VOLUME 29 , NUMBER 4 -April 1998

Positive social science

By Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD
APA President

In her biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, a distinguished political scientist analyzes Eleanor’s tireless pursuit of justice for poor people and black people as an attempt to compensate for her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s narcissism. The possibility that Eleanor was simply pursuing virtue is not considered. Research psychology has spent half a century documenting the many negative mental effects of isolation, trauma, abuse, physical illness, war, poverty, discrimination, early parental death and divorce. But this relentless focus on the negative has left psychology blind to the many instances of growth, mastery, drive and insight that develop out of undesirable, painful life-events.

How has it happened that the social sciences view the human strengths and virtues—altruism, courage, honesty, duty, joy, health, responsibility and good cheer—as derivative, defensive or downright illusions, while weakness and negative motivations—anxiety, lust, selfishness, paranoia, anger, disorder and sadness—are viewed as authentic?

When a culture faces military threat, or poverty, or social upheaval, or shortage of goods, it is most naturally concerned with questions about the negative side of life. The sciences it underwrites will be about defense and damage. Modern psychology accordingly has been preoccupied with healing. It has, by and large, understood functioning within a disease model, and its main mode of intervention has been the repair of damage. Theoretically it has been a victimology in which human beings are viewed as passive, 'responding' to external stimuli, or as consumed with unresolved conflicts dictated by childhood trauma, or as acting from tissue needs, drives, and instincts, or as the helpless victims of oppressive cultural and economic forces.

At those few times in history when cultures have been prosperous, at peace, and stable, some have turned their attention from concerns with defense and damage to the promotion of the highest qualities of life. In so doing, these cultures have made monumental contributions to human progress. Athens in the fifth century B.C., Victorian England and Florence of the 15th century are examples.

Athenian prosperity encouraged philosophy which bred a new form of politics—democracy. Victorian England, sustained by the bounty of empire, enshrined honor, valor, discipline and duty. Florence’s wool and banking trades made it the richest and most stable city-state in Europe. Whereupon Florence decided to devote much of its surplus not to making it the mightiest power in Europe, but to the creation of beauty.

I believe that America today is entering such a world-historical moment. I do not propose that we build an aesthetic monument, but rather, a humane scientific monument: that social science, working at the individual level, will take as its mission the delineation, measurement and promotion of human fulfillment and will, working at the group level, take civic virtue as its proper subject. My vision is that social science will finally see beyond the remedial and escape from the muckraking that has claimed it, that social science will become a positive force for understanding and promoting the highest qualities of civic and personal life.

Remedial psychology has had its victories: most prominently a science of mental illness. As a result the causes of at least 10 of the major mental disorders have been illuminated and these disorders can now be markedly relieved by psychological and pharmacological interventions. But sadly, while plumbing the depths of what is worst in life, psychology lost its connection to the positive side of life—the knowledge about what makes human life most worth living, most fulfilling, most enjoyable and most productive.

Such science is possible. The major psychological theories have changed to undergird the investigation of strength and responsibility. No longer do the dominant theories all view the individual as passive; rather individuals are now seen as decision-makers, with choices, preferences and the possibility of becoming masterful, efficacious or, in malignant circumstances, helpless and hopeless. We have a field of measurement in which the negative states of depression, fear, anomie, aggression and hopelessness can be reliably and validly assessed. We have a field able to investigate the relevant brain states and neuropharmacology. Our field developed ingenious experimental methods and sophisticated causal modeling for looking at how experience shapes such states and how these states develop over a life span. And we pioneered the interventions that proved effective for undoing such undesirable states. Now we can call upon these same methods to measure and understand how to build personal human strengths and civic virtues.

This kind of scientific activity is not a chimera: There are viable empirical bodies of knowledge about flow and about optimism, for example. But these represent only a minute fraction of the corpus in social science. The thorough investigation of personal strength and civic virtue will not come easily or cheaply. It can be the 'Manhattan Project' of the social sciences, but it will require substantial resources.

The positive social science of the 21st century will have as a useful side effect the possibility of prevention of the serious mental illnesses; for there are a set of human strengths that most likely buffer against mental illness: courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, responsibility, future-mindedness, honesty and perseverance, to name several. But it will have as its direct effect a scientific understanding of the practice of civic virtue and of the pursuit of the best things in life.