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 (Seligman’s work has been featured on the front pages of The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report , and USA Today ), 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, why they fail and feel bad and do terrible things to each other. The entire so-called mental health establishment has become a giant public edifice dedicated to mental illness –from the National Institute of Mental Health (which only funds studies geared to treating mental diseases) to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM ), an 800-page, quasi-scientific classification of human unhappiness, to virtually every textbook a student therapist reads in training.
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. “We know a great deal about the psychology of conformity, cowardice, and prejudice,” says Laura King, associate professor of psychological science at the University of Michigan, “but we don’t have a good take at all on generosity or heroism–why, for example, ordinary people on flight 93 on 9-11 could become heroes in rising up against the hijackers.”
However promising the new science of positive psychology, it probably wouldn’t have achieved its current high level of visibility and apparent success without the formidable Seligman persona behind it. “Marty is a big, big person, with a big personality, a powerful, booming speaking voice, and an authoritative style,” says King. A can-do kind of guy, he has established something of an empire devoted to positive psychology. Among other accomplishments, he has set up a scientific foundation, three distinct research centers and a training institute to promulgate the faith, launched a book series, led numerous conferences featuring various academic stars, gotten the American Psychological Association behind his efforts, fired up platoons of young research psychologists around the country, and generated enough grant money to fund a host of studies in universities around the country of what, empirically, constitutes the good, the true, the wise, the spiritual, and even the merely pleasurable in human affairs. To cap it off, he has gone beyond the academic world to attract national attention for positive psychology with his just-published book, Authentic Happiness , a neat counterpart to Learned Helplessness , the book that helped make his reputation more than 25 years ago. Not too shabby for a movement that’s only about four years old.
A few tiny shadows dog this expansive and, well, optimistic enterprise, however. First, some humanistic psychologists grumble that there’s nothing remotely new about positive psychology–they’ve been ploughing the same field for 40 years, ever since pioneers like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and others broke with psychoanalytic tradition to emphasize their clients’ potential for growth, wisdom, love, pleasure, and creativity. Then there are the critics from within academic psychology, who say that positive psychology isn’t and never can be real science. These skeptics argue that the terms of positive psychology are too vague and susceptible to individual interpretation ever to be defined, let alone measured, by the methodologies of empirical science.
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. This and other experiments confounded standard assumptions of behavioral psychology–that animals (including humans), when conditioned, respond noncognitively, reflexively and involuntarily to pain and pleasure, trying to avoid the first and get at the second. Seligman’s work showed that even dogs could actually learn a generalized state of expectancy that went beyond a response to any particular stimulus and paralyzed their capacity for any action.
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. What we learn to expect from ourselves and others can determine our emotional experience of the world and how we deal with life. Over the past 25 years, cognitive behavioral methods for treating a range of clinical problems, grounded in this perspective, have come to constitute the core of empirically-supported therapy practice.
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. “Seligman showed that you can literally change the minds of pessimistic people in a relatively short time, thus getting really good outcomes for preventive therapy,” says psychiatrist and resilience researcher Steve Wolin. “It was elegant work.”
In 1995, Seligman acted as consultant on a huge national survey done by Consumer Reports , which showed that most of the respondents felt they benefitted very substantially from therapy, and those whose therapy lasted the longest felt they had benefitted the most. Although academicians roundly denounced the survey for its lack of scientific rigor, psychotherapists loved Seligman for it. In 1996, thousands of clinical psychologists helped elect him president of the American Psychological Association by the largest margin in the organization’s history.
As APA president, Seligman brought positive psychology front and center to the attention of field. The spotlight, however, also provoked criticism. In response to the special 2000 issue of the American Psychologist on positive psychology, a group of irate humanist psychologists charged that positive psychologists had “hijacked” the humanist movement, “stolen its premises,” ignored its predecessors, “derided its history,” denied its legitimacy and “cancelled” its right to be considered a Âserious player at the mainstream psychology table. Solution-focused and resilience-oriented therapists also protested that they, too, have long underplayed pathology and focused instead on helping clients bootstrap themselves up on their own strengths and abilities.
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, take them out of the woozy realm of pop psych and inspirational platitudes and give them intellectual backbone. They’ve produced reams of reports that, on paper, reduce inchoate ideas about happiness into orderly categories and subcategories. So far, they define three major branches of the positive-psychology tree: subjective happiness (positive emotions and mood), human excellence (positive personal strengths and virtues, like optimism, wisdom, and knowledge, courage, spirituality, love and humanity, justice and temperance) and positive institutions (democracy, family, a free press). At universities around the United States, researchers are beavering away, trying to ground amorphous concepts in valid research designs to determine what they mean operationally and how they objectively affect the way people behave.
