The Happy Heretic

Martin Seligman thinks psychologists should help people be happy. Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Dr. Martin Seligman

BY CECILIA CAPUZZI SIMON, The Washington Post, December 24, 2002 >>

Martin Seligman seems an unlikely man to lead the field of psychology, much less the rest of humanity, into the realm of human joy. The 60-year-old former president of the American Psychological Association and author of the bestselling "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment" doesn't seem particularly, well . . . happy.

He doesn't smile or laugh a lot; he's not especially warm or gregarious; his dress is subdued and professorial. Even his manner of speaking is quiet, monotone, often stern and blunt. But that, he says, is just the point.

Seligman is a "born pessimist," he says, but that doesn't mean he is not happy. When it comes to this vital emotion, Americans have it "dead wrong."

"You bought into Hollywood and Goldie Hawn and Debbie Reynolds, and you think the only form of happiness is pleasure," he says, seated in a large, richly furnished conference room at the Gallup Organization's headquarters on F Street NW, where he hosted the First International Positive Psychology Summit in October. Americans, he says, generally pursue a media creation of happiness that is all about superficial trappings and transient pleasures. These may make us feel good temporarily, but they don't lead to true "gratification" -- the kind of happiness Thomas Jefferson or Aristotle wrote about and the sort Seligman believes we can all pursue. In reality, he says, many of us are just "fidgeting until we die."

The antidote, says Seligman, is Positive Psychology, his effort to create a science of higher happiness and a program to help people achieve it. Positive Psychology corrects a long-standing imbalance in the profession, he says.

Before World War II, psychology had three missions: cure mental illness, improve normal people's lives and identify and nurture high talent, he says. But with the return of so many emotionally traumatized soldiers after the war, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) made available millions to help treat them. This push advanced our understanding and treatment of mental pathology, Seligman says, but in the process psychology abandoned its more positive missions.

The time is right, says Seligman, to get the profession back on track.

For one thing, the unprecedented material comfort of the 1990s has allowed people the luxury of looking beyond fulfilling basic needs and thinking instead about how to make life worthwhile. And, in Darwinian terms, Seligman and others believe that positive emotion serves an evolutionary function that can "broaden intellectual, physical and social resources." Humanity, he says, is now "on the threshold of an era of good feeling."

Even Seligman wonders, in his book, if people will think he's been "smoking something."
Positive Psychology is built on the idea that to be truly happy, people must draw on what Seligman and his cadre call "signature strengths" -- such as integrity, critical thinking, street smarts, love of beauty, kindness, perseverance -- to re-craft their lives and become immersed in work, play, parenting, even acts of altruism. His book outlines the movement and his view of human potential, grounding his argument in research about optimism, longevity, hedonism and quality of life. Some of the work is new, but most has been around for years without being gathered and evaluated under one title.

Mostly the book is a self-help manual meant, as Seligman says, to "give psychology away" so people can benefit from Positive Psychology themselves.

The book provides self-evaluation tests for readers that aim to measure overall life satisfaction, motivation, optimism, gratitude and other personality traits. Most important, Positive Psychology measures the 24 signature strengths, which fall under one of six "virtues" that Seligman says are reflected in every major religious and cultural tradition: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and spirituality. A 24-part test helps a person define his or her top five signature strengths. (Every test in the book can be taken free online at, though you must agree that your results can be used in the growing database of Positive Psychology research.)

Evolution has provided humans with three roads to happiness, says Seligman: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life and The Meaningful Life. The Pleasant Life comes closest to what Americans typically mean when they think of finding happiness -- using the senses to experience pleasure. But the "pleasures," as Seligman calls them, have limitations. They gradually lose their power -- people need larger doses to get the original kick or find themselves on a treadmill moving from one to the next to keep feeling good. And a person's ability to experience them is constrained by genetics -- some just don't feel the "tingles," as Seligman says. As with a person's weight, research shows that an individual's happiness level usually centers on a set-point, so that even someone who wins the lottery and feels extreme joy, or a paraplegic at first devastated by his disability, will eventually move back close to his previous degree of happiness.

