Positive Psychology Revisits Depression Therapy

Martin Seligman and the Positive Thinking Movement

Richard Handler

If Thomas Jefferson were a psychology graduate student today, he'd probably think of himself as a positive psychologist. It was Jefferson, after all, who began the Declaration of Independence with the statement that human beings aren't only created equal but "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [and] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Happiness was the word he chose, not pursuit of power or economic gain.

Today, Positive Psychology, as popularized by former American Psychological Association president and bestselling author Martin Seligman, is taking folk wisdom and Greek philosophy, mixing them with solid contemporary research on joy, optimism, satisfaction, contentment, forgiveness, and gratitude, and popularizing the result as scientifically validated fact.

They're doing so in a country Jefferson wouldn't recognize. Americans spend $76 billion a year on antidepressants and additional millions on talk therapy for depression. Positive psychologists are administering happiness questionnaires, writing happiness books, and giving radio interviews on how to be happy.

Much of what they say is as old-fashioned as Jefferson's viewpoint and cuts hard against the modern grain. Positive psychologists say that most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be. Like Victorian moralists, they argue that almost Stoic moral and emotional practices---lowering your expectations, looking on the bright side, counting your blessings, volunteering, forgiving others, expressing gratitude---can make you much happier than going shopping or excavating childhood hurts in therapy.

This list may make some therapists cringe (and make positive psychologists sound like nuns), but its proponents include many of the most creative and influential psychological researchers alive in America today.

Seligman and his colleagues are trying to forge a new cultural role for psychology. This isn't psychology as practiced for the past half-century plus---as a diagnostic system for the many ways human beings go horribly wrong, dedicated to changing pathological misery into ordinary unhappiness, one damaged client at a time. Theirs is a new vision of psychology as a muscular, morally prescriptive, socially influential, positively focused, and thoroughly researched discipline. It's psychology as a way of life.

Beyond Helplessness

Seligman has called himself "a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist." One morning while he was still in military school and spending the night at a friend's house, he felt something was terribly wrong and ran home in a panic. There he watched his father, who'd recently been acting strangely and prone to weeping, being carried out in a stretcher, immobile. Three more strokes followed.

For nearly two decades, Seligman committed himself to the study of helplessness. A high achiever, he graduated from Princeton and went on to graduate studies in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1964, when he was 21, he watched a group of lab dogs in their electrified wire cages there, acting as despairing as his own dad. They were slumped with their heads on their paws, whimpering, and doing nothing to avoid the shocks being administered to them. In a previous experiment, they'd been unable to escape being shocked. Now, even though the experimental parameters had changed and they could leap to safety on the other side of the cage, they didn't. They simply endured.

Seligman concluded that the dogs were no longer learning sets of discrete behaviors through reward and punishment. They'd come to an overarching conclusion: that "nothing they did mattered," which perpetuated its own reality even when circumstances changed. Seligman's observation was heretical---animals weren't supposed to adopt abstract, generalized attitudes like helplessness.

Fascinated, Seligman began studying the effect of helplessness. Such thinking styles, he hypothesized, generated depressed moods. They he dissected the thinking styles of pessimists and noted that they globalized their failures like the dogs had ("I'm no good with people" or "Nothing I do makes any difference") and minimized their successes ("I was just lucky"). In the face of adversity, they often gave up.

Optimists, by contrast, were consistently cheerier and more effective. They drew global conclusions about their successes ("I'm an excellent athlete") and considered their failures and disappointments to be momentary flukes that weren't their responsibility ("She must have been in a bad mood").

Seligman figured that if depressed people had somehow learned to be helpless, they could also unlearn it, but as he moved from animal research into clinical psychology, he didn't just want to undo negative thinking, he wanted to foster good feelings. He had a hunch that people who consistently celebrated and exercised their strengths would be buffered against inevitable bad times when they struck.

Growth of a Movement

The question of what makes for a happy, meaningful, worthwhile life has preoccupied philosophers, mystics, and masters of ancient wisdom traditions since the beginning of human history. But in the years since Positive Psychology was founded in 1998, Seligman and his adherents have undoubtedly done the field of psychology an enormous service by demonstrating that the study of what makes people happy, optimistic, and wise is just as important as the study of what makes them anxious, depressed, and crazy.

If this work did no more than remind a therapy-soaked population that grandma's old values---gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, selflessness, dedication to something larger than oneself---have never been surpassed as the map to a life well-lived, it would be worthwhile. Reminding us what's valuable in our lost traditions is no small thing.

This blog is excerpted from “20 Weeks of Happiness” Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: Aaron Beck | add | antidepressants | behavioral conditioning | clinical psychology | conditioning | depression | diagnostic system | ED | emotion | learning | martin seligman | positive psychology | practices | psychologist | psychologists | psychology | Richard Handler | success | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | therapy for depression

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