Compared to studies of psychopathology, these sun-drenched efforts can sound quixotically cheerful–Academic Psychology Meets Mary Poppins. Different “pods,” as they are called, of positive psychology researchers are studying, for example, the factors associated with a happy, satisfying Christmas, the emotional consequences of overconsumption and greed (one major focus of the movement is “finding alternatives to materialism”), and the impact of feelings of awe and transcendence on cardiovascular physiology. Other projects seem more mainstream: how positive traits and life events promote immunity and health; how positive emotions and social interactions protect students from loneliness and depression (a prospective study of Stanford University’s entering class of 2000); what sorts of school-based interventions can promote Âoptimism, hope, perseverance/resilience, courage and duty/citizenship in students.
This blossoming of research projects doesn’t cut any ice with academic critics, who maintain that much of positive psychology still remains on the squishy side of scientific legitimacy. In an upcoming issue of Psychological Inquiry , psychologist Richard Lazarus and several colleagues take positive psychology to task for shallow and overly casual research methods, oversimplifying the meaning of basic concepts, ignoring individual differences and changes over time in individuals, and failing to show real causal relationships among emotions, health, and well-being. Positive psychologists respond that every one of the critiques leveled at them could just as well be made of virtually all psychology research (the behavioral sciences aren’t physics, after all) and that, if anything, positive psychology has gone overboard to make its studies as unimpeachable as any research in the field has ever done.
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? Even more to the point for therapists, how can such vague entities become relevant to any practical, down-to-earth interventions with real clients? Steve Wolin remembers being astonished when he first saw the list of qualities–wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, transcendence–Seligman intended to turn into universally valid scientific constructs. “This is all well and good,” he wrote in an e-mail message to Seligman. “But this is not what my patients are interested in. My patients are interested in sex, shopping, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Wolin thinks Seligman is so focused on the definitions of universal strengths and virtues–untainted by relativistic, culture-bound, everyday human context–that these terms risk languishing in the realm of meaningless abstraction. “People use their human strengths like creativity, humor, relationship in specific contexts, to overcome particular adversities, hardships, and struggles–but Marty doesn’t seem to be interested in that–he’s interested in their pure, Aristotelian essence. I want to see his work make sense to those of us in the trenches. How can I use what he is doing?” 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.
Positive psychology may remind people of “positive thinking,” the feel-good/get-happy movement most often associated with uplift gurus like Norman Vincent Peale in the 1950s. But positive psychology has a paradoxical side, which could only emerge from the mind of a born pessimist, someone deeply familiar with the dark side of life. Seligman not only knows firsthand about human unhappiness, he has come to accept and respect it. “Evolution stamped dysphoria pretty indelibly into the psyche of the human species,” he said in a Slate online debate with evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker last October. “It was the dysphoric hominids that survived the bad weather of the Pleistocene, not the blithe ones.” Sadness, anger, and anxiety are built into the human frame–some frames more than others–and no amount of therapeutic tinkering or positive affirmations is going to turn a natural-born Grinch into Goldie Hawn.
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.
But this happiness-building project is not a walk in the park (though a walk in the park may be a very good happiness-building project). Feelings of joy, contentment, love, awe, even physical pleasure don’t consistently “just happen,” particularly to those of us who, like Seligman, are more naturally inclined to emotional twilight or even foggy drizzle than brilliant sunshine. These good feelings evolved as emotional rewards humans got for the kinds of activities that make decent civilization possible–hard work, cooperation, self sacrifice, child care, learning, teaching, seeking transcendent meaning in ordinary life. In other words, pleasure and satisfaction most often don’t come without previous expenditures of will power, courage, applied intelligence, and damn good attitude. Not normally found in psychology textbooks or therapeutic interventions, nor reducible to popular self-help bromides, these qualities used to be encapsulated by the term good character.
Indeed, Seligman writes in Authentic Happiness , “the notion of good character is a core assumption of positive psychology.” Which brings us to a surprising feature about Seligman the scientific psychologist–his deep commitment to a very old philosophical quest: understanding the nature of goodness and virtue. He asks questions that would have been familiar to thinkers in Athens 2500 years ago: what constitutes the good life? how do we define happiness and pleasure? what role do virtue, morality, and ethics play in finding happiness?
