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IPEN Second Annual Festival: The World Positive Education Accelerator (Part 1)

The International Positive Education Network, known to friends as IPEN, held its second annual festival in Ft. Worth Texas from June 25 to June 28. The conference was jointly sponsored by the David L. Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry, so you won’t be surprised that the conference title was The World Positive Education Accelerator.

Not in Manhattan…

I’m Not in Manhattan Any More

I arrived the day before the conference began and started strolling through the streets of Fort Worth, feeling a bit like an extra in a spaghetti western with all the actors in their trailers waiting for the cameras to roll. As I walked through the seemingly deserted town, I had to clasp my straw hat to keep the strong hot gusts from blowing it away. Early the next morning the Fort Worth Convention Center was bursting with more than 800 educators ready to contribute to IPEN’s mission to bring together many voices to promote Positive Education.

These Educators are Pumped for Change

Participants exemplified a new breed of educator, armed with experience in character strengths, meditation breaks, and gratitude interventions along with the usual lesson plans and anti-bullying strategies. They aim to transform contemporary education. More than 200 presenters led a huge variety of sessions, sharing best-practices and practical experiences. David Cooperrider then led an Appreciative Inquiry Summit on Imagining Positive Education.

A Global Movement is Building

IPEN encourages a paradigm shift from focusing solely on academic success to creating education that is steeped in positive emotions, engagement with the world, good relationships with others, a sense of meaning and moral purpose, and the accomplishment of valued goals. The goal of positive education is to equip young people with the knowledge and life skills to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others.

Lea Waters with Lisa Buksbaum

The opening program started with a keynote by Lea Waters author of The Strength Switch, a best-selling book in its fourth printing that has been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Chinese, and Hungarian. Lea is the Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne. She wants to help parents around the world learn how to use the lens of strengths-based parenting (SBP) instead of spending so much energy freaking out, obsessing, and lecturing their children to accomplish more and to score higher on tests. She envisions a world with without Tiger Mothers, Drill Sergeant Dads, and Absentee Parents.

Like a ray of sunshine in her yellow dress, Lea’s morning keynote lit up the opening session as she shared the science, stories and strategies of strength-based parenting. Lea spoke about the need for parents, educators, and students to work together as the three legs of a sturdy stool in order to give a child a strong foundation to flourish and grow. Her scholarship is solid, and her style is approachable and easy to understand. I believe her experience both as a mother and a researcher make her a credible expert who can guide parents through the waters (pardon the pun) of modern parenting.

According to Lea once children and parents can see a child’s strengths, then they can start to build on them. Strengths are protective: they lower levels of depression, anxiety, and negative emotions. They also enhance life satisfaction, positive emotions and self-confidence. Strengths also amplify qualities particularly important for education:

  • Growth mindset, leading to persistence and better academic grades
  • Coping skills for stress, whether the stress comes from friendship issues that are so important to youngsters or from homework challenges
  • Engagement and self-efficacy, leading to a can-do attitude

As the chairperson of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), Lea ended her talk with a personal invitation to attend the IPPA World Congress on July 18-21 2019 in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

Deep Thoughts from the President of IPEN

Sir Anthony Seldon on stage

I’m quite sure I will never forget my first experience of Sir Anthony Seldon, who delivered the opening keynote at the 2016 Inaugural IPEN Festival while standing on his head. He just published a new book, The Fourth Education Revolution, about the impact of artificial intelligence on education.

A master storyteller, Seldon led a more subdued, introspective session this year. It started with him stating that he lost his wife just a few months ago. Sir Anthony urged the audience to take action immediately because “the world is hurting, the world is bleeding, the world needs this… so here are ten things that you can do to make a difference.” Cue some classical music and the start of his keynote: Pleasure Ends But Happiness is Endless. He juxtaposed ten still-life photos of succulent fruits (strawberry, pineapple, blueberries, mango, cherries and the like) with “Seldon-isms” to motivate the participants to meditate on ways they will take action to be positive change-agents in their communities and in the world. Here’s a sample from his 10 points.

Strawberries and Cherries

Smell the silicon.: Artificial intelligence (AI) can be a revolutionary force for the 1.2 billion children around the world without access to schools or qualified teachers. However, he cautioned us to remember to use AI to emphasize what makes us human.

It’s Happiness Stupid! Sir Anthony made a stark distinction between pleasure and happiness:

  • Pleasure is the pursuit, conquest and obsession with objects, consumption and oneself.
  • Happiness is grounded on the spirit, the soul, love, the concept of “us” and what makes us deeply human.

