By Martin Seligman
(Free Press, 349 pages, $29.99)
In the wake of the financial scandal, many suggestions for reforms have been put forth, among them a persistent call for business schools to spend more time teaching ethics. But famed psychologist Martin Seligman says that won't work.
He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, home to the renowned Wharton School of Business. "If Wharton graduates - MBAs who care only about making a quick fortune - are given 10 ethics courses, it will have no effect. It's a matter not of ethics, but of what they care about," he writes in his latest book, Flourish.
He has been involved in developing resilience programs with the military, and has lectured at West Point, where the cadets care about serving their nation. The students are selected - and, indeed, before that, select themselves to apply - primarily around this notion of service. "If our business schools wish to avoid the economic consequences of greed and short-termism, they have to select their students for a broader moral circle and long-termism," he notes.
Prof. Seligman is the founder of a new movement in his field, positive psychology. It focuses on what contributes to healthy mental functioning, and how to nurture that, rather than focusing on mental illness. In that vein, he wants to see a new course called "positive business," aimed at broadening what MBAs care about. It would expose them to the five elements of well-being that he outlines in this book:
This is what we feel, and for well-being it should be positive - pleasure, warmth, comfort, rapture, or ecstasy. You want what he calls "a pleasant life," with happiness and satisfaction.
This is about flow, getting wrapped up in an activity so that time seems to stop. He calls a life lived with that aim an "engaged life." Interestingly, he notes that achieving engagement can be different, if not opposite, from positive emotions. When people are in those absorbed moments of flow they generally feel nothing. He believes the concentrated attention that flow requires uses up all the cognitive and emotional resources that comprise thought and feeling. But, of course, after these moments of flow we feel good for having gone through them. The pleasure is retrospective. "There are no shortcuts to flow," he also advises. "On the contrary, you need to deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the world in flow."
Human beings want meaning and purpose in life. Prof. Seligman plays a few hours of duplicate bridge every day, which provides flow and enjoyment, elements of well-being, but when he looks in the mirror he feels he is wasting his time. "The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self," he observes.
This involves trying to accomplish goals and mastery, for the sake of accomplishment. Some of the expert bridge players he competes against simply want to win, and that is the only accomplishment that will satisfy them, even if they don't play well, while others can lose but still feel they have been successful because they played well.
Very little that is positive is solitary. "Other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up," he says. He tells of a friend, who when in a bad mood as a child would be told by his mother, "Why don't you go out and help someone?"
He shares a series of exercises that you can employ for well-being, and that would likely be part of any positive business course. For example, find one wholly unexpected kind thing to do tomorrow, and just do it. Or try a gratitude visit, thinking of someone who over the years did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Then write a letter of gratitude to the person, and deliver it in person, reading it to him or her.
He says that MBA students have to be taught that if they want to flourish, they will not get it by only seeking accomplishment. "We must teach that the positive corporation and the individuals therein must cultivate meaning, engagement, positive emotion, and positive relations as well as tending to profit," he stresses.
The book has the form of a memoir, as he guides readers through his thoughts on well-being and some of the major accomplishments in the field of positive psychology over the past 14 years. It is also written with other psychologists in mind, carefully parsing theories and providing research data. Some business readers may find it thin for their specific needs, but if you are looking for a wide-ranging discussion of this new approach to psychology, it can be engrossing.
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