For individuals pondering these imponderables, wondering how to make them relevant to their personal lives, Seligman offers both a question and a route to the answer: what personal abilities, strengths, and potentials within our own natures can we draw on to create the good life? Seligman has devoted himself to giving this age-old project the full treatment of modern science. In the end, he 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?”
In the following interview with Networker editor Richard Simon, Seligman explores the implications of positive psychology for the psychotherapy field.
– Mary Sykes Wylie
Psychotherapy Networker: As a therapist and researcher who has spent three decades trying to build a bridge between the world of science and the world of everyday practice, are you impressed with the hard evidence of psychotherapy’s effectiveness?
Martin Seligman: Not really. Over the past 20 years, it looks to me like we have hit something I call the 65-percent barrier.
MS: If I average all the therapy outcome studies that I’ve ever read–which by now is probably in the four figures–and I take the percent relief provided by both drugs and psychotherapy across all the disorders, I’d say the average improvement is around 65 percent. That means that, by and large, we produce only mild to moderate relief.
PN: So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. If cure is 100 percent–a touchdown–then 65 percent is a field goal?
MS: Yes. And also that, overall, about 65 percent of the people who come in for therapy see some degree of symptom relief. And 50 percent is what a placebo typically does. And by placebo, I mean either a drug with no known effect on a particular condition or, in the therapy context, an interaction that isn’t designed to have specific treatment effects. In other words, both through drugs and psychotherapy, we’re dealing with doing 30 percent better than placebo. Of course there are wonderful cases in which there are complete cures, and I’m a collector of those, and you can find those in some of my books. But the average is 15 to 20 percent better than the placebo.
Now that prevents a lot of suffering and you could argue that it’s worth the $20 billion investment in drug companies and the psychotherapy industry. But let’s look at it in another way. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been regularly revising a formal textbook about abnormal psychology that has gone through five editions. Over that time, the 65-percent figure hasn’t changed. That means to me that we may have reached the limit of progress for our current approaches through psychopharmacology and psychotherapy.
PN: Do you see a lot of difference between the results of drug studies and therapy studies? Are the two approaches generally comparable in their effectiveness?
MS: It all depends on what you’re treating. For things like obsessive-compulsive disorder, I think psychotherapy’s better. For panic disorder, I think psychotherapy’s better. For depression, I think they’re about equal. For bipolar depression, I think the drugs are better. I can take you through each one of these, but what is important is that I haven’t seen a lot of change over our lifetime, and that says to me that some natural limit has been reached by these procedures.
PN: Why do you think that collectively the therapy field has hit this wall?
MS: First of all, I think that negative emotions that are the product of evolutionary constraints are a big part of the reason there are limits to our therapeutic effectiveness. Evolution has been very concerned to give us only limited conscious control over our survival mechanisms. From an evolutionary perspective, negative emotions like fear, anger, and even depression are just too closely tied to survival, and voluntary attempts to gain exert control over them have upper limits.
PN: For example?
MS: Take phobias. I think they are evolutionarily prepared to help us avoid situations that may be dangerous. Some phobias are curable, but if you are agoraphobic, behavior therapy may make you less avoidant and less afraid, but I don’t think you’re ever going to really love going to a big shopping mall. I think the dirty little secret of biological psychiatry is that it’s given up the notion of cure. All the medications being prescribed for depression and anxiety and other negative states are all cosmetic and palliative–when you stop taking them, you’re back where you started. Similarly the advances in psychotherapy have been palliative. For example, the most that cognitive therapy can do is help a depressed person dispute the inner critical voices, but there’s nothing in cognitive therapy about getting rid of the voices.
On the other hand, Freud and the psychodynamic therapists really had a vision of cure. But after 100 years of therapy, it’s hard to find much evidence for that sort of cure. Of course, if you believe some of the great clinical anecdotes, when a client gets enough emotional catharsis and insight into the source of a problem, it’s gone. That’s a cure. And there are enough cases on record to think that that happens some of the time, although no one’s ever been able to bottle it. So bottling it up would be the great advance. My guess about the future would be that if we see major advances in therapy, it won’t be on the palliative side. I think we’ve kind of run out of tricks to relieve symptoms.
PN: So where are the advances going to come from?
MS: I think the positive side of life is where the big potential for growth lies. Because positive emotions are much less tied to survival issues, they are much more plastic. When you begin to deal with the human capacity to create things that weren’t there before, you are moving out of pre-wired survival mechanisms into a different arena.
PN: So, concretely, what does that mean for the future of psychotherapy?
