feel dense. (That said, it’s not a light read.)

The book’s most disappointing passages are Seligman’s extravagant claims about the theory of well-being. There is some justification for the positions he puts forward, but it is far from being the proof that he claims. Unfortunately it’s not hard to pick holes in Seligman’s science. He doesn’t present enough evidence for the claims he makes, and he’s loose in interpreting what evidence there is – on more than one occasion, the notes don’t support the data on the page as clearly as the text suggests. He often quotes researchers’ opinions as evidence, and uses anecdotes to make his case. (And there are schoolboy errors – the Satisfaction With Life Scale isn’t a 1-10 scale). This book doesn’t earn the authority that it pretends to.

Seligman is extremely opinionated. In addition to his questionable claims about positive psychology, he routinely comes out with strong statements that he doesn’t even attempt to justify. (“Marriage counselling usually teaches people to fight better.”)  Sometimes this passionate advocacy is captivating, as when he exhorts depressives to ‘live heroically’, and his vision for world education is compelling. But sometimes it’s so one-sided that it becomes off-putting and loses credibility.

Seligman is at his best when he puts down his baseball bat of advocacy and tells the stories of his experience. As an eminent applied psychologist, he has led an eventful life and been involved in some ground-breaking projects. His viewpoint is unusual, and the stories of his projects are often captivating and thought-provoking. And there’s gold in them thar pages, often buried deep in the notes at the end.

It’s never entirely clear whether Seligman is writing for academics, practitioners or people who want to improve their well-being. As an academic textbook it doesn’t stand up. The treatment of the evidence is too one-sided and cavalier. Many key topics of positive psychology are mentioned glancingly or not at all. Even for the interested layman, there are many better introductions to positive psychology. (Boniwell’s Positive Psychology in a Nutshell is one good example.)

However, there is value in Flourish as a self-help book, and for some HR practitioners. Although Seligman’s overall theory isn’t as well-supported as he claims, a lot of the interventions he describes do have a sound evidence base. Seligman is very generous with the details of the well-being programmes that he has created, and L&D practitioners in particular may find this inspiring, valuable and refreshingly different. This is also a good book for anyone who enjoys being challenged and hearing unusual points of view.

Many people will find Flourish interesting and rewarding. But don’t take it as gospel. Be ready to use a critical mind while reading – test Seligman’s contentions against the notes, and against your experience as a practitioner, and take away only what works for you.

Thanks to reviewer: Franesca Elston

You can buy Flourish here

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