Why Is This Man Smiling?

Why Is This Man Smiling?

A Self-Described Grouch is Trying to Turn Happiness into a Science

By Mary Sykes Wylie

January/February 2003

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.…

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