Avoiding the Flourishing Trap

Do you know what you mean when you say that you want to be happy? Is "happiness" too simplistic an idea? Elisha Goldstein explores the idea of flourishing as offered by Martin Seligman's new book, and offers guidance so that you can give yourself the kind attention you deserve.

In 2006, Martin Seligman came out with a book called Authentic Happiness. In the book, Seligman, the past American Psychological Association president, focused on helping us connect with what we value and cultivate our personal strengths in life and how this would lead to true happiness. Recently, he came out saying that he believes his earlier work was overly simplistic.

Now, Seligman is promoting a new book called Flourishing, which says that it’s not all about happiness, it’s about an acronym he created called PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment).

How do we flourish? The idea is to find which of these matter most to you, create a goal on how to improve this area of your life, create a plan on how to reach that goal, and then monitor your progress.

But what does it mean when Thich Nhat Hanh, a longtime Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and poet says, “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way?”

Oh boy, this can all get kind of confusing.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of writings and prescriptions out there trying to teach us to be happy, to flourish and thrive, and to generally feel well. We can point the compass in the general direction of what we believe will provide us a sense of inner peace, but there will be deviations along the way. We’ll get sick, anxious, depressed, or experience trauma.

This can lead to what I’m defining in this moment as “The Happiness Trap.” For Seligman’s book, this could also be called “The Flourishing Trap.”

In my view, we’re in danger of falling into this trap when we’re constantly striving to be somewhere else than where we are. Doing so focuses us in a gap between where we are and where we want to be, reinforcing a cycle of deficiency. The more we try to be somewhere else than where we are, the message that gets reinforced is “something is wrong with me.” It’s important to be mindful of this trap as it’s easy to slip into.

I’m not suggesting that you should stay away from titles or programs with the intention of helping you thrive, flourish or be happy; just to notice that if this trap occurs, to bring yourself back to the present moment and nurture the ability to be with the uncomfortable emotion with a kind attention. This inevitably waters the seeds of self-love, which is the foundation for feeling well. Even the happiness trap can be an opportunity to cultivate the ability to be present and loving in the midst of our personal storms. This is closer to what meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg calls Real Happiness.

I have my views of how to nurture a sense of goodness, which is a practice of self-love, being kind to myself in the difficult moments, cultivating caring relationships with others, engaging causes I believe will help others and having the belief that all of this actually lends itself to a better world. I’m not perfect at it, but I also practice making peace with my imperfections. But this is the direction of my compass, perhaps not yours, and that is perfectly okay.

The truth is you are your best teacher when it comes to this life. So whether you’re drawn to authentic happiness, flourishing, real happiness, stumbling on happiness or the happiness project, it works best when you treat all of these prescriptions as an experiment, dropping your expectations for results and just seeing what you find. If you really want to give it your best effort, it’s often most effective to surround yourself with a community of people who are trying to do the same to help sustain intention. Even if the only thing that is available is an online community.

See what works best for you and let the rest of us know. Your interaction below provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.


Elisha Goldstein is a clinical psychologist and conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger). Visit his mindfulness and psychotherapy blog on PsychCentral.com. 

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