Luscious apples

There is no time to waste. These luscious apples can decay if not eaten soon. We must act now to transform the state of education that was created to match the factory model of the Industrial Revolution into an educational experience that nourishes the talents of children.


Bye bye binary: That’s such a 20th Century concept, seeing the world in stark contrasts such as black vs. white, East vs. West, likes vs. don’t likes. The 21st Century is the era of Both/And. It involves being open to different approaches, learning styles, and cultures in order to hold the space where academic cognitive learning infused with holistic education can be a transformative power in our lives.

Coming soon: Part 2 with reports on speeches by luminaries such as Angela Duckworth, Martin Seligman, and Dan Kessler, whose company’s app has reached 30 million people.

To read the 2nd part of this article click here.



Seldon, A. & Abidoye, O. (2018). The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity. University of Buckingham Press.

Waters, L. (2017). The Strength Switch: How The New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Your Teen to Flourish. New York: Avery.

Image Credits from Unsplash
Boots in Texas Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash
Strawberries and cherries: Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash
Cherries Photo by Thomas Quaritsch on Unsplash

Pictures of Sir Anthony Seldon and Dr. Lea Waters courtesy of Soaringwords.org

IPEN Part 2: Angela Duckworth and Dan Kessler and more

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IPEN Part 2:   Angela Duckworth and Dan Kessler and more


To read part 1 of this article click here.

Walking the Character Walk with Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth breezed into the Ft. Worth Conference Center at the end of the afternoon and quickly captivated all 800 participants with her passion, humility, and humor. Her riveting headliner talk was called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

However, her first statement was, “There’s something bigger and more urgent in education than Grit and that something is Character.” In fact, she quoted the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Intelligence plus character, that is the good of true education.” She went on to say that as a former teacher, “I never met a kid that didn’t make me want to help him or her live a better life.”

Her goal is to teach the faithful that character strengths can be learned and practiced because they are malleable. Duckworth is the founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to advance the science and practice of character development. With the IPEN crowd she had a most receptive audience.

IPEN Wall chart (click for larger view)

The fact that she’s also a woman of many contradictions made her talk more interesting. For example, although she is a MacArthur Genius (proving that she’s really smart) and she has been incorporating character strengths into positive education for years, when it comes to her own children, Duckworth is a self-confessed Tiger Mom. She was herself raised by two Asian parents who always quietly inquired, “What happened to the other two points?” if she got a 98% test grade. Effortlessly sharing the data from the character research while acknowledging the reality of being a modern-day parent makes Duckworth’s talks resonate with educators and parents alike.

After telling several poignant and humorous examples from the front-lines of education demonstrating how grit and self-control are distinct from IQ and how they powerfully predict success and well-being, Angela unveiled several new videos from Character Lab. These videos are part of the Character Lab Playbooks, a suite of videos, lesson plans and activities all of which are freely downloadable for teachers to use. For example, there are videos for Expert Practice (Grit), for Building Connections (Curiosity), and for WOOP (boosting self-control).

For those of you who have not encountered this acronym, WOOP stands for setting a Wish or intention; identifying the intended Outcome; articulating Obstacles in the way of achieving the goal; and creating a Plan.

Character Lab WOOP from Character Lab on Vimeo.

More Character Lab videos appear in the references below.

Speaking of videos, if you’d like to learn more about grit, here’s a Soaringwords interview with Angela filmed in New York City on the evening before her book was published: How Gritty Are You?.

Daniel Kessler
Courtesy of Soaringwords.org

Measurable Behavior Changes with Meditation

I was intrigued by the title of Dan Kessler’s talk, Making Meditation the 21st Century’s Dodge Ball, since I don’t typically think about meditation, people turning inward to calm their minds, in the same sentence with dodge ball, a sometimes vicious sport that tantalized and terrorized students in my childhood. So he had me at the title.

As the VP of Business Development and Partnerships at Headspace, Kessler and his colleagues have been busy “making the world happier” as more than 30 million people have already downloaded the Headspace meditation apps. Meditation was surely considered weird in the 1960s, but is now common as today teachers around the world lead meditation in classrooms. Students show measurable behavior changes that suggest they have become a “little bit more self-aware and kind.”

Specifically, Dan showed findings that Headspace apps increase compassion by 23% and decrease aggression by 57% after three weeks of meditation practice. After ten days, students show an 11% decrease in stress, which drops to a 32% decrease after 30 days. He ended his talk by announcing the Educator’s discount of 90%, allowing educators to sign up on Headspace.com for $1 a month.