MS: Working on weaknesses and doing remediation is an uphill battle. After all, words like “intervention” and “therapy” are all appropriate to working out of weaknesses. Let’s say we’re conducting this interview about my weaknesses. I think it would be an uphill battle and neither of us would have a very good time, and we’d both be waiting for the interview to be over. But when you approach people about what they’re good at, they like to talk about it. Time really zips along when the subject is how to use more of what you’re good at in your life. What I’m saying is that spending more and more time on strengths is not only a rapport-building technique, it’s a natural therapeutic buffer against our troubles.
PN: What you mean by a “buffer?”
MS: Okay. Take me. I consider myself a depressive, so I could see that in a different life course, I could wind up a basket case, but, fortunately, there are a few things that I’m really good at–verbal skills, writing, listening to both sides of an argument–that kind of thing. And I’ve chosen a life course–marriage, a way of parenting, a job–in which I get to maximize my strengths, and therefore I think I’m protected against depression. And I think, in general, our best protections against the kinds of conditions listed in DSM are our strengths.
In the Consulting Room
PN: So how might you then apply that kind of positive psychology approach in a therapist’s consulting room?
MS: Let’s imagine that a waitress who’s got moderately high depression comes to see you and, after she goes through a litany of complaints, you conclude that the core of it is how much she hates her job. You do a very careful assessment to determine her highest strength, which turns out, among other things, to be her social intelligence. At that point, the task becomes helping her to recraft what she’s doing at work to better use her strengths. So although she hates being patronized and hates carrying heavy trays, she redefines her job to make her customers’ encounter with her the social highlight of their evening. And while she doesn’t succeed in that all the time, that keeps her level of challenge and interest up to give her an experience of flow at her work, which now becomes fun, something she’s good at.
PN: The concept of flow seems to come up again and again in your work. Say more about it.
MS: Flow, of course, is my friend Mike Csikszentmihayli’s signal contribution to psychology. It refers to those activities in which time seems to stop, the moments when you find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing and never wanting it to end. For most people, perhaps the key to the good life is developing interests and discovering activities that enable you to experience flow regularly in your life. You can probably best understand flow by understanding the reverse. From the first day I took up skiing to the day I gave it up five years later, I was never in flow. Skiers call it “fighting the mountain.” So instead of the flow experience, of being comfortable letting yourself ski downhill, I was always worried about falling and trying to figure out what I should be doing. Right now, I think too much of the experience of psychotherapy, for both therapists and clients, involves fighting the mountain.
PN: And that’s where what you call positive psychology comes in.
MS: Yes. Positive psychology is a lot more like the flow experience of downhill skiing, and it’s my hope for getting therapists out of the remedial business. Positive psychology doesn’t involve manipulation or much of what we think of as standard therapeutic interventions. You don’t need to use clever techniques to get people to change. The focus is on helping people identify what they’re really good at, with the premise that doing what they’re really good at buffers them against their weaknesses. So when a person finds out that they’re really extraordinarily kind and they like being kind, and you suggest to them, “Maybe in your daily life you should take opportunities to display kindness more often.” And when they start to do that more, it’s self-reinforcing. So, in my case, I don’t know how to dress, and if you tried to make me a snappy dresser, I wouldn’t have any fun doing it. But even if I don’t dress well, I talk well. So it kind of makes of up for the fact that my socks don’t match.
PN: Lots of therapists today are turned off to DSM and share your position that therapy should focus on clients’ strengths. What’s distinctive about positive psychology?
MS: That’s a good question. I’m still working on a full answer to it. Basically positive psychology is devoted to giving a solid scientific legitimacy to the interest in strengths. For a weakness-based psychology, we’ve got a DSM . We’ve got all kinds of ways of measuring things like depression, and we concentrate on training people in graduate school how to undo the weaknesses people bring to therapy. But up until now, we haven’t had a classification of the strengths that make a real difference in people’s lives, and we haven’t explicitly trained people in interventions that produce well-being. Most therapists decide if a client is depressed by seeing if they have five of nine symptoms, but, from the viewpoint of the science of therapy, it will make a tremendous difference if we had a systematic nosology of strengths that gave them equal weight with DSM diagnoses.
So we’ve developed a 800-page classification of strengths and virtues that will soon be published by the American Psychological Association that I hope will become psychology’s un- DSM . It’s what we need to bring us out from under the yoke of medicine, which is about undoing illnesses, not buffering strengths. Now undoing illnesses is fine, but it’s just part of what the therapist’s job should be.
