Happiness…the power of positive psychology

Happiness…the power of positive psychology

By Stacey Burling – Inquirer Staff Writer

No one could accuse Marty Seligman of thinking small.

The University of Pennsylvania psychology professor earned the respect of his peers studying the equivalent of depression in dogs, but it is his more recent fascination with the flip side of sadness – how to get life right – that has made this serious man a pop-psych power hitter. At 67, he is using his academic reputation and his formidable sales skills to reform, well, just about everything. His premise: that we’ve spent too much time trying to fix what’s wrong and not nearly enough figuring out how to make more things right.

Let’s start with the Army, an unlikely target for the branch of inquiry that Seligman fathered: positive psychology. Instead of mental illness, positive psychology focuses on what makes some of us stronger, happier, and more satisfied than the norm. It involves learning to think differently about both good and bad events and appreciating that there is more than one path to an emotionally satisfying life.

Such touchy-feely stuff would seem out of place among people who wear heavy boots and fatigues.

But there was Seligman at Penn last summer, explaining to a group of sergeants the audaciously ambitious Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program that their generals had just decided to undertake. Ultimately, 1.1 million soldiers will receive training based on positive psychology. The Army hopes it will make them more resilient – less prone to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Seligman is short and a little paunchy, but not soft. Built more like a butcher than a professor, he paced before the impressively fit soldiers with a rough energy that conveyed both physical vitality and mental restlessness. The product of an unhappy stint in an Albany, N.Y., military school, he easily commanded the room’s attention. The sergeants applauded loudly when he said they would teach their fellow soldiers better coping skills.

He talked about blessings, signature strengths, and support for spouses’ successes, but his manner was disarmingly rational, backed by charts and studies. His deep, authoritative voice – possibly his best physical attribute – lent his words just the right gravity. He confidently walked the line between grand and grandiose as he pronounced: “We’re after creating an indomitable Army.”

Changing military culture would be a lifetime’s work for most psychologists, but it’s just part of what Seligman is up to. He’s expanding the Positive brand to education, health, and neuroscience, and still hopes to take it to corporations. Then there’s plain old positive psychology, for which he has the grandest goal of all.

He talked about that in Philadelphia last year at the first World Congress on Positive Psychology. It drew 1,500. While most countries measure their wealth in dollars, some positive psychologists advocate measuring well-being, a broad concept that goes well beyond the transitory pleasures so many associate with happiness. People at the top of the well-being scale are said to be flourishing.

Only 10 percent to 18 percent of the world’s population is flourishing, Seligman said. Not enough. His goal is to make the world happier.

Read the original article, and more about Seligman, positive psychology and happiness…here