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So, What’s the Point, Anyway?


September 1, 2011 by Steven Worden

Okay, one morning you’re sitting at the breakfast table happily munching away on your Wheaties and one of your kids glances over at you and asks you with undisguised frustration, “What is the point of it, anyway?” Maybe it’s the second week of school and the 5th grade proves to be a little more than your child bargained for. Maybe it is the daunting prospect of mastering pre-calculus for the 10th grader. Or, maybe for an older kid, it’s the struggle to find a satisfying career in a punishing economy. But whatever its source, how do you answer the question? The noted research scientist, Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, offers one answer. Oddly enough, however, the answer seems to rehash what we already know from our religious traditions.

Seligman argues that on the basis of scientific research, we have now discovered what makes life worth living. Seligman makes this somewhat immodest claim on the basis of his extensive research in the science of “well-being.” His studies–grounded in experiments, statistical analyses, and surveys using large representative samples–have led him to conclude that what makes life worth living, and what enables us to create such a life, can be summed up in five basic factors. Seligman and his associates have tested the usefulness of these five factors and taught them in schools, colleges, and workplaces. In fact, the US Army has been so impressed by his findings that they asked him to design a course for soldiers in order to reduce the skyrocketing numbers of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. So, what are these five keys to well-being?

The first factor Seligman called Positive Emotion. Seligman and his colleagues believe that pleasure, warmth, laughter, enjoyment, delight, and ecstasy are necessary for a successful life. Some theologians such as Robert Barron would argue that nearly every religious tradition contains a provision for such delight. Seligman, of course, quickly argues that a life built around simply the pursuit of delight would be vulgar and superficial. In secular life, drugs, alcohol, and the Comedy Channel might provide transient experiences of delight, but could be scarcely considered the cornerstones for a good life. Further, some tasks and obligations may not be fun at all. Something more is needed.

Seligman said that this second factor is Engagement. Just as some people spend every available hour on the golf course, playing bridge, or writing, participants can be so enthralled in pursuing them that they enter in a feeling of “flow,” and loses track of time. When you ask a person in this state what they are feeling, they may answer, “Nothing.” That’s because they lost awareness of themselves. Again, religion scholars have argued that in meditative or contemplative states, or lectio divina, time can stand still.

Seligman called the third factor, Relationship. Seligman observed that “Very little that is positive is solitary.” Most of what we take pleasure in, take joy in, or feel pride in takes place around other people. Loneliness is apparently destructive.
Seligman even goes so far as to suggest that if you want to increase the level of satisfaction in your life in practical terms, do an unexpected kindness for someone every day. And, as the religious writer, Karen Armstrong noted, most religions to varying degrees, emphasize the importance of kindness and compassion to others. Further, being in a community of fellow believers counts as a crucial component of religious practice in most traditions.

The fourth factor is Meaning. Seligman and his associates defined Meaning as “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.” Whether in a team, a family, a school, an organization, a community, or a nation, people seem to thrive on being of service to a higher purpose. Obviously, religion generally involves a strong sense that you are in some relationship with a community and an “Other” that is worthy of reverence, be it God, the Dharma, or The Tao.

Finally, Seligman called the last piece of a life of well-being, Accomplishment. To maximize our sense of well-being we need to be testing our ability to exert mastery over a task. This can be found in school or in a career. This entails accomplishment just for its own sake, not for money or power, but just for the satisfaction of having done something well. As Paul commented, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

So when you are contently chewing your Wheaties and your kid brings you up short with a Big Question such as the “point of it all,” feel free draw upon either traditional sources or more recent scientific findings that seem to reaffirm the old truths.
Remember the acronym, PERMA: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Point out how all these factors, when in balance, provide us with a recipe for a less addicted, less depressed, and a happier life. Then, you can go on back to your sports page.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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