Five Pillars of Positive Psychology

“The good life is using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification.”
– Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD

Early in his career, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman followed the well-worn path of his peers and predecessors in the field of psychology. He studied human disorders and strategies for alleviating the associated suffering and/or undesirable behavior. His research also unearthed a phenomenon known as “learned helplessness” in which animals failed to escape or avoid unpleasant (even painful) circumstances if they had been subjected to them repeatedly. He wondered: If animals are capable of learning helplessness, are they also capable of learning optimism? Fast forward a host of research later, he got his answer: YES!

Positive psychology leverages the tools of its trade to amplify positive behaviors and traits. Its goal is two-fold: Exploring what makes life worth living, and defining the means through which these conditions manifest sustainably. The gold standard of well-being is “flourishing.”

According to Dr. Seligman’s research, a life well lived rests upon the following five pillars:

Positive Emotion: Such emotions include feelings of pleasure, rapture, ecstasy, warmth, comfort, and the like. They have a strong sensory component and are tied to experiences or memories, as well as our attitude toward them. While transitory in nature, positive emotional states produce many long-term benefits, including: increased access to love, friendship, and community; openness to new ideas and experiences; strength and agility in the face of setbacks and challenging circumstances; and, creative, constructive, and generous thinking. And, of course, positive emotional states just feel better! Strategies for producing or amplifying such states include:

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Rewriting your past by forgiving, forgetting, or recasting bad memories in a constructive light
  • Putting present day troubles in a box so they don’t bleed all over everything else in your life
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Savoring life’s pleasures in the moment (especially with others)
  • Taking stock of life annually and developing actionable plans to course correct

Engagement (a.k.a. “Flow): This state of mind occurs when pursuing activities for which we become thoroughly immersed and absorbed. They demand skill and effort and leverage our signature strengths. In their pursuit, our sense of self vanishes, and time seems to stop. When present in professional endeavors, they are a source of gratification that far outstrips wages and other tangible benefits.

Meaning: When our personal and/or professional endeavors contribute to the greater good, they provide fuel for deep commitment. A profound sense of satisfaction accompanies the knowledge that we are part of something greater than ourselves and that our lives matter.

Accomplishment: Mastery, victories, awards, and other tangible expressions of achievement often bolster well-being whether or not they are associated with positive emotion, “flow,” or meaning. Something within us enjoys rising to a challenge and proving ourselves capable of a worthy result. We pursue these activities for their own sake.

Positive Relationships: Human beings are social animals. As such, most of the enabling conditions for building a life worth living are relationship-oriented. In the company of close friends, family, and associates, we savor everyday moments, we experience the “flow” of seamless collaborations, we find purpose for our existence, and we share our triumphs and defeats.

As an “action item” in response to this reading, I decided to avail myself of Gallup’s StrengthFinder 2.0 tool. I figure you’re never too old for a fresh round of insight! The on-line assessment identified my five “signature strengths” and provided a descriptive narrative of each one. The report also included an “action planning tool” to help me capitalize on these strengths and incorporate them into my daily routine. Well worth my investment in time and modest amount of money.

If you are interested in Dr. Seligman’s work, here are two of his signature writings:

Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD (©2002)

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD (©2011).