The Psychology of Happiness

The Psychology of Happiness

Monday August 27, 2007

The Psychology of Happiness

I”ve mentioned psychologist Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness” (also the name of his website) and the father of positive psychology in past posts because his approach to depression and mood disorders has been helpful. Wendy Schuman of Beliefnet recently interviewed him about how his work has influenced his views on happiness and spirituality.

It’s good stuff. HOWEVER, I do have to warn depressives that while positive psychology offers some important tools with how to tackle intrusive, negative thoughts, a person who is severely depressed should stay away from this stuff. Because it can sometimes contribute to her depression (“I shouldn”t be whining ê¢__‘Ô_. I have so much to be grateful for ê¢__‘Ô_ I”m even more pathetic for not being thankful ê¢__‘Ô_ The fact that I can”t turn around my thoughts is proof that I”m a failure”).

I loved the way Dr. Seligman described to Wendy the epiphany that led him to study happiness:

Almost everything I’ve done that involved big changes in life has happened in a flash. This happened when my daughter Nikki and I were gardening, and she was just five. I should confess that when I garden, I’m goal-directed, time-urgent. Nikki was throwing weeds in the air and dancing around, and I yelled at her. She came back to me and said, “Daddy, do you remember before I was five, I whined all the time, I whined everyday? Did you notice that since my fifth birthday I haven’t whined at all?” I said, Yes, Nikki. “Well, Daddy, that was because on my birthday I decided I wasn’t going to whine anymore. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being so grumpy!”

And yet I know (read my posts “Enough with Gratitude” and “Whining Welcome on Beyond Blue”) that what might be perceived as whining to others is, for me at least, expressing honestly the symptoms of my illness so that I can know better how to move forward in gratitude and love.

For Wendy’s entire interview with Martin Seligman, click here.

It begins this way ê¢__‘Ô_.

Dr. Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the areas of positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and optimism and pessimism. Currently Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he is the author of 20 books, including “Learned Optimism” and “The Optimistic Child.” His latest book is “Authentic Happiness.” He spoke with Wendy Schuman about how his work has influenced his views on happiness and spirituality.

You’re called the father of positive psychology. When you were president of the American Psychological Association, you brought a revolutionary change to the focus of what psychologists were doing. Could you talk about how that happened?

It used to be that whenever I introduced myself to people and told them I was a psychologist, they would shrink away from me. Because quite rightly the impression the American public has of psychologists is “You want to know what’s wrong with me.” Having paid 35 years of dues learning what’s wrong with people, I had my own epiphany which convinced me that what psychology needed to do was to ask not just about the disabling conditions of life, the things that prevent us from having fulfilling lives, but what are the enabling conditions. I came to the belief that we needed to have a psychology to complement the psychology of suffering–a psychology of the best things in life and how to build them.

Were your colleagues at the APA shocked by this change from the mental illness model?ê¢__‘Ôë

When I give speeches to colleagues, it’s the only time in my life that I see people weep in the audience, it’s the only time when I have heartfelt standing ovations. I think many psychologists went into it because they wanted to make people happy. They found that they were on this healthcare plantation in which their job was only remedial. Psychologists recognized they sold their birthright to become part of the healthcare system.

So you’ve enabled them to have a more meaningful impact on the world?ê¢__‘Ôë

Most psychologists want to help you have more fulfilling lives. They want to ask the religious question. My colleagues were very open to this issue. So to my astonishment, because I had always relished being unpopular, this was the most popular thing I’d ever done.