Book talk. While certainly a part of well-being, happiness alone doesn’t give life meaning. What is it that enables us to cultivate our talents, to build deep, lasting relationships with others, to feel pleasure, and to contribute meaningfully to the world? Discover the five pillars of well-being identified through years of Martin Seligman's research.
Martin Seligman on Flourishing, Public Policy, and the Army
Martin Seligman: Can you hear me? The question I wanna ask today is how well is our nation doing, how well is the planet doing. I wanna pose at least the parameters of what the answer would look like.
For about 150 years, we’ve been measuring GDP and allied indices to ask the question how a nation is doing. I wanna suggest to you that that was a good first approximation to how we were doing during the industrial revolution, but in the last 80 years or so, it’s increasingly diverged from the way you would think intuitively about public policy in a nation.
Every time there’s a suicide, the GDP goes up. Every time there’s a divorce, the GDP goes up. GDP is just the utilization of goods and services. Every time there’s an automobile accident, the GDP goes up.
As many of you know, economists unhumorously call these regrettables. I’m gonna suggest to you that there is a better way of measuring how we’re doing. I’m gonna suggest to you that it is the well-being, the global well-being of a nation.
So, here’s an outline of what I’ll do over the next 35 or 40 minutes. I’m gonna talk about well-being as a national goal. Then I’m gonna ask the question well what is that and what is it we should be measuring and building.
I’m gonna suggest to you that well-being has five elements. I call them PERMA. As some of you know, I used to work on – well I spent most of my life working on misery, but about 12 years ago when I was president of the American Psychological Association, I began to ask the question and urge my colleagues to about what makes life worth living. What’s the difference between alleviating disabling conditions and building enabling conditions.
So I’m gonna be talking about the building of enabling conditions. Just as a metaphor, that’s an important difference. I grew up thinking this is a tradition in psychotherapy that if you somehow relieved all of your patients depression, anxiety, anger, you’d get a happy person and I never did.
When I was lucky enough to be able to do that, I got an empty person. That’s because the skills of building relationships, positive emotion, meaning in life are almost completely different from the skills of getting rid of the dysphorias.
So I’m gonna suggest to you that there are five elements that make up well-being, PERMA. Positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. I’ll be talking about what we know about those things and the quantification.
I’ve spent my life working with individuals. So, the question about thinking about even dyads of people gives me a headache. So, I’m really on quite unfamiliar ground talking about the question of a nation or a planet.
Where I come from has to do with the individual measurement of PERMA. But about two years ago, two Cambridge researchers asked the question, “Can we quantify every country in the European Union about how they’re doing on flourishing and well-being?” I’ll show you some of their data, which I think pointed the way for me.
Then I’m going to, having said that one can measure well-being by variables like PERMA, I’m gonna ask can you build it or is well-being like your waistline. One of the problems about interventions in psychology is for the most part, the interventions that have been touted have temporary effects, both true of psychopharmacology and psychological, but they’re all like dieting.
You probably know dieting is a scam. It’s a $50 billion American scam and that is to say that any of you can lose about 5 percent of your body weight in 3 weeks by following any diet on the bestseller list. I did the watermelon diet. I lost 20 pounds. I had diarrhea for three weeks.
But the problem is that 80 to 95 percent of people regain all that weight or more. So the question of building well-being is a question can you permanently lastingly change your well-being as an individual and lastingly change it for an organization, a nation or a planet. I’m gonna suggest to you that that might be so.
To do that, what I’ll do is very quickly take you through one of the scientific investigations with individuals for each of the PERMA elements which build it. I’ll do this for positive emotion, for engagement, for relations, for meaning and for accomplishment. Then I’m gonna ask the question okay, maybe we can measure well-being by PERMA, maybe we can build it in individuals. Can we build it in anything larger than individuals.
