Pursuing Happiness With a Positive Outlook, not a Pill
By Steve Proffitt
from the Los Angeles Times
January 24, 1999
As we are constantly reminded, things really do seem to be getting better. Crime is down, the economy is up. There are a host of measures that all point to social improvement, from lower levels of drug abuse to breakthroughs in the battle with HIV. The public seems to have closed the "optimism gap," the supposed pessimism that has long plagued Americans.
Yet, below all the polls, at a more objective level, how are we doing? The number of people diagnosed as depressed keeps going up, and the age of onset keeps going down. Disjointed by age, ethnicity and economics, Americans seem to be more cynical about current events and pessimistic about the future. Meanwhile, antidepressants are on the drug company best-seller list.
It doesn't have to be that way, says psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman. A University of Pennsylvania professor, he has made a career studying optimists and teaching optimistic skills to children and adults. Now, he's leading a campaign for what he calls "positive psychology," an approach that puts as much emphasis on building people's strengths as it does on treating their weaknesses. Positive psychology is based on the idea that if young people are taught to be resilient and optimistic, they'll be less likely to suffer from depression and will lead happier, more productive lives.
Seligman's research not only has shown that optimism is a key to success, it has also revealed some of the mechanics of how optimists deal with setbacks and failures. He has developed a curriculum for turning young pessimists into optimists and has popularized his ideas in books such as "Learned Optimism" and "The Optimistic Child." While his ideas are often controversial, he is popular with his fellow psychologists and is a past president of the American Psychological Assn.
The father of five children, Seligman, 56, says he wants psychologists to study human capabilities such as love, courage and forgiveness. He wants them to learn how to teach people to develop their natural talents and use those strengths as a shield against their weaknesses. In a conversation that included sports, politics and religion, Seligman talked about optimism, self-esteem and the pursuit of happiness.
Question: How big a part of optimism is hope, in other words, having a sense that although things may be bad now, they will get better?
Answer: If you think of optimism as having three dimensions, two of them involve hope. They are: Who did it? How long is it going to last? and How many of the realms of life will it affect? Hope involves the last two. Optimistic people generally feel that good things will last a long time and will have a beneficial effect on everything they do. And they think that bad things are isolated: They won't last too long and won't affect other parts of life.
Q: Hope and optimism, according to your studies and those by others, can be profoundly influenced by religion. Which faiths seemed to be the most optimistic?
A: In our study, we looked at 11 major religions in America and how hopeful and optimistic the adherents were. We looked at the level of optimism in stories the children were told, as well as in the liturgy and sermons. We found strict Calvinists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews were the most hopeful and optimistic, while Unitarians and Reformed Jews tended to be more pessimistic. The fundamentalist religions simply seem to offer more hope for a brighter future than do the more liberal, humanistic ones.
Q: How much of our optimism or pessimism is genetic, as opposed to learned?
A: There is a genetic component, but I don't think it's a very interesting one. I'll tell you what I think is happening. There are physical characteristics which are inherited. These include things like good looks, high intelligence, physical coordination. These attributes contribute to success in life, and success in life is a determinant of optimism. The point here is that certain genes get you into certain environments: This is what we call the gene environment co-variation. So that rather than a specific gene that makes one more or less optimistic, there are a host of genes which put one in environments which effect optimism.
Of course, we believe that optimism can be learned. We teach people a concept called "disputing." This involves recognizing that one often has "catastrophic thoughts," feelings that everything is wrong and that nothing is going to change. We teach people to think of these thoughts as if they were being said by some external person whose mission in life is to make them miserable. Then we have them dispute those thoughts, and that's the heart of the optimism technique.
Q: It also represents, in practice, something that you now refer to as positive psychology. Is this about moving psychology away from the medical model and toward something that is more about improving the lives of healthy people?
A: That's close. Psychology has, since World War II, focused on the question of How can we cure mental illness? It's done very well. There are by my count at least 14 mental illnesses which we can now treat or relieve, either with psychotherapy or with drugs. We've got a great track record repairing damage, but that's just half of the battle. We've ignored the other side, which is to ask, How can we take what we are strongest at and build them up in such a way that they become great buffers against our troubles? So positive psychology is concerned with identifying human strengths and learning how to assess them and translate them into something measurable.
Q: Critics of this might say that you are encouraging people to be delusional. Do you think that optimists are simply putting a positive spin on events in their life, in a way that may stray from reality?
A: There is an interesting scientific dispute about realism and optimism. Some find that very optimistic people have benign illusions about themselves. These people may think they have more control, or more skill, than they actually do. Others have found that optimistic people have a good handle on reality. The jury is still out.
