Q&A: Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman on the Good Life

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These days Martin Seligman, author of the best-selling book Authentic Happiness, is perhaps best known as a father of positive of psychology — the study of people’s strengths and virtues, rather than on pathological behavior.

But, previously, Seligman’s work focused on “learned helplessness” — when people or animals learn helpless behavior as a result of exposure to powerful experiences over which they have no control. That research spawned thousands of related studies and helped researchers better understand the basis of depression. It was also used by the Bush administration to help devise its torture policy. Currently, Seligman is working with the military to develop strategies to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and improve soldiers’ psychological health.

His new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, offers ways to move beyond simply seeking good feelings to pursuing a better life.

You are one of the founders of “positive psychology” and yet you say in your new book that focusing solely on the positive emotion of happiness as a foundation for a good life isn’t enough. What do you mean?

Happiness or subjective well-being is just one of the ends we want in life. We asked the question, “What else do we choose to do, what else north of indifference is there, for people who are free, that they might do for its own sake?”

I argue that happiness is only one of five [free motivations]: we also do things for meaning and purpose, even if that brings no happiness. I’ve met people who said that Mother Teresa was a miserable cuss — she did her work even if it brought no smiles and satisfaction.

Another [motivation] is engagement — that’s the [experience] of being totally engaged in what you’re doing, which blocks out all other feeling and thinking. We also want relationships, even if they bring none of the other experiences. And, finally kicking and screaming, I got dragged into [accepting that the last one] is winning or accomplishment.

[We abbreviate it as PERMA.] P is positive emotion, E is engagement, R is relationships, M is meaning and A is accomplishment. Those are the five elements of what free people chose to do. Pretty much everything else is in service of one of or more of these goals. That’s the human dashboard.

You also said that you felt that focusing just on feeling good also meant that people with depression or other problems were left out.

One of things psychologists used to say was that if you are depressed, anxious or angry, you couldn’t be happy. Those were at opposite ends of a continuum. I believe that you can be suffering or have a mental illness and be happy — just not in the same moment that you’re sad.

What convinced me, actually, when I first went into the positive psychology field about 15 years ago, was this: I thought that the correlation between being depressed and happy would be -1.0. [In lay terms, that means they’re opposite; you can’t be both.]

There are about 20 studies and the correlation is only -0.2. There’s plenty of room to both be depressed and have high positive emotion — and not be bipolar.

We’re trying to do something liberating by saying even if you [are depressed], you don’t get consigned to the hell of unhappiness. You can have meaning, accomplishment, engagement and good relationships, even if you are dull on the positive affect side.

So what can we do to get more PERMA?

If you have people recognize the catastrophic thoughts that [arise] when they encounter a situation they don’t like, and [give them ways to] realistically argue against them, you can systematically move pessimism into optimism. With long-term follow-up, we see that doing so prevents depression.

It’s very much like cognitive therapy. I think the mechanism of action seems to be changing hopelessness into hope, teaching people to recognize their most catastrophic thoughts and realistically argue against them.

If you have people every night write down three things that went well that day [and examine why], six months later people have [more happiness and less depression].

On the relationship side, if you teach people to respond actively and constructively when someone they care about has a victory, it increases love and friendship and decreases the probability of depression.

If your spouse comes home and she has been promoted, it’s a bad idea to say, “You know what tax bracket that will put us into?” as opposed to, “Let’s relive it! What did your boss say and why do you think you got the promotion?”

There are now about 12 to 18 exercises in the PERMA literature that are documented to increase [flourishing]. It’s important that you actually do these exercises, [rather than just think about doing them]. Some of the exercises are cognitive, like thinking about three things that went well today. Others are more about doing, things like actually making a “gratitude visit” [seeking out and thanking people for what they’ve done in your life] or being active and constructive with people you love. It’s not just head stuff, it’s also action.

It seems to me that the “R” in PERMA — relationships — is often neglected in American society.

One of my worries about America is the epidemic of depression we’ve been in. One of the possibilities about that is that the I gets bigger and bigger and the we gets smaller and smaller. Our kids [often] don’t have rich relationships, which can be the furniture to sit in when you are thwarted as an individual. We have threadbare spiritual and relationship furniture.

(More on TIME.com: Why Are College Students Reporting Record High Levels of Stress?)

What role does persistence play in achievement?

There are some people who just never give up. When we look at grit, which is on the extreme end, and self-discipline, which is mild, [as contributors to] academic achievement and GPA, the self-discipline variables are about twice as important as the so-called talent variables like IQ.

[One of my colleagues] looked at finalists in national spelling bees for two years. She gave them IQ and self-discipline/grit tests. What predicted the final four was not IQ but self-discipline and grit.

You have been attacked because people say that your earlier work on “learned helplessness” was used to design torturous interrogations.

I spent my whole life trying to find ways to break up learned helplessness. That’s what my work has been devoted to. I’m vehemently against torture. When the U.S. army asked me what techniques could help prevent our soldiers and diplomats from giving up, I was happy to tell them.

You are working with the military now to train soldiers to be more resilient and to try to reduce rates of PTSD. What are you teaching them?

Essentially, we teach PERMA. There are three basic elements of our course. The first is mental toughness, which is teaching optimism. The second is strengths, teaching people [to discover their strengths] like kindness and fairness. The third part is social skills like active constructive responses.

We’re after increased performance of soldiers and decreases in PTSD, suicide and the like. We just graduated our 4000th drill sergeant.

(More on TIME.com: Why the Happiest States Have the Highest Suicide Rates)

What new directions are you taking your research in now?

The basic rock bottom premise of psychology for the last 150 years is that we’re driven by our past. Positive psychology has come to convince me that we’re drawn into the future.

I’m very interested in what is called “prospection.” As we’re talking now, what you’re doing is thinking about how you can write this up, whether to use or reject what I’m saying now. Lots of human activity is making mental simulations about the future, [or prospection]. I’ve been writing something on the ubiquity of prospection and arguing that the basic premise that humans are driven by past is wrong.

I’m all for past influences, the question is whether they are deterministic. Freud and the behaviorists argue that what we are at any given moment is billiard balls whose past determines our future course. That doesn’t take into account that we are forever generating internal representations of positive futures and choosing among them.

(More on TIME.com: Why Spamming Your Friends With Cute Kitties Is Good Karma)

To the extent that our child-rearing and therapy is based around reliving the past as opposed to making people better about thinking about the future, that’s a revolutionary thing I’m after — getting our therapists and teachers to make patients and children much better at prospection and letting go of the idea that we are prisoners of our past. We haven’t been good at teaching people to be good [evaluators] of possible futures.

The past certainly influences what we are, but I think we’ve had 150 years of social science and are still unable to predict what you’re going to do tomorrow by asking what you did yesterday.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.