So I’m gonna talk about schools around the world and then I’m gonna talk about the second largest organization employer in the United State, the United States Army. I’ll say something about how to measure it and then conclude with why this is a good goal. So that’s what I’ll do in the next 30 minutes.
So I’ve argued that flourishing well-being is what non-oppressed human beings choose to do is defined by five different elements that attempt to be exclusive and exhaustive. The first is positive emotion. What’s usually called happiness. The hedonics. The second is engagement.
How many of you were at my talk an hour ago? Okay. So I won’t tell the same joke. That’s being completely absorbed in – well my one joke is that about 70 percent of you look like you’re totally absorbed with what I’m saying. The other 30 percent of you are having sexual fantasies. That’s the joke for the day. [Laughter]
So I’m very interested in the question when does time stop for people. When are they in flow. When are they one with the music. That’s engagement. Good relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
The good news about each of these is each of these is measurable and becoming increasingly sophisticated in measurement. One of the great attractions of GDP is that we sort of know what to measure, Sterling or dollars. If 25 years ago I had suggested in public policy that we should measure well-being, everyone would have laughed and that’s because there were no good measures of well-being. Now there are good measures of well-being that are reliable and valid. I’ll talk about that a bit.
Each of these is teachable. It turns out there are interventions at the individual level which grow in the individual lives; positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. I’ll take you through a bit of this.
Oh, interesting. One of the things we’re very interested in is massive dissemination of interventions. It turns out each of these is gameable. You can create video games around each of these, which is interesting. It’s not my topic today.
So my Cambridge colleagues went to 23 of the 26 European Union nations; 2,000 adults per nation. They essentially asked the PERMA questions. They set criteria for nations doing well by flourishing. As you can see, as in most surveys of this sort, Denmark, about 33 percent of the adults are flourishing; the UK, about 17 percent, and the former Soviet Union states are down below 10 percent on positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment variables.
So that suggested to us that perhaps we could measure and build this across the European Union and in organizations and across the planet. So mostly what I wanna do in the next 20 minutes or so is tell the story of what’s been done in this work in progress.
The research all comes from work with individuals. In my research career, I spend a lot of time doing random assignment placebo controlled studies with drugs and psychotherapy. So ask the question what psychotherapies and what drugs really made people less miserable.
Then 12 years ago, when I started to work on positive psychology it was apparent that the same kind of methodology, random assignment placebo controlled testing, could be asked of the positive side of life. So what we do and what I’m gonna present in just a couple of minutes, is the kinds of studies that are validated for PERMA on individuals.
So let’s start with positive emotion. Barb Frederickson and Marcelle Losada went to corporate meetings, 60 different corporations. Some were flourishing economically; others were stagnating.
They asked the question by recording every word that was said in the business meetings, “Is there a ratio of positive to negative words that correlates with economic flourishing?” The answer is yes. It turns out that the ratio is about 2.9 to 1, but above that corporations are flourishing; below that you see stagnation.
Don’t take the 2.9 to 1 home with you. So other psychologists, John and Julie Gottman, look at marriage. They lock people in an apartment for the weekend. They record everything that’s said. They measure the ratio of positive to negative words and they predict divorce. If the ratio is worse than five to one, it predicts divorce. So the 2.9 might work in your company, but not in your marriage.
I guess I should say something about teenage. My daughter, Nicki, who’s not here, I came home one night. I just heard about Barb’s Losada ratio and I excitedly explained it to all my kids. About 11:00 that night, Nicki, who at that time was about 16 measuring in teenage entitlement, came up to me and wanted me to drive her to a party. I shouted at her and said, “No, Nicki, I’m working. Go do your homework.” And she said, “Daddy, you’ve got a terrible Losada ratio.” [Laughter]
Which is to say we wanna ask the question which is different in a childrearing setting what is the right Losada ratio for the future, but that’s the sort of thing people look at in positive emotion.