(As for money's role in happiness -- we know you were about to ask -- Seligman and others suggest that once one's basic needs of food, shelter and safety are met, there is little correlation between money and happiness.)

The higher forms of happiness -- achieving satisfaction and contentment -- require taking paths leading to The Good Life and The Meaningful Life. It is in these pursuits that one needs to use signature strengths. You don't have to be genetically predisposed to happiness to succeed on these paths, Seligman says. They are based in the experience of "gratification," which is what "arises when you use your strengths and virtues" in life's activities, whether they be working at a job, appreciating music or rock climbing. Gratification in turn results in "flow," the state of total absorption in an activity or intellectual endeavor when, as Seligman says, "time stops for you . . . and you are one with the music." The Good Life is achieved through obtaining flow in work, recreation or other activity; The Meaningful Life is achieved through service to others.

The theory sounds good, but what does it mean in a practical sense? Positive Psychology, Seligman says, can have clinical applications and indeed he hopes that psychotherapists ultimately will use it as "another arrow in their quivers" when treating the mentally ill. But mostly Positive Psychology is for the "relatively untroubled" majority of people who want more from themselves and from life.

Writing about Positive Psychology is only the "first tier" of his mission, Seligman says. The second is to devise ways to get people using it. Some 40,000 people have visited the Authentic Happiness Web site, for example, and Seligman has begun to target visitors with e-mails that offer advice on how to employ their signature strengths.
For example, one mailing to those who scored high in appreciating beauty and striving for excellence suggested that they avoid stressful or mind-numbing commutes by driving more scenic routes. (Well, it's a start.)

The third tier requires building a Positive Psychology "infrastructure," as Seligman calls it. He is consulting with "CEO types" about ways to profitably connect healthy people interested in Positive Psychology's benefits with credentialed life coaches -- perhaps they are psychotherapists who convert their practices into quests for happiness -- who can help those healthy people achieve their goals.

Seligman and other psychologists who studied positive emotion and human strengths have been making some inroads by targeting children through character-education programs in schools and advice books for parents. Seligman just won a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to go into the Swarthmore-Wallingford school district in Pennsylvania and test a ninth-grade language arts program developed to promote the study of human virtues and strengths through classic literature.

C. R. "Rick" Snyder of the University of Kansas, one of the founders of the movement, says positive traits can be taught. He, Scott Huebner of the University of South Carolina and others are working on implementing character education programs in schools, but hope that such techniques will go beyond teaching children how to capitalize on their strengths.

"To me, Positive Psychology broadens the way we look at people," Huebner says. "The world is such a mess, we need to look at ways to strengthen people to prevent problems."

Teaching these skills early is best, but Snyder, who has authored popular books for parents including "The Great Big Book of Hope" and "Hope for the Journey," says adults can learn how to manage emotion as well as children can. One way to reach everyone is to destigmatize and rethink psychotherapy.

"As a field," says Huebner, "we can do a lot more for people if we stop looking for labels that explain how to fix them. People are more likely to work on psychological function and well-being if they don't have to be diagnosed with having something wrong in the first place."

Many movements in psychology reflect the personal lives of the people behind them -- Freud, for example, famously had his issues with sex; Alfred Adler was short and saw the world as a struggle against inferiority. Martin Seligman, it seems, is no exception. He didn't always live life on the sunny side.

Seligman earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and has been a professor there since 1972. He made his mark in psychology through groundbreaking studies on depression and what he called "learned helplessness," a theory that helplessness and depression can be learned states that grow out of repeated exposure to unavoidable unpleasant stimuli.

In his experiments, Seligman gave electrical shocks to dogs and offered them no means of escape. What resulted was pathological helplessness so extreme that even when an escape route was provided, two-thirds of the dogs refused to take it.

