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Flourish: a Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

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Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

Question 1:
What alternatives to cosmetic depression drugs do you think would be effective and how could universities apply them to depressed students?

In Flourish, Martin Seligman describes two forms of medication: cosmetic drugs and curative drugs. He further explains that insurance companies can only reimburse brief treatments because a complete cure generally implies more time and cost. As a result, Seligman concludes, all psychopharmacopoeai drugs are cosmetic, palliative, and only temporary fixes. Thus, the use of positive psychology in the treatment of depressed patients is even more important. One tactic that could help in the betterment of college students is the use of a “Gratitude Visit.” In this exercise, an individual is encouraged to think of a single person who helped them in some way, but was never properly thanked. Next, the individual must write a letter of gratitude to this person, being thorough and specific in their examples of how this person influenced and affected the individual’s life. Finally, the individual must call this person and arrange for a meeting, face-to-face. At this meeting, they will read the letter, slowly and carefully, allowing a discussion of the content and their response to follow. What is the benefit of this practice? Seligman argues the results will lead the individual to happiness and less depression within a month. Among college students, this influence could majorly improve the quality of living for an entire population. Paired with other positive psychology practices, the Gratitude Visit can be curative, not cosmetic, generating long-lasting well-being among students. Further, this practice can be applied not only to depressed patients, but to any student, and thus promises a much higher increase in the levels of happiness and well-being of a population.

More and more people today resort to cosmetic drugs to fix their anxiety and depression. Seligman tells how drugs themselves do not cure people of their problems but rather mask the symptoms. It is more effective to instead build skills to deal with depression. These skills are important to those seeking to be happy and relieve their sufferings. One effective exercise is the What-Went-Well exercise.
The theory behind this exercise is that people spend more time focusing on negative events and tend to ignore the positive ones. This is natural for people because we want to think about how they happened and what we can do to prevent them from happening again. The problem with this tendency is that it sets you up for anxiety and depression. This exercise presents a possible solution to the problem. The exercise involves setting aside time each night before bed for a week. You are to write down 3 things that went well that day and for each one answer the question, “Why did this happen”?
Studies show that patients who did this exercised were less depressed and happier in 6 months if they stuck with it. With one patient, they transitioned to recording happy moments that happened every day, in order to help the patient see her life more positively. In a university such as W&L, students are often stressed and overwhelmed with school work and extracurricular. Introducing these exercises to students who seek counseling could help those overwhelmed and depressed students learn to manage and enjoy their lives.

Another alterative to cosmetic drugs, when dealing with depression is identifying one’s signature strengths. Seligman defines a “signature strength” by describing its characteristics, which are as follows: A sense of ownership or authenticity; a feeling of excitement while displaying it; a rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced; a sense of yearning to find new ways to use it; a feeling of inevitability in using the strength.
Chris Peterson, a professor at the University of Michigan has developed a series of questions which can be found on www.authentichappiness.org that are intended to target the signature strengths of individuals, providing them with clarity when evaluating themselves, in turn leading to a greater sense of self. The abridged questionnaire, found in the appendix of this book, consists of 24 questions broken down into the following 6 sub-categories: Wisdom & Knowledge, Courage, Humanity & Love, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence. Seligman then advises that after taking the questionnaire and identifying a few strengths, one should designate a time in his or her schedule to exercise one or more signature strengths and record how it makes him or her feel. This positive psychology exercise has been shown to improve happiness.
Universities might be able to issue this signature strengths survey to their students as a prerequisite to matriculation, for example during Orientation Week at Washington & Lee. Such a survey would certainly help first-year students at the very least deal with stress and avoid getting down on themselves when dealing with the initial shock that is college. Another good time to issue the survey would be during pledgeship for first-year males as well as during the job hunt for seniors. These are both very stressful times for students and can have a serious negative impact on happiness. Refocusing on strengths and exercising them would certainly be a good way for students to remain positive and maintain perspective.

Question 2:
What are the physical health benefits of well-being?

The affects of well-being are greater than their psychological influence on individuals. Well-being in individuals has proven to have physical health benefits as well. Martin Seligman conducted a study observing the influence of optimism and pessimism on learned helplessness and mastery. Findings showed that people who believed that the causes of “setbacks in their lives were temporary, changeable, and local do not become helpless readily in the laboratory,” (Seligman 189). This translates further into medical conditions including the common cold, cancerous illnesses, and cardiovascular diseas. Studying Cardiovascular Disease (CVD), the evidence supporting the aid of optimism was overwhelming. In 1986, 1306 veterans took the Minnesota Multiphasic Peronality Inventory (MMPI). Over the course of ten years, 162 of these veterans had cases of CVD. The men with the most optimistic lifestyles, had on average 25 percent less CVD. Those with the least optimism were shown to have 25 percent more CVD than average. Thus proving that greater optimism acted to protect men from CVD while less optimism made them more vulnerable to the disease. A similar test was done in the European Prospective Investigation. Here 20,000 British adults were followed for six years, during which time, 365 died of CVD. In this case, people testing high in mastery had 20 percent fewer CVD deaths, while people testing high in helplessness had 20 percent more CVD. Overall, numerous studies conclude that optimism heavily correlates with protection from cardiovascular disease. The relationship even goes as far as to overweighing risk factors like obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and high cholesterol.