Signature strengths, engagement I mentioned last time. That is if you go to that website you take the signature strengths test. You find out, for example, your highest strength is playfulness and humor. Then you get assigned to do an exercise with something you don’t like doing at work using playfulness and humor, using your top strength.
So one of my students at Penn studied in the library till midnight. He then had to take a 45-minute walk to 52nd and Baltimore through some of the most dangerous part of west Philadelphia. It was the worst part of his day.
His assignment was to use his highest strength to transform what he didn’t like doing into something fun. His highest strength was humor and playfulness. So he got a pair of roller blades and a stopwatch, transformed it to an Olympic event. Every time tried to better his best personal time. After about a week of this, this became one of his favorite activities during the day. So that’s an example of the kind of thing people do to increase engagement.
Relationships I mentioned last time. Most of you heard. This is the question which arose out of marital therapy in which rather than teaching people how not to have the same fight, the question of how do you celebrate when something good happens to your spouse. So this is active/constructive responding in which your spouse comes home with a promotion.
You can do active/destructive, which is, “You know what tax bracket that’s gonna put us into?” You can do what I used to do until I read this literature, passive/constructive, which is, “Well done, dear. You deserve it.” Had no effect.
Passive/destructive, “What’s for dinner?” Or what we now train people to do is active/constructive and that is, “I’ve been reading your reports for the company for the last year. The report you wrote three months ago on the pension plan is the best single report I’ve read in my 25 years of business about fiscal matters. Please relive this with me. Exactly where were you when your boss told you you had been promoted? What exactly did he say?”
So there’s a script of active/constructive, which has been shown to increase love, engagement and decrease divorce in marriage. So that’s an example from relationships.
From meaning, the M in PERMA, we have people – meaning for us is belonging to and serving something bigger than the self. We have people write down their vision of what a positive human future would be and then write their obituary through their grandchildren’s eyes about what they did to increase the likelihood of a positive human future. So that’s another exercise that builds meaning.
Accomplishment is of great interest to me. Angela Duckworth is the genius in this area. She has a questionnaire, which she calls grit, which is the question, “Who never gives up?” By the way, all of these questionnaires are available for free at AuthenticHappiness.org. So any of you who work in this, you’re welcome to use them.
Angela went to West Pointe, predicted by the grit scale who would not dropout, who would get the highest grades. Then she went two years in a row to the national spelling bee. She took the 172 finalists in Washington both years. She measured IQ and grit and both years predicted the four finalists by grit.
By the way, we’ve very interested in playing off IQ against grit. In general, we find out with children that self-discipline and grit account for about twice as much of the variants in academic success as IQ.
So that’s a flavor for the kind of research that goes on in positive psychology.
So then the question is can you do something beyond individuals with these interventions. So, starting about a decade ago with NIMH and the Department of Education, we began to go to classrooms around the United States and teach children the kinds of techniques that I mentioned here. There’s something called the Penn Resilience Program.
We found that when we taught children these techniques and followed them for a couple of years into puberty, we typically take 10 to 12 year old children, teach them the resilience techniques I’ve talked about and then for 12 weeks, 90 minutes a week and then measure their depression, anxiety and conduct through puberty.
In general, we found in 21 replications that learning these techniques in middle school roughly have the likelihood of depression as kids went through puberty. When we started to do this, it was just my graduate students who did it and we knew that that wouldn’t be very disseminable. So we built a course for teaching teachers to do this. We found statistically that teachers did at least as well as my graduate students with two-year follow-up.
Then Geelong Grammar School in Australia, which Prince Charles is an alum, a very wealthy Australian school three years ago said, “We’ll give you the whole school. Teach all of the teachers and they will teach the students.” So Geelong Grammar’s been doing this.
In the UK there are three local authorities involving about 100 schools in which they take their teachers. They send them either to the University of Pennsylvania or we do courses in England and then we follow their students for the next couple of years.
We’ve been finding in general that when teachers learn the sorts of techniques that I mentioned briefly before that up to two years later the students have less depression, anxiety and better conduct. So that’s the story in schools. And that’s what I just said.
