Happy days are here again
from Elle Magazine
December 1998

For years, psychologists have focused on what's wrong-but if Martin Seligman gets his way, the most important question may be: What's right? Strawberry Saroyan reports on the new science of joy.

It didn't seem like a particularly good morning for a revolution. It was the first day of the American Psychological Association's annual conference, and several hundred PhD's sat sleepy-eyed and expectant. The room was airless, and the caffeine had yet to kick in. But Martin Seligman, the president of the APA, stood at the podium and decided to go for it anyway. He had arrived the night before in his Ford Explorer with his wife and three kids and he was feeling reckless.

He moved into his subject slowly, warming us up with several minutes of banter and a few welcoming comments. But soon he was on a roll, calling for a fundamental shift in the science of psychology-a science, he gently suggested, that had gone off track fifty years ago when it began concentrating almost exclusively on problems like depression and mental illness. He proposed, in his deep baritone, a switch in focus from undoing "the worst things in life to...build[ing] the best things." Why not, he asked this roomful of colleagues, start studying things like courage? Joy? Maybe even hope? He told them he thought the new science should be called "positive psychology."

A collective double take seemed to occur as the hundreds of psychologists who had spent their lives studying depression, anxiety, and addiction took in this novel idea. But Seligman continued. "It's time to reclaim our identity," he said, gaining steam now. "Psychology is not just about healing what is broken. Psychology is not just about disorders." And, surely, he added more quietly, "psychology is not just a form of serfdom to profit-driven health schemes."

When he finished, he stood alone, looking at once comically tense and professorial. A small man with none of, say, Leo Buscaglia's trademark cuddliness, Seligman is hard to warm up to. But his booming voice made one thing clear: He is serious about his ideas.

After a millisecond of silence, the audience began to applaud. And then, row by row, his colleagues stood, culminating in a rousing ovation. A few minutes later, I noticed several people were teary-eyed. Clearly, Seligman's proposal had hit a nerve, if it had not yet inspired a full-fledged revolt. As I walked out of the conference room into the San Francisco sun, I wondered, Why this, why now?

Seligman, who has experienced similarly emotional responses to lectures he has given all over the country this year explains the appeal of his philosophy in terms of a paradox we are confronting. "[We] have, by every...objective index of well-being, more-more purchasing power, more education," he says. "But almost all of our mental-health statistics are going south." Today "the rate of depression...is the highest we've ever seen." We are twice as rich as we were forty years ago, but we are ten times more likely to be depressed. At some point in our lives, 15 to 20 percent of us will fall prey to a severe depression, and about half will experience a milder form. And while the average age of a person suffering her first depression was once thirty years old, says Seligman, today the average onset age is only fifteen. Women are at an even greater risk, as they report twice the rate of depression as men (the good news is that they also report twice as much happiness). But the bad news continues. Within the last forty years, according to several studies, the divorce rate has doubled, juvenile crime has quadrupled, and suicide among teenagers has tripled.

Not surprisingly, our distinctly American pursuit of happiness is increasingly frenetic. Last year alone, we bought nearly 28 million "inspirational" books and the notion of self-help has expanded to include esoterica from aromatherapy to crystal healing to psychic friendships. But while a grab bag of gurus ranging from Anthony Robbins to Susan Powter have jumped into the breach, qualified psychologists-the group of professionals who should be best-equipped to help us find what we are looking for-have almost completely ignored our quest for happiness. A search of Psychological Abstracts over the last thirty years shows that while 54,040 articles have been written on depression, only 415 have addressed joy. Today, Seligman estimates that no more than 2 percent of the National Institute of Mental Health's $750 million annual budget is spent on studying human strengths.

Part of the problem is plain old academic snobbery. Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside, says, "We [psychologists] just sort of ignore that whole [self-help] section of the bookstore...We set it as so different from what we do, like, 'Well, we do science, and those people are just spouting off their ideas.'" And it's easy to see why most intellectuals would want to avoid being lumped in with the authors of such classics as Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul.

Clearly, the self-help movement has been hijacked. But instead of fighting back, psychologists have largely stuck to a formula of one-on-one therapy and medication. Given the current epidemic of unhappiness, Seligman says a quick change is in order. "There aren't enough therapists to go around." And as for Prozac ad its antidepressant cousins, he adds bluntly, "I think there are moral problems with drugging an entire generation."

"Why don't we have a psychology that asks, 'How do you change your marriage from okay back to great?'" Seligman says. "Or that advises you when your job doesn't give you joy?"