After working on helplessness for five years, Seligman says, he began to wonder why the other one-third didn't, as he says, "lie down and become victims." That, he says, led to the question of optimism and to "defining buffers against helplessness." The research helped earn him 31st place in the Review of General Psychology's list of the century's 100 most eminent psychologists. He has authored 20 books, including the popular "Learned Optimism" and "The Optimistic Child."

The idea of positive psychology hit Seligman a few years ago, while gardening with his then 5-year-old daughter from his second marriage. He was hard at work; she was throwing weeds around and singing. He yelled at her. She called him a grouch. If she could learn to stop whining, she told him, he certainly could learn to stop being such a grump.

At that moment, says Seligman -- who was also fishing around for a mandate to characterize his 1998-2000 tenure as APA president -- his psychological view "flip-flopped."

"It was like a fork of lightning that took me out of the strange views that happiness is just the absence of sadness and that strength is just the absence of weakness," he says. "I saw I had a whole set of beliefs -- which came out of working on the worst side of life -- which were just unfounded."

The recognition that he had spent 50 years as a "nimbus cloud" -- the last few in a house filled with his four young children and "radiant with sunshine" -- caused him to examine his own reference point. (Seligman has two older children from his first marriage.) He had succeeded in life, he determined, not because of his grouchiness, but in spite of it.
And, in suddenly noticing his daughter's perspicacity, he realized that his role as a parent was not to correct her weaknesses, but to nurture her strengths -- in this case her "social intelligence" and ability to "see into his soul."

That same logic, he decided, should be applied to psychological practice and research. Why, Seligman wondered, wasn't psychology paying attention to the 80 percent of the population that isn't depressed or suffering from mental illness? And for those who are depressed, why had psychology's goal been merely to get them to a neutral state? In the garden with his daughter that day, Seligman saw the light.
And it made him happy.

Seligman's idea to shift psychology's focus made many others happy, too. Given his stature and platform, he was able to gather some of the best minds in the field, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at California's Claremont Graduate University who coined the term "flow" and authored a book on the subject with the same title; Ed Diener of the University of Illinois, who has spent 20 years studying subjective well-being (his term for happiness); Christopher Peterson, an expert on hope and optimism at the University of Michigan; and Rick Snyder. Seligman whisked them off to Akumel, Mexico, a cheerful spot in the Yucatan (the trip has been an annual event for the last four years), and there they developed a charter for the Positive Psychology movement.

Seligman's efforts attracted money from enthusiastic, sympathetic parties, $25 million to date, to initiate research and spread the word. This includes grants from the Gallup Organization and the Department of Education and, especially, Sir John Templeton, an 88- year-old billionaire philanthropist concerned with questions of religion, humanity and the soul.

With the Templeton money, Seligman established an annual $200,000 series of awards for young psychologists turning out the best research in Positive Psychology. It is an unprecedented sum in the field, and the prize is not without its critics, who question whether Templeton's preoccupation with exploring his Christian tradition and metaphysical doubts have any place in science.

Some also wonder if the Templeton money and Seligman's lofty perch (not to mention psychologists' tendency, according to some in the field, to jump on bandwagons) are the engines driving Positive Psychology. But by pulling together the threads of compatible research, using his considerable skills at organizing and motivating the psychological community and acting on his savvy reading of the times, Seligman has managed in four years to create a substantial movement. He says the recent international summit in Washington had three times the applicants for its 280 spots. By one estimate, as many as 1,000 practitioners define themselves as Positive Psychologists.

John Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and a noted researcher on emotional intelligence, adds another explanation: Positive Psychology appeals to the idealism of young people in the field.

The Templeton Positive Psychology Prize is awarded annually to four researchers in the social sciences who are under 40 or who have spent less than 12 years in the field. The focus on young people is a conscious strategy to "change the establishment," says Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the first-place winner in 2001. The awards are divided into a personal stipend and a grant for further research. First- place winners, for example, receive a $100,000 prize, $30,000 of which is for personal use.

