The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania is what concerns this blog.  Researchers in positive psychology are constantly fighting its image as a self-help movement, a reputation that has plagued it from its inception and there is a need to distinguish it from "Chicken Soup for the Soul" populism.

Martin Seligman  adopted the term "positive psychology" and made it his platform as president of the American Psychological Association, in 1998. His early work on the "learned helplessness" that characterizes depression had led him to posit that optimism could also be learned, and he had data to prove it. In his presidential address, he argued that psychology had become one-sided, and urged his colleagues to give as much attention to human strengths—such as optimism, courage, and perseverance—as to mental illnesses and disorders. He was interested not just in helping people enjoy their lives but in fostering "authentic happiness," rooted in social and civic well-being.
"We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive," he said in his address. "We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society."
Seligman insisted that positive psychology be based on empirical research, and that psychologists' job would be to use that research to describe, not prescribe, what contributes to human flourishing—a distinction he often insists on today.
Working closely with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—known for his concept of "flow," the deeply satisfying, unself-conscious state a person experiences when engaged in a challenging activity—Seligman established a network of promising young scholars who were studying positive emotions, and he nurtured the field with conferences and workshops.

The researchers asked questions like, What are the elements of well-being? Why do we feel good when we see people helping others? Does having a happy life mean experiencing more pleasure than pain, or does it require exercising one's talents and having a purpose? What is the role of community in our well-being? And what are the physical and communal benefits of feeling happy?

The bulk of the resulting research has shown that happy people form stronger social relationships, enjoy better health, are more creative and effective at work, and are more involved as citizens. And the effects flow in the opposite direction, too:  people's circumstances do affect their sense of well-being but what seems to matter more than wealth is "psychosocial prosperity," characterized by the social support, public trust, safety, and tolerance in a society combined with individual feelings of being competent, learning new things, and being satisfied with one's job and health.
One of the most widely respected scholars in the field is Barbara Fredrickson, who teaches at the University of North Carolina.  In asking," If negative emotions like anger and fear evolved to focus our attention, so we could defend ourselves against threats, what evolutionary purpose was served by feelings like contentment and joy?"

She hypothesized that they allow us to broaden our attention and prompt us to think in new ways andover time building our skills. This "broaden and build" theory has since been borne out by research. Fredrickson and other scientists have shown that inducing positive emotions in subjects widens the scope of their visual attention, makes them more "mindful" or open to different interpretations of their experiences.

More recently, Fredrickson and her colleagues tested the "build" part of the hypothesis. They found that subjects who meditated daily reported more experiences of love, joy, gratitude, and a wide range of other positive emotions and—most interestingly—showed benefits over time: Three months later, the meditators reported greater self-acceptance, better relations with other people, and less illness. In a one-year follow-up, she writes in a paper now under review, the people for whom those gains lasted longest were those who had reported the biggest increase in positive emotions following the meditation practice.
Fredrickson says happiness works something like this: It's not the frequency of good feelings in and of themselves that make for a good life, but the resources that those feelings allow people to build.