Along with a classification system, we’ve developed a panoply of validated assessment tools for measuring the positive side of life. We started with tests for strengths and virtues, but there are also tests for well being, tests for amount of meaning in life, tests for strength of relationships, tests for gratitude, tests for forgiveness, tests for optimism. So there are now all kinds of materials to help clinicians measure where a person’s weak and to find out where they’re strong.
PN: What about treatment applications?
MS: What we’re doing now is developing a set of positive interventions that we’ve been testing on normal people and ninth grade-students to see what difference they make. One example involves gratitude. One of the best correlates of life satisfaction is gratitude. So we ask people to take someone in their life that they’ve never properly thanked and write a testimonial to that person and then visit that person to deliver it. Personally, I’m a pretty ungrateful sort, but I’ve done that assignment and it had a profound effect on me.
PN: Can you say something about that experience?
MS: I did my own gratitude exercise on the morning of my 60th birthday. My wife and I had invited 50 people to celebrate with us and when I woke up that morning I suddenly had a very clear realization about two different ways of looking at your life–the autobiographical and the biographical. It became so plain to me that my story about myself had been veryÂ autobiographical– I got this award, I wrote this article, I did this, that, and the other thing. It was all about my fighting one obstacle after another and overcoming it. It was filled with I and about accomplishments as something I did . And, of course, that’s so common–ourÂ own will and our own actions are often in the forefront of the drama of our lives, and we put into the background things like the sacrifices of parents, the loyalty of friends, like a wife who reads every word you write and critiques it, children who create a background of happiness, a mentor who, in the beginning of your career, approves everything you do until just the right time comes and then starts to critique it. But as I thought about all the people coming to my birthday party, I found myself filled with gratitude and moving from an autobiography of an I to a biography, in which my life was a part of many more lives that had me possible.
PN: Do you think that therapy can encourage people too far in the direction of the autobiographical consciousness that you’re describing?
MS: Our evidence is that gratitude is strongly related to subjective well-being, and so a question for therapists is how they can better promote gratitude. But at the moment, the area of interventions is the least validated in positive psychology. The validation of diagnostic categories is way ahead of evidence-based interventions. That’s why I want to encourage your readers to dream in this direction. They’re much better at developing interventions than researchers like me, who spend so much time sitting in front of computers.
Science and Therapy
PN: It sounds like you’re encountering one of the limitations of science. The strengths of science is in measurement and being systematic, but you’re saying that there’s a big role for the creativity of the clinician in what you’re trying to develop.
MS: Absolutely. Before yeoman scientists can go to work and see if things really work, you need the imagination of clinicians to provide something to test.
PN: Do you think that positive psychology will one day do away with psychotherapy as we have known it?
MS: Not at all. Positive psychology is not remotely intended as a replacement for all of therapy. I’ve been a therapist for 35 years and I’m proud of it. Whatever its limitations, I think therapy has important effects. What I’m describing as positive psychology’s contribution is intended as another arrow in the therapist’s quiver. I feel the same way about it as I do about drugs–it’s another arrow in our quiver. More specifically, teaching our clients optimism, gratitude, forgiveness, identifying their signature strengths, and moving them in the direction of recrafting their lives to use them everyday–these are some of the new arrows for the positive clinician.
PN: But all in all, you sound like a bit of a skeptic when it comes to therapy and the results it has achieved so far.
MS: No, no. I’m tremendously impressed by the 50-percent symptom relief that most therapists are able to bring about using so-called “nonspecific” treatment factors. What they’re really talking about are things like listening and taking an interest in people. The secret of therapy as a profession is that it draws in people who are just naturally good at helping other people screw their heads on straight. We could probably put most therapists through four years of learning how to make great coffee and they would still help 50 percent of their clients, whereas if we took the kind of people who I play poker with, I don’t think the results would be anything like that.
So I think whatever we’re doing in selecting and training clinicians, and whatever they do in the consulting room, is 50 percent of the wonderful stuff that helps people. So far science has added another 15 or 20 percent to it. That’s good, too. But the biggest thing the psychotherapy field has going for us now is the people who do it, who without using science a lot of the time, bring about change 50 percent of the time, and sometimes do much better.
While the clinician’s job is to alleviate troubles, I also think the development of things like character, positive emotions, and strengths are an end in themselves, completely independent of alleviating troubles. But the science isn’t there yet. We don’t yet have clear empirical demonstrations that if you work hard on developing your strengths, then your troubles fade into the background. When we get that kind of data, it could change the future for psychotherapy.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.