But let me tell you something about an event that led to my conversion, if you will, to the idea of positive psychology. Two years ago, I was in my garden, with my 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. Now, even though I write books about kids, I'm not always good with them. That's because I'm often time- and task-oriented. I was weeding the garden, and Nikki was picking up the weeds and throwing them around. I yelled at her. And she said, "Remember how I used to be a whiner and whine all the time. I decided I wouldn't whine anymore, and now I don't. So you should decide not to be so grumpy."
There are three things I took from that. The first was that she was right. If she could stop whining, I could stop being a grump. The second was a lesson about child rearing. It made me see that I could take this tremendous strength that Nikki had and help her build her life around that strength, so that she could wield it as a buffer against the things that she's not good at. The third was a lesson about my profession. It told me that a psychology that focuses strictly on weaknesses and on fixing broken things is literally only half-baked. So I took it as my mission, from that day forward, to try and change the profession so that it would be fully baked and would not only try to correct the ills that life brings us, but also build on the strengths we have.
Psychology is much bigger than just medicine, or fixing unhealthy things. It's about education, work, marriage--it's even about sports. What I want to do is see psychologists working to help people build strengths in all these domains.
Q: You mentioned sports, and I know you've done research on athletes and the effects optimism has on their performance.
A: We've done studies on elite swimmers, on the [National Basketball Assn.] and on baseball's National League. It's no surprise that optimistic athletes, managers and teams do better. What's interesting is where they do better. It's in coming back from defeat and acting in the clutch. For instance, optimistic swimmers often give their best performances after having lost a race. In the NBA, teams with high optimism are more likely to beat the point spread in a game when they're coming off a defeat.
Q: That's a statistic people who wager on such games might find useful.
A: Yes, but it's very labor-intensive. You have to collect every quote from every sports page about every team. You then use three judges to do content analysis. But someone who spent several tens of thousands of dollars to do such a study might do very well.
Q: In the area of high stakes, let me ask you about the president. Clearly, Bill Clinton is highly optimistic. He's sometimes been criticized for "compartmentalizing," but isn't that the very thing that allows him to remain optimistic?
A: I'm not sure I can comment on the president's ability to compartmentalize, but let me say this about the current political scene. I believe that, in a time of plenty, when there is peace and a general feeling of well-being in the body politic, that simply pushing scandal and a tax cut doesn't play very well. Scandals and tax cuts are really selfish things, and they are not about looking forward and solving problems. It looks to me that what the president is doing is articulating a positive vision. I don't think he's being manipulative; I think it's part of his character. And it speaks to the spiritual needs of a nation that is rich and in peace. . . . The people who are talking scandal and tax cuts are selling us a vision that we don't want. That was seen in the November elections, and I think it's seen in the way the whole impeachment process seems to be falling flat.
In terms of compartmentalizing, Bill Clinton, like many optimists, is able to say, "I'm having problems, but they are local to a specific area. These problems shouldn't effect me in other areas."
Q: Self-esteem would seem to be key ingredient in optimism. But you believe there's been too much emphasis placed on creating self-esteem in children. How could that be a bad thing?
A: Recently, I have come to the belief that high self-esteem can be the cause of violence. There are now quite a few studies showing that bullies, violent gang leaders and even genocidal maniacs often have high self-esteem. One of the formulas for a violent kid is to teach them unwarranted high self-esteem, and then turn that kid on a world that says, "Hey, you're not as good as you think you are." If that kid has poor parental supervision, access to weapons and has a victim's mentality, that's a recipe for violence.
Q: Yet, the common wisdom says it's low self-esteem that causes violence.
A: Well, we were just wrong about that. It's part of the victimology that has pervaded our thinking about why people are violent. It turns out that people with low self-esteem are often passive and don't do much. Rather than giving people an inflated view of themselves, we need to give them concrete reasons to feel good about themselves.
Q: We're all ingrained with the idea of the pursuit of happiness. What does that mean, or perhaps, what should it mean?
A: I am not a happyologist. When I talk about positive psychology, I'm talking about something that's far less limited than being ebullient and cheerful. For me, happiness divides into the domains of past, present and future. The past is your feelings of contentment or well-being. It's the life story you tell yourself. Present is what's usually called happiness. It's how you're feeling right now. And future is your optimism. But we haven't broken these things apart very well.
I would like to say that there are a lot of misconceptions about wealth and happiness. There is a bulk of study which shows that wealthy nations and wealthy individuals are not, by and large, happier. Too often, wealth disconnects people, it gets in their way and keeps them from living a good life and being happy.
Q: Much of your clinical work has been with children. How successful have you been teaching kids to be optimistic?
A: We've had a good deal of success taking pessimistic kids and teaching them the skills of optimism. When you follow these kids through puberty, you can measure the impact. So we know we can teach optimism, we have the tools to do it and it works. But we need to learn how to teach our children how to build other strengths. We need to teach them how to build courage, how to build creativity, a work ethic and interpersonal skills. These are things we still have to learn.
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