Here’s some representative data. This is a study in which we took positive psychology and we embedded it into ninth grade literature. Those of you who have kids that age probably know the ninth grade canon is Death of a Salesman, Romeo & Juliet, Lord of the Flies. It’s one tragedy after another. [Laughter]
Given the epidemic of depression, it’s interesting what the canon is, but what we did was to randomly take four of the courses, leave them as usual, take four others and embed the exercises into literature. Then the kids were followed through the end of high school.
Blindly rated by teachers who don’t know what they’re from, we found that kids who had gone through literature with positive psychology had better social skills, more zest for learning and their writing and grades for the non-honors group – the honors group is all getting grade inflation 4.0,m but in the non-honors group, they did better academically.
So that’s where we were about three years ago when George Casey, the chief of staff of the United States Army invited me to the Pentagon and I’ll relate the story of what happened.
He said, “Dr. Seligman, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce, substance abuse. What does positive psychology say about that?” I said, “Sir, the reaction of human beings to extreme adversity like combat is bell-shaped. On the left hand side of the curve, you have people who fall apart. I recommend that you continue to devote $5 billion to $10 billion a year treating such people, but the Army, sir, is not a hospital. The Army is about producing fitness.
What you should know about reaction to adversity across the human spectrum, in the great middle of the bell are people who are resilient. What resilience means operationally, these are people who go through a hard time, but three months later are back where they were before on psychological and physical measures.
On the extreme right hand side of the curve is post-traumatic growth. People of whom _______ said if it doesn’t kill me, it makes me stronger. These are people who go through often a terrible time in combat, but a year later by our psychological measures and physical measures are stronger than they were a year ago.
So my recommendation is that you move the entire distribution toward resilience and growth whereupon two things happen,” one of which was amazing. General Casey said, “I’ve decided to create an Army that is just as psychologically fit as physically fit.”
He ordered, unlike what all of us do in which we try to cajole our colleagues into doing things, he ordered that from that day forward, positive psychology and resilience would be measured and taught throughout the 1.1 million person United States Army and allocated $115 million to it.
Then he said, “I wanna tell you about your role, Dr. Seligman. The general staff has read your stuff on schools. We find that you teach teachers these techniques and then you measure the students and you find a couple of years later there’s less anxiety and depression. Well that’s the Army model.” I said, “It is?” He said, “Yeah. We have 40,000 teachers in the Army.” I said, “You do?” l
He said, “Yeah. The drill sergeants. So your job, Dr. Seligman, will be to help us teach all 40,000 drill sergeants these techniques and they will teach them to the Army.” So now, every month 180 drill sergeants come to the University of Pennsylvania. My faculty teaches them these techniques.
I have to say that it’s nice to meet generals, but meeting these kids, they’re typically 38 year old Black and Hispanic kids who fought their way up out of the ghetto, have served 3 or 4 tours, are war heroes and I’ve gone to faculty – I was telling Joe before – I’ve gone to faculty meetings for 40 years. I’ve never met a faculty member I would trust my life to. I’ve met dozens of people I would now trust my life to.
But anyway, they’ve been trained and we’re now measuring in the entire 1.1 million Army how this is doing and I think I can give you the first presentation of any data we’ve been allowed to do.
So comprehensive soldier fitness has three elements. The first element in trying to create a psychologically fit Army is to measure psychological fitness. So every soldier, all 1.1 million of them, have taken 105 item test called the GAT, which measures emotional, social, family and spiritual fitness.
Then we ask the question, “What does this predict?” So this slide, which I just got from General Cornham, my closest collaborator – there are about 1,200 full colonels and there are about 33 of them are promoted to Brigadier General. So, the question is could we predict who would be promoted to Brigadier General and the answer is massively yes. You can look at some of the dimensions that predict it.
