Martin E. P.Seligman, (Marty to his friends) one of the most influential psychologists of our times gave a talk on “Positive Psychology-the cutting edge for psychology, in Trinity College last night.
Seligman first came to prominence in the early seventies for his discovery of “learned helplessness” and its connection with depression. This was an important breakthrough, which together with the work of his colleague, Aaron Beck on linking negative emotions with `’automatic” negative thoughts, led to a radically different and empirically successful method of treatment, known as cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT challenged the more deterministic medical and psychoanalytic viewpoint , and its success as a treatment demonstrated that anything that is learned can be unlearned-one of the greatest breakthroughs for psychology in the 20th century. Seligman reasoned that if helplessness could be learned, so too could optimism and went on to write “Learned Optimism” and the ‘Optimistic Child”.
Roll on a few decades in which Seligman continued to research different treatment options for mental health problems. In 1997, a rather dramatic chance meeting with Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi in Hawaii ( Csiksentmihalyi was in difficulties in the water, and Seligman went to the rescue) revealed that the two shared a vision of creating a new type of psychology, more focused on creating happiness and investigating “what makes life worth living” for the vast majority of people.
Seligman had an encounter with his five year-old daughter, Nikki , who was interrupting him at his weeding in the garden, and he responded in a testy fashion. Nikki had been previously encouraged by her parents to ‘stop whining”. She managed to do this, but then turned the tables on her father ‘Well dad, if I can learn to stop whining, then you can learn to stop being a grouch! “.
This was a light bub moment for Seligman. He had just been elected ( by one of the largest majority’s in the association’s history) president of the American Psychological Association , and gave his inaugural speech on the theme that “psychology had lost its way’ and was focusing too much on how to fix problems rather than how to generate happiness and life satisfaction. He pointed out how all the research funding was going into treatment , with over 20,000 articles published on fixing problems, and only a handful on creating happiness. He set himself the task of forging a new direction in psychology.
He was well placed to do so: between himself, Csikszentmihalyi , and Ed Diener, happiness researcher with the Gallup Organisation, they were on the editorial boards of most of the major psychological publications. In addition, Seligman was a fantastic fundraiser, and secured major financial backing from , the U.S. Dept of Education , the National Institute of Mental Health, and private philanthropists such as John Templeton and Chuck Feeney.
In 1999, they invited a group of renowned researchers, (including Barbara Fredrickson and Sonya Lyubomirsky) to a conference in Akumal in Mexico to discuss furthering the new science of positive psychology. The conference, an “invitation only” event to promising researchers, became an annual event.
One of the most ambitious projects that Seligman together with Chris Peterson initiated, was to draw up a classification of positive human strengths and virtues, which involved much cross-cultural research to find out what strengths were universally valued. This was a reaction to the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “ of the APA , then in its fifth or sixth edition, a vast tome classifying all the varieties of human misery!
In 2003 “Authentic Happiness” was published and became a best-seller, immediately bringing positive psychology to a much wider, non-academic audience. The success of the book was in a large part due to Seligman’s informal and anecdotal style of writing, while still getting across the basic scientific research and concepts.
I first met Seligman, in 2008 at the first world conference of the International Positive Psychology Association in Philadelphia. As a founder and director of the Irish Association of Holistic Medicine, I had been involved for decades in promoting positive mental health and self-fulfillment through relaxation , mindfulness, yoga, ki massage, holistic nutrition and holistic psychotherapy, areas that were not then popular in what Seligman has called “psychology as usual”.
For me, the conference was like no other psychology conference I had ever been to. I was among people who spoke my language, it felt like coming home. Most of the delegates were American, but there were also lots from Australia, Canada, Asia, UK and Europe- there were just two others from Ireland ( one of them being my best friend, then living in Washington, whom I dragged along!) besides myself. Unusually also, there were business, education and other social scientists there, a much wider group than the normal psychology conference.
There were close to 2000 attendees at the inaugural debate between Seligman, and Phillip Zimbardo (of the famous Stanford Prison Guards experiment) on whether human nature was fundamentally good or evil. Seligman’s accessibility and affability through the conference remained constant: he was available for chats to all throughout. I would never have known, until he told the “Nikki” story that he had ever been a “grouch”!
As time went on, there was criticism of positive psychology as being too “happy clappy” and a bit unreal, a bit too focused on generating positive emotion. This was a mis-reading of the situation, as Positive Psychology was evidence-based. Even a cursory reading of “Authentic Happiness” (subtitled “using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment”)reveals that much attention was given to other areas. This was all made much more explicit in Seligman’s next book , “Flourishing” another bestseller, published in 2011 where he presented the PERMA model for “flourishing” which spelled out the importance of several dimensions for our overall wellbeing and life satisfaction:
Positive Emotion-happy feelings, pleasurable events
Engagement-total absorption in what you are doing, Flow, often involving the exercise of your signature strengths
Relationships – relationships are one of the biggest factors in our overall wellbeing
Meaning -commitment to something larger than yourself, often involving your deepest values.
Achievements – our past successes and accomplishments
Research in positive psychology has revealed a variety of evidence based techniques and exercises that can enhance our capacity on all these dimensions . These , together with mindfulness training ( another proven intervention) form the backbone of my own “Take the Steps” courses and workshops.