Dr. Marty Seligman

28 Mar

As an undergraduate, Dr.Marty Seligman and his research on positive psychology had a major impact on not only on my academic pursuits, but on my personal life.  When Mary Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1996, he declared that he would spend his tenure at the APA on helping psychology move  away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.  This Positive Psychology model is an alternative to psychology as the “mere” prevention of distress and disorder to a model that explores human greatness. Given the opportunity to interview Dr. Seligman, I would ask him questions about his empirical findings, the creation and future of the positive psychology movement, and his own personal experience with the findings of positive psychology.

Seligman describes that “there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight,” and that in the new century, a large task of prevention will be “to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people.”

One empirical study I would ask Dr. Seligman about is a paper he wrote with with Ed Diener, entitled Very Happy People, Seligman and Diener pointed to clinical psychology’s historic emphasis on pathology, paired with a belief that understanding abnormal processes can illuminate normal processes, suggesting that an understanding of supranormal individuals can illuminate normal processes.  Knowing how happy people function may provide information to help very unhappy people combat psychopathology.   Diener and Seligman conducted an experiment on 222 undergraduates, screening for high happiness.  They compared the upper 10% of consistently very happy people with average and very unhappy people.  The findings indicated that very happy people were highly social, and stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy group; were more extroverted, agreeable, less neurotic, and scored lower on several psychopathology scales.

Compared to less happy people, the happiest did not exercises significantly more in religious activities or experience objectively defined good events.  The found that good social relations were necessary for happiness (i.e., that all happy people should possess), but found no variable to be sufficient for happiness (i.e., because for a variable to be sufficient for happiness, all people with that variable should be happy and therefore no unhappy people should possess that variable). Very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships, spend little time alone relative to average people, whereas unhappy people have below average social relationships.

They discussed that there was no single key that automatically produced happiness.  Instead, high happiness appears when a number of necessary preconditions are in place, described as “symphonic.”  The very happiest participants experienced unpleasant emotions not infrequently.  They felt happy most of the time, but had the ability to feel unpleasant emotions at certain times, which the authors suggest was functional.  The very happiest rarely felt euphoria or ecstasy, but felt medium to moderate strong pleasant emotions much of time.  They are also functional because of their ability to move up in mood with good situations and the ability to react with negative motions when something bad occurs.

I would also ask Seligman about an experiment he conducted on Harvard students about optimistic explanatory styles and long-term health. In this experiment, Peterson, Seligman, and Valliant (1988) studied 268 male Harvard students from graduating classes of 1938-1942 who had good grades, no evidence of physical or psychological impairments who were considered by the dean to be sound.  Almost all were white and had just returned from war.  They administered the Content Analysis of Verbatim Explanations (CAVE) Multiple graders coded the written response to open-ended questions for 99 men in a sub-sample and the ratings were averaged on a 1-7 composite score for explanatory style for BAD events.  From the 99 people that had lived through World War II in college and post-war, it was generally those with an optimistic explanatory style that were the healthiest.

These experiments suggests traits about what describes the happiest people.  Next, I would ask Dr. Seligman how to increase happiness.

In Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions, Seligman and Peterson (2005) analyze the effects of several positive interventions on individual happiness.   I would love to frame my interview of Seligman around these positive interventions, both empirically and through his personal experience.

One positive intervention is a positive introduction, which asks you to tell story about event in life that show your self at you very best, not regarding achievement or performance, but in strengths of character.   In Chris Peterson’s textbook, A Primer on Positive Psychology, Peterson describes “Nikki’s Story” to introduce the positive introduction exercise.  I would ask Dr. Seligman to describe this story and his insights from the experience.

Nikki’s Story is a story Dr. Seligman told to his first positive psychology class about an experience he had with his daughter.  One afternoon, while Seligman was weeding, his five-year-old daughter, Nikki, took the weeds and threw them in the air playfully.  He became angry and sent her away with an irritated impatience that he claims he often exhibited.  A few minutes later, she returned and told him Daddy, I want to talk to you.” Daddy, do you remember my before my fifth birthday?  From when I was three until when I was five, I was a whiner.  I whined every day.  On my fifth birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to whine any more.  That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grump.”

Peterson described the two realizations Seligman had at that moment.  The first was a personal insight, that raising children was not about fixing their weaknesses, but about identifying and nurturing their strengths. The second insight was what led to Seligman’s creation of positive psychology. In that moment, his five-year-old daughter made him realize that he as a parent, and that psychology as a disciple, had focused on correcting weakness instead of nourishing strength. “Psychology as it existed had little to say about these remarkable strengths.  Where do they originate?  How can they be encouraged?  To describe Nikki as not whiny is to miss her essence by a country mile.  To describe anyone in terms of the weaknesses and shortcomings they do or do not have is to ignore half of the human condition – the good half, obviously, that makes life worth living.  And yes, the garden was eventually weeded, and yes, Seligman became less of a grouch.”

In the first positive psychology course he taught at Penn, Seligman used Nikki’s story to personalize the subject, which seemed at odds with what Seligman had built a career on researching (i.e., Seligman’s most famous work had involved inducing a form of depression in dogs that he termed learned helplessness  He moved his research to findings such as learned optimism. I would ask Dr. Seligman questions about his findings on learned optimism.

Peterson describes how within that story was a positive introduction about Seligman, a father who “cared enough about his child to take her advice about life seriously. Here was a child who made a decision to be a better person.  Here was a story about people at their best.  What a good way to frame all subsequent interactions.”

The Values In Action Character Strengths and Virtues is a list of twenty-four character strengths,  which Seligman describes in the video above as strengths that have been found across cultures, nations, religions and politics; that are moral strengths: strengths that we value in and of themselves. To identify this inventory of universal strengths, Peterson and Seligman reviewed literature, cultural products (e.g., songs, greeting cards, personal ads, obituaries), virtue relevant messages (e.g., graffiti, Tarot, Pokémon), and came up with a huge list.  After getting rid of the duplicates, the criteria to narrow the strengths down were that they were ubiquitous, fulfilling, morally valued, did not diminish others, had a negative antonym, were trait like, measurable, distinct (i.e., not redundant), had paragons (i.e., were striking in some), were prodigies (early in some), could be selectively absent, and had enabling institutions.

Another positive intervention is to take the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS).  The VIA strengths survey is a 240 item questionnaire that rates in order these 24 universal strengths. Seligman developed a method to assess an individual’s top strengths, what he deemed “signature strengths.” After reading the results, the positive intervention involves using one or more of your signature strengths more frequently and more effectively in your daily life. I would want to ask Seligman what his signature strengths were, and how he used them more effectively. Seligman has described a good life as being one that consists in deriving happiness by using signature strengths every day in the main sphere of living.

In addition, I would ask Seligman about the other positive interventions and about the empirical results he described in research.  I would ask him if there are any other ways he thinks people can be happier in everyday life.  I would also ask him about forms of supranormal functioning other than happiness (e.g., genius, success, interpersonal relationships, philanthropy).  I would Dr. Seligman  him about shortcomings he and others have faced in putting positive psychology forth as an objective, empirical approach (e.g., the tendency for some to group positive psychology with pop psychology). I would ask Seligman what directions he thinks positive psychology will take in the future, and how people can become involved in the movement.


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