In Korea, this is the very first data. I think this is the first time I’ve ever shown it. We’re starting to get the data on suicide. So starting last year, we trained the drill sergeants in Korea in the techniques I’ve talked about. The drill sergeants have gradually been training the entire Army force in Korea. Korea measures the actual suicides, suicidal gestures and suicidal ideation in the whole force.
What this slide basically shows you is those soldiers who have gotten the training, account for only about 15 percent of the suicidal material. So what we’ve got here is something that looks like the first actual prevention of the suicidal spectrum I’ve seen.
One other thing I should mention and I can’t show you the data at this point. It hasn’t been cleared, but I can tell you about it. I’ve worked in the field of suicide my whole life. It is a mess. The reason it’s a mess is no one has ever had a large number of actual suicides, all of whom took the same test before they killed themselves.
Well we had 84 suicides in the Army last year, all of whom had taken the test we created. In looking at the 84 suicides versus 750,000 controls, there’s 1 thing that stands out as a robust predictor of suicide and it’s the lack of meaning in life, lack of purpose in what they’re doing in the Army.
The bottom one percent on meaning and purpose, which is the spiritual dimension, is at red flag risk for suicide. Those of you who are interested in recruiting and prevention probably understand the implications of that.
So, this is more data from the Army, all of which shows similar things. So, what I’ve suggested to you so far is that it is a reasonable objective in a large organization in an individual life and for a nation to build PERMA. The question is how to measure it. I have to say I’m not a great fan of door-to-door surveys in which you ask people how happy are you or how good is your life. So I’m very interested.
Well, let’s see. Let me back up here a bit. David Cameron, as some of you know, ran on a general well-being platform arguing that he wanted to build global well-being in the UK. I wrote him a memo about that time, which said, “It’s not the economy, stupid.”
What I argued was that in a stagnant economy, what you can build is PERMA and general well-being. So the Cameron administration has decided both to measure well-being and to hold themselves accountable for public policy by changes in well-being. So that means you have to have really tough-minded measurement.
So I’m part of the statistical advisory group to the Prime Minister. Well I’ll tell you what the main controversy is. Richard Layard, Lord Layard, good friend of mine, essentially argued, “Just measure life satisfaction.” I’ve said methodologically that just won’t work. It’s too softheaded.
If you think about an airplane, there’s no one number that tells you how an airplane is doing. It’s got a dashboard of indicators; elevation, speed, petrol and the like. Depending on the mission, you wanna measure the dashboard. So my position within the UK advisory group is I want them to measure PERMA and I want them not to just measure the P, how do you feel about your life, but the ERMA as well. That means finding subjective and objective indicators to create super-ordinate variables of well-being that tell you how a nation is doing.
One of the important endeavors in this regard comes from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I’ve been working with them for the last several years asking about the prediction of cardiovascular death. To sum up a large literature, it turns out that – let me tell you about the texture of this research.
There is a massive amount of longitudinal research in which you measure risk factors for cardiovascular death; blood pressure, cholesterol and the like. I’ve done some of that in my life, but positive health is the notion that if you hold risk factors constant and you ask things like, “Do you have a good marriage? What’s your level of optimism?”
Holding constant risk factors, subjective, biological and functional risk factors, can you predict cardiovascular death. The answer seems to be yes. That what I’ve just described, the PERMA variables over and above risk factors. So if you have positive emotion in your life, optimism, good marriage and the like, those are buffers. Those are positive health assets that buffer against myocardial infarction and myocardial death.
So it turns out that one of our interests is not just the measurement of how a nation is doing, but the health assets of the nation. To what extent does the population have PERMA and we’re interested in that question for epidemiological and prevention reasons.
Final thing that’s going on now, Gary heard about this at ________. Door-to-door surveys of well-being are expensive and very fallible, but it turns out PERMA, positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment had a lexicon. ______ there are about 2,000 words in English and about 45,000 phrases.
