Martin is one of the founding fathers of the modern positive psychology movement. He has written several best-selling books, such as Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness and Character Strengths and Virtues, the latter co-written with Christopher Peterson …
Martin Seligman is one of the founding fathers of the modern positive psychology movement. He has written several best-selling books, such as Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness and Character Strengths and Virtues, the latter co-written with Christopher Peterson.
The following pages provide a brief overview of his work. The definitive version can be found at The Positive Psychology Center, which is based at the University of Pennsylvania. You can access this at:
1) Philosophy and Background.
Marty says he spent the first part of his psychological career studying misery. Partly this was because psychology adopted a ‘disease model’. It identified how people went wrong and tried to correct these failures. Partly it was because the funding for psychologists was mainly based around treating those labelled ‘sick’.
Seligman says that psychology now has many ways of helping people to overcome such challenges. But many of our institutions continue to encourage people to become passive and adopt the role of ‘victims’. Bearing this in mind, Marty moved on from treating ‘learned helplessness’ to studying ‘learned optimism’.
He asked questions such as: “Who never gets helpless? Who resists collapsing?” Such people focused on what they could control and saw setbacks as temporary.
Studying optimism was rewarding, but Marty then passed over a threshold after being elected president of the American Psychological Association. He was asked to pick the ‘themes’ he wanted to work on during his Presidency. After a period of reflection, he chose to focus on positive psychology. Several incidents led to this conclusion.
One breakthrough came after an altercation with Nicky, his five-year-old daughter. While he was weeding in the garden, she was having great fun throwing the weeds in the air. Marty sometimes got grouchy and, on this occasion, lost patience with her and shouted. Nicky looked puzzled, then asked if she could talk to him. She said:
"Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday I was a whiner? That I whined every day? Have you noticed since my fifth birthday, Daddy, I haven't whined once? Daddy, on my fifth birthday I decided I wasn't going to whine any more. And that was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."
Marty says three things happened to him as a result of that moment.
First, he realised that Nicky was right about him. He was a grouch. He could still choose to be a ‘realist’, but have a more positive approach.
Second, his ‘remedial theories’ of child rearing were wrong. Such approaches say the parent’s role is to continually correct the child’s errors and then, hopefully, the good child will emerge. Nicky, however, had corrected her own error. Marty’s role was to build on the ‘extraordinary strength’ she had just shown.
(Certainly it was vital for parents to draw lines and follow-up on the consequences, but not engage in continual haranguing.)
Third, he realised that psychology was ‘half-baked’. The part that was ‘baked’ – rigorously researched – was about victims, trauma and other ‘illnesses’. Its claim to fame was: “We can make miserable people less miserable.”
The part that was ‘unbaked’ was about the things that made life worth living. ‘Baking’ this part properly called for a much more rigorous study of ‘happiness’.
Marty decided to make this his life mission. This led to him and his colleagues founding The Positive Psychology Center. Here is a summary of the introduction to their web site. (Again, it is vital to visit their site to get the full picture.)
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The Positive Psychology Center promotes research, training, education, and the dissemination of Positive Psychology.
This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
Positive Psychology has three central concerns:
1) Positive emotions.
This entails the study of positive emotions. It covers contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future.
2) Positive individual traits.
This entails the understanding of positive individual traits. It consists of the study of the virtues and strengths, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom.
3) Positive institutions.
This entails the study of positive institutions. It covers the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.
Marty believes the word ‘happiness’ does not do full justice to the study of enriching lives, but it does provide a useful label. Bearing this in mind, here are some of the principles highlighted by him and his colleagues.
* It is possible to study three kinds of lives that bring happiness.
“What's workable within happiness are three different kinds of lives,” says Marty.
The first is the pleasant life. This consists of doing the things that give you enjoyment and pleasure. People can keep doing these things but, like taking scoop after scoop of ice cream, there may be a limit to the pleasure.
The second is the good life. This consists of knowing your highest strengths and re-crafting your life to use them more. “What you get out of that is not the propensity to giggle a lot,” says Marty. “What you get is flow, and the more you deploy your highest strengths the more flow you get in life."
The third is the meaningful life. This consists of again using your highest strengths – but employing these to serve something bigger than yourself.
So what is the magic combination? Looking at it empirically, says Marty, the fulfilling life appears to be: The Meaningful Life + The Good Life + some aspects of The Pleasant Life. In that order.
* It is possible to identify people’s virtues and character strengths.
Marty and his fellow researchers looked across various cultures to define what they see as ‘human virtues’. He says:
“When we look we see that there are six virtues, which we find endorsed across cultures, and these break down into 24 strengths.
The six virtues that we find are non-arbitrary – first, a wisdom and knowledge cluster; second, a courage cluster; third, virtues like love and humanity; fourth, a justice cluster; fifth a temperance, moderation cluster; and sixth a spirituality, transcendence cluster.
We sent people up to northern Greenland, and down to the Masai, and are involved in a 70-nation study in which we look at the ubiquity of these. Indeed, we're beginning to have the view that those six virtues are just as much a part of human nature as walking on two feet are.”
As mentioned earlier, within each virtue there are a cluster of strengths. Christopher Peterson and Marty have since published their book, Character Strengths and Virtues, which provides a complete picture of these qualities. (See illustration below.)
The Positive Psychology Center provides people with a vast number of questionnaires for identifying their own virtues and strengths. You can also find many of these at the Values in Action Institute.
* It is possible to make positive interventions that people can use to develop their happiness.
Marty and his fellow practitioners aim to go beyond collecting data. They aim to use the research: “Work to increase positive emotion and positive traits.” This has resulted in building-up a body of coaching materials, for example, that can be used to enhance people’s happiness. (A link is provided in the next section.)
So what has been the effect of Marty’s work? His books have proved enormously popular and introduced millions to the strengths philosophy.
The Positive Psychology Center has also provided a ‘baked’ – rigorous – approach to the study of virtues and strengths. In practical terms, the Center has also run many coaching programmes designed to improve happiness. Marty himself has conducted a 6 month twice-a-week course. This is aimed at coaches, clinical psychologists, teachers, professors, social workers and parents.
Participants have done one exercise a week themselves and, if appropriate, with their clients. The feedback has been good, with hundreds of case reports showing increases in happiness and decreases in depression.
Marty believes the adventure has only just started, however, and the interventions need more testing – complete with placebos and comparative measurement. You can learn more about some of the coaching tools at:
Contribution to the strengths approach
Marty is obviously one of the great figures behind the spread of the strengths philosophy. For example:
* He has put positive psychology on the map and popularised strengths with his best-selling books.
* He has promoted rigorous research that has focused on key areas such as Happiness, Character Strengths and Virtues.
* He and his colleagues have shown it is possible to make positive interventions that enable people to improve their happiness.
Finally, here is a presentation by Marty that he made at the TED conference in 2004. It provides an excellent introduction to his work on the strengths approach. Enjoy.