Author with Jessica Finkelstein
courtesy of SoaringWords.org

SOARING into Strength in the Classroom

I was delighted to co-present two talks during the afternoon break-out sessions with my esteemed colleague, Jessica Finkelstein, the After-school Advisor and Health PE teacher at Millennium High School in New York City.

Our first talk illustrated Soaringwords’ pay-it-forward positive educational interventions using expressive arts projects (writing, artwork, movement and song) that have been shared with more than 100,000 students in classrooms and schools throughout North America and dozens on other countries. Students experience a shift when they discover that doing something kind and simple for an ill classmate or a child who is in the hospital can actually have a transformative impact on his/her own well-being. It makes the teachers feel pretty amazing as well! The second talk shared Best Practices for Educators, Parents, and School communities when a child is ill or dies. Specifically, we talked about the Ten Things to Never Say to a Student Who is Ill or to a Child who is Grieving.

To read part 1 of this article click here.

More of Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab videos:

Expert Practice from Character Lab on Vimeo.

Character Lab Playbooks from Character Lab on Vimeo.

The rest of the playbooks

Other Resources

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Scribner.

Headspace (2018). Scientific rigor.

Inspire picture and wall chart from the official IPEN photographs.
Other photos used courtesy of Soaringwords.org

Movie Review: Far From The Tree

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Movie review from the national premiere of Far From the Tree
Directed by Rachel Dretzin & based on the book by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Andrew Solomon

“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is a timeworn adage that gets most heads nodding like a metronome. Except, of course, when the apple does in fact fall far. This stunning documentary takes you behind the scenes with several incredible families where individual children are outliers, entirely distinctive from all the other kinsfolk. Right now the film is opening in theaters across the United States and I encourage you to observe positive profiles in resilience, hope, and the enduring power of love amongst five amazing families. Perhaps you’ll need a wad of tissues.

The movie is based on Andrew Solomon’s critically acclaimed best-selling book of the same name that took readers on an intimate journey into the hearts and private recesses of families with differently-abled offspring. Now ten years later, five new families are featured in the film.

Solomon plunged into a 12-year exploration of what it means to have a child who is profoundly different after his agonizing coming out experience with his parents. Both parents admonished him that his homosexuality was immoral and would lead to a life of pain, solitude, and suffering. This motivated him to explore how other parents responded to their differently-abled children. This journey of self-discovery resulted in the 800-page book that won all sorts of awards and made him into a champion of people whose perceived deficits can be celebrated instead of cured.

In masterfully crafting a constellation of stories of difference, Solomon and Director Rachel Dretzin actually illuminate what unites us, rather than what divides us.

Using home movie footage, poignant parent interviews and active slice-of-life footage of the five families going about their daily lives you feel that you are watching an intimate time-release trajectory of the child’s life from birth, toddlerhood, young adulthood as the struggles and victories occur right in front of the camera. The result is compelling; it is impossible to look away. You come to know, respect, and love the film’s parents and children.

Dretzel and Solomon panel

These profiles include Jason, a 41-year old vibrant man with Down syndrome who was a child star on Sesame Street; Jack, a teenager with severe autism; Loini, a 23-year-old woman with dwarfism as she attends her first Little People of America Conference discovering that there are thousands of other people like her; Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism who decide to have a baby and give birth to a daughter of average stature; and the parents and siblings of Trevor, a young man who is incarcerated because at age 16, he murdered an 8-year-old boy in his neighborhood.

After the film debut to a sold-out crowd at the JCC Manhattan, Solomon and Dretzin did a Talk Back with the audience. It was a primer in positive psychology that can be summarized in these four findings:

Narrative has healing power.

If you’re familiar with the work of Jamie Pennebaker and Margarita Tarragona, you appreciate how hearing positive stories and telling positive stories helps shape perceptions of our individual realities in a more positive way. According to Solomon, “It’s only by delving deep into yourself that you reach the point of your own healing. So many people I interviewed before the film felt lonely and isolated by their experiences. Telling coherent narratives was a way for them to feel fully realized, seen and celebrated.“

Guilt kills happiness.

To a parent, at one point every single mother and father profiled in the film poignantly ponders their part in their child’s situation. “Perhaps a healthier diet during pregnancy” or maybe it was “a malfunction passed down through the genes,” or maybe “breastfeeding would have resulted in a more normal child.” After hearing each of these resilient, noble parents voice these doubts while looking directly into the camera, the film skillfully makes the case that sometimes nature trumps nurture. I think one of the most powerful outcomes from watching the movie is the heightened empathy I feel for the parents, including the parents and siblings of a child who perpetrated a violent crime.