So one of the things we’re involved in doing is crawling through Twitter, Facebook to measure the PERMA of the world in real-time and in space and with events. So that’s part of the measurement strategy; to get better measures of well-being.
So let me conclude and then we’ve got a couple of minutes for questions. I’ve spent my life working with individuals. I’ve spent my life working with individual misery, depression, suicide and the like. About a decade ago, I got interested in the question of enabling conditions in life; what makes life worth living.
It turns out one category of what human beings who are unoppressed choose to do is PERMA; pursue positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
We then set out at individuals to ask, “Could you build these things?” The answer is there seem to be about a dozen strategies with individuals in which you can actually have more PERMA in your life and not PERMA that will go away in time.
We then asked the question, “Could you build this in large organizations, like schools and the United States Army?” This is a work in progress and the tentative answer seems to be yes. So my suggestion today about our long-term goal is we’re certainly after the alleviation of misery, the alleviation of suffering, but let me suggest to you that a worthwhile national and planetary goal is to create flourishing by PERMA in the world.
Now that’s not just making people smile and making people more optimistic. What the research tells us is that the downstream effects of having PERMA in your life are higher productivity, better health and being at peace. Thank you. [Applause]
We have about ten minutes for questions. We have microphones. So if you’d raise your hand and wait for a microphone.
I’m hard of hearing so I’ll lip-read as well as listen.
Female: I was just wondering. You said at the end about strategies to build PERMA. Can you share some of those strategies with us?
Martin Seligman: Yes. Now some people will have heard this before, but I’ll just give you a couple of examples.
So for increasing positive emotion in your life, one strategy that’s been through a tough random assignment, placebo controlled testing is every night before you go to sleep write down three things that went well today and why they went well.
So statistically six months later PERMA goes up, depression goes down. For engagement, I mentioned the guy who was afraid of the walk at home. The general exercise is go to Authentichappiness.org, take the signature strengths test. It’s free. Find out what your five highest strengths are. Then take something you don’t like doing at work and find a way to do it using your highest strength.
For relationships, I showed you active/constructive and that is to practice and learn when your spouse comes home or your kids come home or your employees at work tell you about something good that happened in their life, how to spend a lot of time building active/constructive.
So those are 3 of about 12 to 18 validated exercises. Gary?
Male: I was wondering whether there’s been much progress in having gross domestic happiness be measured in places other than Butan? I think it’s a great idea.
Martin Seligman: I think there is progress and the two leaders in this are Sarcozi and Cameron. So both of them have formed commissions in which they’ve combined some of the world’s best economists and psychologists and statisticians to ask the question about measuring what they would call gross national happiness.
I have reservations about the one number question. So I’m after gross national PERMA. I’ll actually be speaking in the House of Commons next week about the question of measuring and building in the UK. So the UK and France are leading the world now in this measurement.
Male: My question follows up on that. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has just recently announced a series of measures of national welfare to supplement or substitute for GDP 10 or 15 different things like health, education, transparency, stability in government and so forth.
I wonder if they’re tuned in on the PERMA work that Sarcozi and Cameron are doing?
Martin Seligman: Well I followed the OECD work and I’m rooting for it. Some of the people on the commissions are positive psychology people. So they know a little bit about it, but my understanding of where OECD is mostly subjective reports of life satisfaction, satisfaction with your health care and the like.
I think that’s a perfectly good first approximation to measuring well-being, but I think PERMA measured both subjectively and objectively will be a major scientific advance. I don’t think it’s reached the desks of – it’s reached Cameron’s desk, but I don’t’ think it’s reached the OECD opinion makers’ desks. One of my reasons for giving this talk, in fact.
Female: You were talking about crawling through Facebook and Twitter to measure well-being of the world at any given time. Can you share with us some of the findings and certain snapshots of _______ --?
Martin Seligman: Well this is very much a work in its infancy. Could you hear the question? Could I share – yes.