Seligman believes that by refocusing psychology on "the best things in life," he and his colleagues could begin to solve the everyday problems that face the general population. With this aim, he has been studying positive emotions for decades. "Why don't we have a psychology that asks, 'How do you change your marriage from okay back to great?'" he says, or that advises you when your job is okay, but it doesn't give you a lot of joy?"

His new approach, though still in the preliminary stages, is promising. By studying the building blocks of things like courage, love, forgiveness, and hope, he thinks psychologists could not only begin to "understand how [these strengths] grow and how best to nurture them," but could also devise a set of psychological tools to facilitate their growth. He would like to see the development of more methods like "disputation," a trick he uses to fight depression. Particularly effective in training born pessimists (a group that Seligman counts himself among) to become optimists, disputation involves noticing the negative things one says to oneself, pretending they were said by someone "whose mission in life was to make [you] miserable," and then fighting back. That way, says Seligman, "you don't blindly accept your own insults."

While positive psychology may sound to the layperson like a simple reshuffling of priorities, among psychologists Seligman's idea of nurturing strengths is nearly unheard of. The reason, Seligman has explained, is that historically, "social science has believed negative things [like anxiety and depression] were authentic, and human strengths [like joy and optimism] were copying mechanisms." Making it even more difficult for his colleagues to swallow his new point of view is the fact that Seligman's mind was changed through decidedly unscientific means. He says that watching his three young children grow and interact with the world made him come to believe that human beings are born with a raft of positive attributes that need only to be brought out. " I realized...that raising [them] wasn't a matter of stopping the bad things," he says. "It was a matter of helping [them] to live...life around [their] strengths." He would like to see a similar switch in how psychologists view their patients, with the fundamental therapy question switching from "What's wrong?" to "What's right?"

But wouldn't such a refocusing leave the real problems of mental illness unattended to? Seligman says that in fact it would be the opposite. One of the most exciting side effects of nurturing human fortitudes, he says, could be that some mental illness might be prevented. It is a notion he traces back to a meeting he had decades ago with his hero, Dr. Jonas Salk. "Over a cup of coffee, I asked him what he would do if he were a young scientist today," Seligman recalls. "Salk replied, 'I'd do immunization. But instead of doing it physically, I'd do it psychologically.'" By building psychological muscles before problems occur, Seligman believes he has finally found the answer to his mentor's challenges.

Another advantage to the new approach is that it could reach more people, more quickly, than traditional therapy. Instead of merely requiring months of talk therapy-a treatment that I remember gave me a frustrating degree of awareness about my problems but no tools to solve them-Seligman envisions positive psychology could create a set of skills that could be widely disseminated through books and workshops. In place of the current inspirational tomes, which he characterizes as being the fraudulent equivalent of The Beverly Hills Diet, Seligman says that in the next decade, "we'll have self-help books that actually work."

We may not have to wait that long. While research on emotions like happiness is really just beginning, it has already yielded some tangible results. One of the major findings in study after study has been that external factors have relatively little effect on happiness levels. One particularly eye-opening experiment, conducted by Dan Coates, Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, and Philip Brickman, compared the well being of those who had suffered accidents resulting in quadriplegia and paraplegia. Within six months the two groups reported nearly identical levels of happiness.

In another landmark study, psychologists D.T. Lykken and Auke Tellegen found that one's happiness level is largely genetic. Looking at sets of twins who were raised separately and together, they found that, in the same way that humans have a weight setpoint, we also have a happiness setpoint. Although it can fluctuate somewhat, it is probably impossible to change its level radically. While such a finding might seem discouraging, Lyubomirsky, for one, doesn't see it that way. Instead, the findings give psychologists "all the more reason to try to learn to move within [the set] range." In other words, if we have limits, we might as well figure out how to function at an optimal level within them.

To fund his ideas, Seligman recently completed a proposal for a $20 million research network and has assembled a team of leading doctors who would participate. In January, he will also meet with eighteen top young psychologists for a week in Mexico to discuss the major issues of the new science-everything from "What sort of a life is worth living?" to the relationship between religious faith and physical health.

In the end, Seligman and his colleagues believe that one of the main reasons we need positive psychology is that the routes through with Americans have traditionally found happiness-our relationship with God, with nation, community, and even with our extended families-have been diminished. "I think [these relationships were the] spiritual furniture in which our parents or grandparents sat when they failed," he says, "[and they] have become threadbare."

Judging from Seligman's reception so far, his ideas may well help us shore up our old spiritual supports for the new millennium. And ultimately his philosophy may have as much to do with a return to simplicity as it does with cutting-edge science. At the same APA conference where known psychologist say that her favorite question for unhappy patients these days isn't about their childhood, their parents, or their ultimate desires. Instead, this PhD has taken to asking, "How often do you watch a sunset?"