The Rise of Therapy's Positive Psychology Movement

Martin Seligman Injects Thinking Positively into the Therapy World

Mary Sykes Wylie

Martin Seligman reports spending much of his life as a "walking nimbus cloud enduring mostly wet weather in my soul." Former president of the American Psychological Association and about as famous as any research psychologist is likely to get, he admits he never much liked doing therapy. He usually felt relieved when sessions ended ("I was always itching to leave the room," he says) and thought he wasn't much good at therapy, anyway. So how did this admittedly depressive man of science---someone who'd rather conjure up research projects than meet real, live clients face to face---come to be known as the "father" of something called positive psychology, a movement that could change the face of psychotherapy as we know it?

For those who haven't looked at a psychology journal or even a newspaper for several years, positive psychology---the hottest new trend in the field right now---is basically the scientific study of what makes people happy and good. Its proponents believe that positive psychology not only has the potential to shake clinical research to its roots, but may directly challenge some of the most basic attitudes that psychotherapists bring to the practice of their work.

Accenting the Negative

To understand just how novel this perspective is, positive psychologists ask you to consider the field's history. For 50 years, they say, professional psychology ought better to have been called victimology, so obsessed has it been with the study of what's wrong with people--what's wrong with their emotional lives, their relationships, their physical brains, and why they fail and feel bad and do terrible things to each other.

In the meantime, what makes for good, healthy, and happy human functioning has not only been ignored, but considered an unscientific and virtually disreputable academic pursuit, like researching astrology or psychic phenomena.


Learning to Feel Good

Seligman, now Fox Leadership professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was catapulted to prominence in the field as a graduate student in the mid-1960s, when he and several colleagues discovered the phenomenon of learned helplessness in dogs. They found that dogs given shocks while restrained and unable to escape soon "learned" that trying to escape pain was futile. Even when the restraints were removed, the dogs refused to run away from the shock, or go on to learn any other tasks, but simply remained where they were, whimpering and passively enduring whatever happened to them.

If dogs can learn to feel too helpless and hopeless to make any effort to change their plight, Seligman wondered, why not people? The theory of learned helplessness---the acquired attitude that "nothing I do matters, or ever will"---along with systematic techniques for treating depression developed by psychologist Aaron Beck, gave a tremendous boost to the nascent movement of cognitive psychology, emphasizing the vital role thinking played on subsequent feeling.

For Seligman, the next step after developing the concept of learned helplessness was obvious: if people can be taught to feel bad, perhaps they can also be taught to feel good. He began work on what would be his real vocation: not just studying optimism and well-being, but devising successful methods for teaching the skills of optimistic thinking to potentially depressed adults and children.


The Science of Happiness

What sets Seligman apart is his determination to ground positive psychology in tough-minded, grown-up science. Unlike the humanists, who wanted to jettison standard research techniques as too mechanistic and reductionistic to measure experiences like happiness, creativity, spirituality, and the like, Seligman and company want to subject these soft concepts to the hard science of empirical tests and statistical analysis.

Critics are particularly unconvinced by Seligman's classification schemes, his assumption that foggy, philosophical terms can someday bear the weight of empirical science. How can inescapably qualitative concepts like "wisdom," "joy," "judgment," "courage," and the like be rigorously defined, much less objectively analyzed and quantified?

In response, Seligman and his colleagues concede that positive psychology is still baby science, but point to such achievements as devising eight-week training workshops that, when given in controlled studies to school children and college students at risk for serious depression and anxiety, reduced the development of symptoms as shown in follow-up studies three years later. With hundreds of young adults and schoolchildren at risk for depression, their research has shown that learned optimism programs used preventively halve the rate of depression and anxiety disorders over long-term follow-up.


Good Character

If negative emotions are a necessary part of human nature, so too are the positive ones---with one big difference: it's probably far more feasible, not to mention more pleasant, to expand and build up our capacity for good feelings than it is to eliminate the bad ones. The underlying message of positive psychology is that we can to some extent make ourselves happier, even when we can't entirely rid ourselves of our miseries.

In the end, Seligman believes that happiness is a pursuit, as Thomas Jefferson suggested, not an automatic benediction; it doesn't come easily or without struggle for most people. Seligman has been known to say at the end of his talks, "All my work can be boiled down to the one-word answer to a single question. The question is: 'What is the word in your heart?' Is it yes? or is it no?"

This blog is excerpted from “Why Is This Man Smiling?" Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression | Children/Adolescents

Tags: Aaron Beck | ACA | anxiety disorder | anxiety disorders | depression | depression and anxiety | ED | emotion | HEAL | learned optimism | learning | martin seligman | positive psychology | psychologist | psychologists | psychology | psychotherapist | psychotherapists | psychotherapy | relationships | science | SPECT | success | TED | termination | therapist | therapists | therapy | treating depression | clients

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3 Comments

Saturday, February 28, 2015 4:50:01 PM | posted by sandra talansky
In the 90's in graduate school we studied the Strengths Perspective. Lately with the work of people like Rick Hanson and Dan Siegel, we have learned about the brain's negative bias and how it is important to Take in the Good! Positve psychology is nothing new!

Sunday, March 1, 2015 12:28:29 PM | posted by Judy Krings
Seligman's ground-breaking pioneer research with Dr. Chris Peterson establishing character strengths and virtues has changed my clients' worlds forever. To find out what is right and powerful about themselves is an amazing coaching and therapeutic journey and gift. Go to http://www.viacharacter.org to take the free Values in Action assessment and discover your 24 strengths. I enjoy strengths so much I wrote a book about how I saw Cubans using strengths. "Photo Adventures in Cuba ~ Unlock Your Power of Positivity." Positive Psychology: "Look for the good. You will find it within yourself and others."

Sunday, July 12, 2015 3:02:29 AM | posted by Homepage
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