So, there’s very little. So this has really only been going on for a couple of months. So the first kind of question we’re asking is if you take the PERMA lexicon and say you’re looking at millions of Facebook or blogs and you’re looking at the Chilean miners.
So you ask the question in Chile versus Argentina, what happens to the PERMA words when the Chilean miners are rescued? So that’s the kind of thing that goes on.
Tiger Woods. So the question of taking Tiger Woods before and after the exposure of the affair and looking for PERMA and anti-PERMA words.
The Obama election. So these are the sorts of things we’re doing right now is taking things that we know, increase PERMA in the world and asking if we can improve on asking people how you feel about them by looking for the appropriate ________ in the use. The answer is tentatively it looks quite good.
Then what we’ll then be interested in is prediction. So, for example, one of the groups that I work with is Google Flu Trends. So Google Flu Trends has been interested in the question, “Could you predict contagion of flu from various indicators of Google search terms.”
So from the positive health work in Robert Wood Johnson, we’re very interested in can you predict, for example, health care utilization in the United States in advance, in time and place by different PERMA profiles. So that’s the sort of thing we’re after.
Female: What are some of the practical applications of this kind of trending in Google and Twitter and Facebook?
Martin Seligman: Well on a large scale, with the Robert Wood Johnson question, we’re very concerned with questions like why is the myocardial infarction rate in the Mississippi Delta so high. It’s the worst place in the nation.
So one of the things we’d wanna know is what is the relationship of PERMA in the Mississippi Delta compared to other parts of Mississippi. The reason we’re interested in that is PERMA is changeable, which was the theme of how can individuals have more positive emotion, more optimism, more engagement.
So if it turns out that low PERMA is correlated with high myocardial infarction, high health care expenditure, one can ask the question is it causal. Part of asking that question is to do in the Mississippi Delta what we’ve done in the United States Army and use as our target myocardial infarction or health care expenditure.
Female: Hi. Shelly Porgus from Washington, D.C. One of the things that strikes me about your work is that it seems to be applied only in developed nations. Does that mean that it’s really a technique for countries that are at the top of Mazlo’s hierarchy of needs where basic needs – it doesn’t apply to the billions of people who are living under two dollars a day in most of the world?
Martin Seligman: I think that’s a very good question and it’s one I have sleepless nights over. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts on it.
I’m very interested in the statistical relationship between GDP or individual income and life satisfaction. It turns out that up through the safety net they’re lineally related. The more money you have, the more of at least life satisfaction, the P variable, you have.
But then they separate and in the United States, for example, between $75,000.00 and $100,000.00 increases in income really don’t do much at all for life satisfaction.
So that’s a way of saying statistically I think the increase of PERMA is certainly more applicable in wealthy nations and that what we really wanna do is increase GDP in poor nations. I’m all for that, but I’m not completely content with that.
So as someone who’s spent a lot of my life working on suicide and ethno-political murder, it’s very easy to believe that in suicide or in Rwanda, that all people care about is the negative side of life, avoiding the next machete chop, but suicidal people are enormously concerned with positive variables, with the well-being of their family, with religion, with the future of the nation. The same thing is true in Rwanda as well.
So I’m not yet ready to say let’s give up on increasing well-being even in poor nations, but I am willing to say that within wealthy nations there is good reason to be interested in public policy that builds PERMA and maybe even in poor nations.
One more question.
Male: I’m from the Mississippi Delta, my wife and I. Spent the first 33 years of my life there. The one common theme today and a lot more prevalent today than when I grew up there is hopelessness. That’s the common theme in the Mississippi Delta today and that’s it.
Martin Seligman: Yes. So most of my early work was on hopelessness, optimism and pessimism. So when I think about the Mississippi Delta and suicide and talk about the P in PERMA, I’m thinking hopelessness and optimism. So we couldn’t agree more.
So again, thank you for spending your lunchtime with me. [Applause]
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