Acceptance is a lifelong process.

Lisa with Andrew Solomon

The movie shows us five powerful examples of parents accepting the child they have, not ruminating over the “what ifs” or “what could have beens.” In 1987, Emily Klingsley, Jason’s mother, wrote an essay entitled Welcome to Holland that captures the feelings of remorse, bewilderment, and finally tolerance and acceptance.

Forgiveness is powerful.

One of the most compelling moments in the film is in the scene at Solomon’s wedding when his father gives a loving toast to his son and brand-new son-in-law. Aside from his sexual identity, over the years, Solomon has also written about his debilitating bouts of depression (The Noonday Demon) when his father bathed and fed him until he was strong enough to care for himself. When an audience member asked him if he took his dad to task for his parents’ initial attempts to convince him to become heterosexual, Solomon sighed and said, “My father is 91 years old. That happened a long time ago. We love each other and there’s no reason to rehash past trauma.” This is a staggering example of forgiveness in action by a masterfully gifted storyteller and activist.


Movie Trailer


Solomon, A. (2013). Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (Reprint). New York: Scribner.

Kingsley, E. P. (1987). Welcome to Holland.

Niederhoffer, K. G. & Pennebaker, J. W. (2009). Sharing one’s story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience. In S. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), By Shane J. Lopez, C.R. Snyder: Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology Second (2nd) Edition. Oxford University Press.

Solomon, A. (2015). The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. New York: Scribner.

Tarragona, M. (2013). Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology. The Positive Psychology Workbook Series.

Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (part 2)

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On July 2, I published the first part of my report about Tal Ben-Shahar speaking to about 1000 people at at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El in New York City. Here is part 2, with the remaining 2 major points from his speech and some of the observations that came up during the question and answer period.

Editor’s note: I request permission to be human! At the end of part 1, we told you that part 2 would be published on Thursday, July 5. However I failed to keep the promise because I took a daylong vacation from my computer to celebrate my birthday. I had a lovely day disconnected from technology and connected to people. The weather has been so nice that I’ve spent my time outside.

4. It’s ALL About Relationships

Citing the World Happiness Study for 2018, Tal reported that the happiest countries in the world, including Denmark, Israel, Norway, and Australia, share two main indicators of well-being:

  • The ability to find the positive even in difficult situations
  • The presence of positive relationships amongst friends and family, co-workers and community groups

Playing Mahjong

For example in Denmark, one of the happiest countries, 93% of the population are members of social clubs or churches. They get together regularly for worship or recreation, such as playing MahJong or boating. In Israel, people form strong relationships in school and sports and spend quality time with family and friends observing holidays and the weekly Shabbat.

Online relationships do not provide the same upturn in positive emotions as the positive resonance experienced in person. New York University Sociology Professor Jon Kleinberg posits that the more time we spend on social media, the lonelier we’re likely to be.

5. Pay-if-forward

“You can always give something, even if it is only kindness.” ~ Anne Frank

Tal used the story of Anne Frank, hidden in an attic in Amsterdam for more than two years to avoid being taken by the Nazis, to remind us that we have a choice to be kind to others even when our personal situations are grim.

Giving benefits the giver

Paying-it-forward motivated me to launch Soaringwords, a global not-for-profit organization 17 years ago. My family had experienced three episodes of death and illness over the course of ten months. Gary, my only sibling died, my father had two bouts of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and my oldest son Jon was stricken with Rheumatic Fever and bedridden for four months. Instead of giving in to despair, I decided to take my experiences and create an organization that helps ill children, their siblings, parents, and the extended community learn how to take active roles in their own care. Soaringwords inspires ill children to pay-it-forward because this action facilitates transformative self-healing by focusing attention away from suffering and towards helping another person.

Tal confided to the audience that his favorite Hebrew word is NATAN. In Hebrew and in English NATAN is a palindrome, a word that is spelled the same when the letters are arranged forward or backwards. Natan means “When I give, I receive.”

How does money make you see the world?

Tal cited studies by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues where students in a lab setting were given a nice sum of money and randomly divided into two groups.

The first group was told, “Spend the money on yourself. Buy yourself something nice… a new gadget, a new pair of shoes… whatever you want.” Naturally the students in the first condition experienced a shopper’s high: their happiness went up for that day and went down only slightly the next day.

The second group was given the same sum of money and instructed to “Spend the money on someone else.” The students in the second group also experienced an upsurge in happiness on the first day. The difference was that these students still reported an upswing in happiness one week later.

