Can you teach wellbeing? Martin Seligman thinks so
American professor Martin Seligman has pioneered positive psychology, inverting the traditional focus of his profession
Prof Martin Seligman, left, and Prof Ian Robertson: According to Seligman: ‘Human beings want much more in life than not to be miserable.’Professor Martin Seligman. Photograph: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX
One of the great imponderables of human society is how much of our religion, psychology, philosophy and art through the millennia has been dedicated to the understanding and amelioration of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.
Thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer have held that the best human beings can hope for in life is “not to suffer”. Such an understanding of human nature is “empirically false, morally insidious and a political dead end”, according to Prof Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, the pioneer of positive psychology.
“Human beings want much more in life than not to be miserable,” he says. “They want wellbeing.”
Seligman’s theories about wellbeing and positive psychology have made him one of the world’s best-known and most popular psychologists – his lecture in the Edmund Burke Library at Trinity College Dublin last month was a ticket-only affair and was oversubscribed.
Authentichappiness.org, the website Seligman established to promote positive psychology, has four million followers and attracts 2,000 new subscribers every day.
He first came to public prominence in the 1970s with his theory of “learned helplessness” – the theory that, because of trauma or conditioning by failure, people are unwilling to believe they are able to succeed at something even if ways to succeed are available.
Introducing Seligman in Dublin, TCD professor of psychology Ian Robertson described him as a “polymath” engaged in nothing less than “a movement which is creating a paradigm change in how humanity thinks about itself”.
Seligman described himself as a self-confessed pessimist and depressive who tries out his own techniques first on himself before expanding them to his own family and then his students.
He was a relatively late convert to the concept of wellbeing and happiness. As a psychologist, he recalls, happiness was regarded as the “froth on the cappuccino”, immeasurable and irrelevant to his profession.
“Thirty years ago there was no theory of wellbeing which distinguished it from suffering and no interventions that built wellbeing. That has changed over the past 30 years.”
It might seem obvious given the recent emphasis on wellbeing and happiness, but the focus of psychology and psychiatry was, for so long, on alleviating suffering and examining mental illness rather than the pursuit of happiness.
He defines wellbeing as what “non-suffering, non-oppressed people choose to do”. It pertains not only to individuals but also to corporations and even nation states. British prime minister David Cameron is a fan of his theories.
“The goal of good government is not just the alleviating of misery but the building of wellbeing,” says Seligman, who has developed the notion of wellbeing to include the notion of “flourishing”, where human beings are conditioned to make the best of themselves and their circumstances.
Seligman has created a model for well- being made up of five building blocks summed up in the acronym Perma: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. These five concepts together represent a definition of wellbeing.
Positive emotion is feeling happy or comfortable in a situation, what we think of when we think of happiness.
Engagement is the process whereby a person is absorbed by something, whether it is their work, pastimes, making the dinner, and so on. Seligman talks about the concept of “flow”, which occurs when an individual is totally absorbed in what they are doing. Greater “flow” brings greater happiness.
Relationships relate to positive and not negative relationships – the ones that bring us benefit. Human beings are “hive creatures”, he says, not just selfish individuals.
Meaning is the idea of belonging to and serving something that you think is bigger than yourself, for instance, a union, church, charity or some club. “The more meaning people have at work, the more productive they are,” he says.
Accomplishment would appear to be self-evident, he states, but it is startling how self-discipline trumps talent. It is twice as important as IQ for predicting academic success, he says.
He advocates simple techniques that will enhance one’s sense of wellbeing – one of which is to write down “three good things” that occur during the day.
“It turns out that when people do this, six months later they are less depressed and have higher positive emotion compared with a placebo.”
What works for the individual also works for larger organisations. Seligman pointed to research in the United States that showed a startling correlation between the type of language used on Twitter and incidences of fatal heart attacks.
One would seem ostensibly to have nothing to do with the other, but there was an unerring correlation between negative language used on the social media platform and increased risk of heart attacks.
“I think this is causal,” he says. “If you change the way people think and talk about the world, you can change things like the heart attack and death rates.”
The critical question, Seligman says, is whether Perma can be taught. Can happiness be improved? Do these techniques work? Can the success or otherwise of such techniques be measured? He maintains the answer to all these questions is yes.
Studies in Bhutan have shown marked differences in schoolchildren to whom wellbeing was taught against a placebo group that was not taught wellbeing.
Bhutan has made national wellbeing a goal as distinct simply from gross national product. Children who were taught the techniques of positive psychology halve the rate of depression and anxiety as adolescences, Seligman says.
Similarly, Seligman was employed by US army chief of staff George Casey to teach positive psychology to drill sergeants. Casey wanted an army that was mentally as well as physically fit and has spent €150 million teaching resilience psychology to soldiers.
The result has been a notable decrease in incidences of suicide, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Governments should follow suit, Seligman says.