Haidt's work is typical of other awarded research, and explores what happens to people physiologically when they perform acts of kindness. Haidt identified these feelings -- often felt in the chest or as chills, or as changes in patterns of heart rate and breathing - - and isolated them to the vagus nerve. He calls this phenomenon "elevation," a term that Jefferson -- who founded the university where Haidt conducts his research -- used to describe his version of happiness.

Suzanne Segerstrom, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, this year's first-place winner, also studies the mind-body connection and has determined that optimism has a positive effect on immune system function.

With the Templeton awards, the Akumel summits, a Positive Psychology summer institute and now the first international summit, young psychologists say, Seligman has invigorated the field. "Marty needs to take the lion's share of the credit," says Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, a 2001 Templeton winner who studies what he calls "classical sources of human strength." "There have always been people studying pleasure, optimism and gratitude, but no one created the opportunities for these areas of research to influence each other. He's producing something bigger than the sum of its parts. We're thinking better together."

Some aren't so sure. Critics worry that Positive Psychology's momentum has resulted in faddish hype.

The most vocal had been Richard Lazarus, an emeritus professor at University of California at Berkeley noted for his work on coping (and Number 81 on the most-eminent psychologists' list). Until his death in November at age 80, he conducted a not-so-positive exchange with Positive Psychologists in a scholarly journal called Psychological Inquiry. In an interview for this article a month before he died, he dismissed the research supporting it as not rigorous enough, and he derided the movement as "happiology," led by "zealots and simplistic thinking."

Academic researchers' rush to publish, he said, inflamed by the Templeton money and prize, may be driving the enthusiasm to explore the field. The danger is akin to the debacle created when the medical community prescribed hormone replacement regimens to menopausal women before they had adequate longitudinal research that evaluated its effects. In that case, "optimism preceded the science," Lazarus said.

Diener says there is room for criticism of the movement. And he is aware that "we have to be critical and stay based in science and not rush out into a Pollyanna world."

Others worry that Positive Psychology plays to Americans' cultural emphasis on happiness, entitlement and self-actualization, and could become just another temporary salve, like antidepressant medication, in our efforts to "sweep depression under the rug."

Ilene Serlin, a humanistic psychotherapist who treats a lot of unhappy young Silicon Valley executives in her private practice in San Francisco, agrees: "The rush to normalize people in a dysfunctional culture is a problem. You should be depressed by what you see. It's only when you don't numb yourself that you feel outrage."

Julie K. Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of "The Positive Power of Negative Thinking," says Seligman has a "pull-yourself-up-by-the bootstraps" message that she finds troubling. "I don't know what his book has to say to the mother pushed off welfare, and then to the society who thinks that all she has to do to be happy is to think in the right way."

Seligman, who has studied suicide and other aspects of death in Africa, says he is not unaware of suffering. But there is an "ahistoric reality" at play in modern culture, he says. The Washington area sniper attacks may have made us unhappy and nervous, but they are not in the same ballpark as Stalin, he says. The stock market isn't at 150, it's at 8,500.

"Every statistic measuring well-being in the last 50 years has gone north," he says. "But measurements of morale have gone south." The reason, he says, is because people focus too much on a mood system based on daily hassles. "So if you've got a hole in your swimming pool liner, you'll be just as troubled as if you're worried that the Nazis are going to come and take your child away."

When you feel depressed and anxious, he says, "you can function in spite of it" by drawing on your strengths. He points to historical figures he admires -- Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt -- known to have had problems with depression but who lived great lives of meaning anyway.

And so Seligman plods positively onward, despite the criticism in the field.
"I think this mission I'm on is working," he says. "I think the world will be better for it."

"Why, Seligman wondered, wasn't psychology paying attention to the 80 percent of the population that isn't depressed or suffering from mental illness?"