Through Seligman’s study of learned helplessness we see the relationship between pessimism and helplessness. Further studies and questionnaires showed pessimism to be related to depression and underachievement. So do optimism and pessimism influence illness? Many studies show that more optimistic people have better cancer outcomes. The most recent study involving 97,253 women measured the relationship of optimism and “cynical hostility” to the prediction of illness (CVD, all-cause mortality, and cancer). Results of this study showed that pessimism and cynical hostility were both predictors of cancer. Seligman concludes from his studies on cancer literature that pessimism is a likely risk factor of cancer, though weaker than it is for CVD and all-cause mortality. In general, healthy people who have a good well- being are at a less risk for death. During the learned helplessness study, they found that those in the escapable group demonstrated that mastery strengthened the body. When adding optimism and pessimism into the equation, we see that pessimistic people are more likely to become helpless readily in the laboratory. One of the benefits of well-being then is being able to master skills of enjoying positive emotion or having meaning. This results in a more optimistic outlook, less helplessness, and a greater psychological strength to overcome illnesses such as cancer.

Colds are very common around a college campus. As it turns out, there are alternative ways to prevent colds than just taking more vitamin C or getting more sleep. Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, performed a study in which he first surveyed participants for a week in order to gauge how positive or negative their emptions generally were. Then, the participants were given a nasal spray that infected them with rhinovirus, or a common cold. Next, the participants were all quarantined for 6 days under observation. As it turned out, the participants with the higher positive emotions received much fewer colds than the negative patients. It was also found that the positive patients had much lower traces of interleukin-6, a protein that causes inflammation. Therefore, positive emotional style is the driving factor for whether or not someone contracts a cold. This is important to remember for the W&L student body. Students who remain positive despite the challenges that they face in their schedule will ultimately remain healthier than if they were to succumb to negative emotions.

Question 3:
How do Seligman’s modules on psychological fitness benefit us in our everyday lives?

Seligman was commissioned by the United States to organize a fitness program for the United States Military. Unlike the physical fitness programs already in place, Seligman’s was meant to focus on the psychological fitness of the soldiers. The practice very quickly showed improvements in the soldier’s behavior regarding themselves as well as the people in their lives. As a part of this program, Sara Algoe and Barbara Fredrickson were assigned to train soldiers how positive emotions could act as “resource builders” (Seligman 139). While the study was conducted on soldiers, it is applicable to all humans. This program is meant to translate beyond the battlefield and into everyday life. The skills cultivated travel into the work place, in relationships, and with family. In the Emotional Fitness Module, Algoe and Fredrickson encouraged the soldiers to become more aware of the times when they were happy, gave them guidance on how to increase the frequency of such events, and suggested behavior that would allow them to become good members of their own communities. The exercise is designed to allow individuals to become “active participants in their own emotional life” (Seligman 140). In doing so, these individuals are able to establish positivity in their lives, leading to their own growth and happiness. Bringing attention to one’s own ability to feel admiration, joy, pride, and gratitude, Algoe and Fredrickson empower their students to “optimize life by setting up moments of genuine positivity” (Seligman 141). Further, these positive emotions become contagious, affecting not only the students’ own lives, but the lives of those around them as well. By applying these practices not only to the military, but to people throughout the country, a transformation could be created in the well-being of people nationwide, inspiring individuals to lead more satisfying lives and create stronger, better lasting relationships.

Seligman’s modules is targeted towards building psychological fitness within the army but many of the skill building techniques in the modules could also benefit us in our everyday lives. In this day and age we are constantly connected and communicating with other people. Though this is beneficial because we can maintain relationships even when we are not with the person, it can also mean that there is more room and time for problems to pop up. Seligman points to these “thorns” as a major cause of depression, suicide, and PTSD for soldiers. Studies show that a stressful relationship event is one of the major causes of suicide. Taking this home, many people think about suicide when problems arise in relationships with loved ones. The family fitness module teaches and helps soldiers build skills to help maintain psychological fitness during the hard times of a relationship. The module lists about 20 different skills including things such as managing conflict constructively and gently, dealing with and healing from betrayal, practicing effective child discipline, skills to know when a relationship is unhealthy, and creating and maintaining shared meaning. This seems to resemble what I envision marriage counseling to be like. It is easy to see how these skills are beneficial to a soldier’s psychological health but all of these skills could benefit and help create healthy relationships in everyday life as well.

Seligman goes on to talk about how the Army brought him in to develop a psychological training program that would benefit the health of soldiers down the road with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Seligman and his team developed various modules to train these soldiers. The Social Fitness Module points out the importance of teamwork and sacrificing for others. An army unit that gets along well will inevitably be more successful than a selfish unit because the social unit will be more willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the unit. The module also teaches empathy, or recognizing the emotions of others, as well as stressing the contagiousness of emotions. While emotions like sadness and anger are certainly contagious and can rub off on the rest of the group, no emotion is nearly as contagious as happiness. Happiness and positivity are easily transferred to the other members of a group and ultimately lead to success. Consequently, social fitness definitely relates to our everyday lives in that socially fit people will generally have an advantage in working in groups, whether it is for a group project or a sporting event. Those who are able to relate to others, get along, and put team goals above individual goals will positively impact the performance of the group.

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