Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Learning to Flourish

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

As I’m writing about the communities in a child’s life that have a positive influence on them, I’ve been reading Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being by Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman. Seligman is the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, which has transformed my field. Historically, psychology has focused on understanding and treating maladaptive behaviors. Positive Psychology turns that around and asks, what makes people flourish? And what does it mean to achieve emotional well-being?

Seligman talks about the importance of identifying one’s strengths and style of living and then using that knowledge to move toward success. As I’ve been thinking about that, I realized something about myself. I truly love and believe in the power of people, as a whole and individually. I believe that we have the power to choose to live our lives with purpose and meaning, to live for something other than our own pleasure. In fact, in order to truly achieve emotional well-being, we must find meaning in our lives. Experiencing positive emotions through pleasure isn’t enough. Instead, we must combine positive emotion with engagement, healthy relationships, finding meaning, and experiencing a sense of accomplishment. When we do these things, we will begin to experience well-being, we will flourish.

I know, I know, that sounds so pie in the sky, right? Aren’t we just here for our own pleasure and to heck with the rest of you? I know some people who truly believe that, who scoff at Dr. Seligman, and me and others who believe that we are more than that. But here’s the thing, Martin Seligman is nothing if not a rigorous researcher and scientist of the human mind. He has conducted some of the most well designed research to study well-being, and these are his conclusions. It’s very hard to argue with the data that he has that tells us that to truly achieve emotional well-being, we must look beyond pleasure.

Are you ready to do that? Are you ready to see yourself as more? Are you ready to flourish? It’s not easy, especially if you’ve found yourself entrenched in a cycle of negativity. Maybe you’ve struggled with clinical depression or anxiety, and listen; you will still have to work on those issues. You will still need professional help to continue the work that you are doing. But there is a way forward. And it’s a way that helps you learn to identify and use your strengths.

Dr. Seligman has developed a website to help people who are seeking well-being. It’s called Authentic Happiness. If you’d like to learn more about this exciting movement, check it out. There are tons of resources to help you learn to flourish.

I’m going to be writing more about flourishing and what I’m learning about it myself. Stay tuned and we’ll explore this idea together. In the end, this is what I mean by being a world changer. When we believe that we can change the world, that we have power to make a difference, we will, as Nelson Mandela says, keep our heads pointed toward the sun and keep moving forward. We will move forward, into finding our best selves, into well-being, into making this world a better place.

3 comments on “Learning to Flourish

  1. Beth G. Wade
    May 10, 2012

    Revolutionary at the moment, but not new. Read Ecclesiastes. I think Solomon finally understood after he had tried every worldly track to finding happiness and success! Having five very different and extremely talented children opened the door for me to see strength in diversity and to really understand why it matters to be yourself and find your own strengths. Joy deep within is the serendipity that accompanies being the best using your naturally given strengths, in my opinion. More and more, I believe in the cycling of truth with the foundation being constant in Biblical writings.

  2. Beth G. Wade
    May 10, 2012

    Recently I was told that counseling must be a very depressing field because you only worked with negative, sad situations and people, but much of my work over 25 years has been with helping people identify their strengths and become all they can be based on my core belief that God created each unique individual with potential to become someone special. I am very glad to hear about the research mentioned today.

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      May 10, 2012

      It’s funny you should say that, because Seligman talks about how his work in experimental and clinical psychology was not uplifting. He started the field of positive psychology because he believed there had to be another way to approach human behavior and well-being, and it is revolutionary.

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