It is still true that, for most of the history of the discipline of psychology, academics and practitioners have focused on the minority of people whose lives are diminished by their psychological state. But most of us are not and, indeed, some are happy and flourish. Wouldn’t it be a great idea if psychologists turned their focus on understanding this and finding ways to make more of us happy and all of us more happy? That was the question posed by one man, more than any other, and that was Martin Seligman.
Martin Seligman was born in 1946 and grew up in New York. He earned his bachelors degree in philosophy from Princeton, and then moved to the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a PhD in psychology in 1967, studying learned helplessness in dogs. This is the effect whereby the majority of animals subjected to harsh treatments give up resisting and, even when they are able to escape the discomfort, they do not do so. This work, whilst seen widely as important, has been criticised on animal welfare grounds and probably could not be recreated at universities in the US or many other countries.
Seligman extended his research into the implications for people, moving on to study depression. He worked as Assistant Professor at Cornell from 1967 and was awarded a full professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, where he remains today, as Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center.
His research led him to write a major textbook on abnormal psychology that was published in 1997, a year after he was elected President of the American Psychological Association. In his inaugural address in 1998, he announced the theme of his presidency would be Positive Psychology. He wanted to move the focus onto the ways that research can be made practical in helping people to thrive and be happy. The term Positive Psychology had been coined by Abraham Maslow, a founder of humanistic psychology, which focuses on strengths and potential rather than neurosis and pathology. Maslow was a theorist who gathered little experimental evidence to support his ideas. Seligman was determined that empirical research is necessary.
Seligman is now very much seen as a leader – maybe ‘the’ leader – in positive psychology today. He is Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has authored many widely read and respected popular books on the subject, as well as scholarly papers.
His most widely read books include:
- Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (1990)
- Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment (2002)
- Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – and How To Achieve Them (2011)
Perhaps the idea that most closely attaches to Seligman is the idea of Character Strengths and Virtues, and the free Values in Action assessment of your signature strengths. This allows you to fully reflect on where your true strengths lie, based on Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s framework of six main character virtues and the three to five components of each. The six virtues and their strengths are:
Wisdom and Knowledge
- Love of Learning
- Social Intelligence
- Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence
Seligman extended this idea, by looking at what makes us happy. His simple model successfully combines the aspects of self-interest and community contribution that have divided philosophers for millennia. He argues that there are three dimensions:
A Pleasant Life
A life of comfort, pleasure and gratification is the start to happiness…
A Good Life
But to be truly happy we also need to put our strengths to work. In this way we can fully engage with what we do, and enter what Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly calls flow states. For a truly fulfilling life, however, we need…
A Meaningful Life
We acquire a meaningful life when we are able to deploy our strengths not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, for society or for ideas that we feel to be bigger than ourselves. We need to contribute. In this, of course, we can see the influence of Maslow very clearly.
In Seligman’s latest book, Flourish, we see his summary of work to date, in a simple mnemonic that points us to what he sees as the five sources of wellbeing – necessary conditions, if you like.
Positive emotion – how good you feel.
Engagement – the total immersion you get in a flow state.
Relationships – with friends, family, and society, through collaboration, care, and intimacy.
Meaning – finding something you perceive as a purpose that is bigger than yourself.
Achievement – the sense of fulfilment in achieving something for its own sake, rather than for the sake of e=positive emotion, meaning, or relationships.
Other Pocketblogs to look at…
- Kim Cameron: Positive Deviance
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: In the Flow
- Happiness – as simple as ABC?
- and just last week, we wrote about Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset
The new era of positive psychology
Martin Seligman talks about positive psychology at TED.