Questions and Answers

The question and answer session was moderated by the talented Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer. Julie and Tal took the audience behind the scenes to uncover the powerful benefits of exercise, reframing, and legacy. Here are some of the highlights from this riveting part of the program.

The Wonderful, Undeniable, Powerful Impact of Exercise on Well-Being.

Julie Rice and her partner, Elizabeth Cutler, built Soul Cycle into a successful company with 47 locations with a loyal following. They bucked the conventional wisdom of hard-core gyms which can seem competitive and intimidating. When people arrive at Soul Cycle, they feel embraced by an energized community where instructors are motivational and nurturing and everyone is appreciated for his or her own ability. According to Julie, “We were familiar with the research of Michael Blumenthal and colleagues at Duke Medical School that showed how exercising three times a week has the same as psychotropic drugs to reduce depression. Exercise (and community) cause a powerful natural reaction to occur releasing positive natural chemicals into the brain that help regulate mood, such as serotonin.

Tal and Julie both brought up the research by John J. Ratey demonstrating that physical exercise reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease by 52%. The mental benefits of exercise far outweigh the physical benefits. Exercise is a powerful way to reduce stress and enhance vitality.

He Lives What He Says

In addition to being a principal contributor in several positive psychology institutions, Tal is also a social entrepreneur. He co-founded Potentialife to “bring the science of flourishing to the world.” The company runs several not-for-profit programs including programs on positive psychology in schools throughout Israel.

Back in 2012, Soaringwords was invited to collaborate with Zumba® Fitness and invite instructors to lead free monthly classes in hospitals around the world. I met Tal at the Global Zumba Instructor Convention where he was the inspirational keynote speaker for 9,000 Zumba leaders.

Tal and Zumba enthusiasts

Here is a photo from our first meeting at the Zumba Instructor Convention. The following summer, Tal agreed to emcee a Soaringwords’ program at the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) World Congress the following summer.

Tal and Barbara Fredrickson were the emcees at the IPPA celebration where 300 people paid-it-forward by making SoaringSuperhero® puppets for hospitalized children and then enjoying a Zumba Master Class led by the fabulous Marcie Benavides and DJ Francis.

Tal with Parents at Graduation

Honor Your Mother and Father.

Tal cites his mother and father as the inspiration for a life of gratitude, service, and positive relationships. “My siblings and I did not have an easy life, but we always felt that our parents loved us and valued us. My parents put an emphasis on education so we all felt that we really mattered. When I taught the Positive Psychology course at Harvard I saw how students from all walks of life are striving for meaning and purpose, as well as relationships, and happiness.”

You can read the first part of the article here.


Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2014). Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness. The Experiment: Reprint Edition.

Anderson, A., Huttenlocher, D., Kleinberg, J. & Leskovec,J. (2012). Effects of user similarity in social media.

Blumenthal,J. A., Smith, P. J., & Hoffman, B. M. (2012). Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSM’s Fitness Journal, 16(4): 14–21. doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000416000.09526.eb

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Prosocial spending and happiness: Using money to benefit others pays offCurrent Directions in Psychological Science.

Dunn, E. & Norton, M. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. Simon Shuster.

Easley, D. & Kleinberg, J. (2010). Networks, crowds, and markets: Reasoning about a highly connected world. Cambridge University Press. Draft version available online.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Playing Mahjong courtesy of Immagini 2&3D

Gift of tomatoes Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash
The remaining images are used courtesy of SoaringWords.


Sir Anthony Seldon Interviews Martin Seligman

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On the occasion of Dr. Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham on March 28 in New York City.

Seligman with MAPPsters

I was delighted to dash into the Lamb’s, a club on West 51 Street in New York City. It’s just a few steps away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, and the bustle of Fifth Avenue. I was ushered into a plush third floor sitting room where the man of the hour, Dr. Martin Seligman, was nursing a scotch surrounded by several graduates of the MAPP program at Penn. He smiled broadly to see me, and I did the same.

Seligman was holding court, discussing pressing global trends in quick succession: the dearth of positive news coverage and the urgent necessity to overcome media bias by looking for news with a global perspective and from different media outlets. We discussed leadership from Brexit to Putin to the president of the United States. It was a typical, thrilling, probing, impromptu discourse with one of the great thinkers of our time.

I was thrilled to be invited to witness Seligman receiving an honorary degree from the University of Buckingham, the only university in the UK completely independent of government support.

Suddenly we were ushered into another room where Marty and the top brass from the University of Buckingham donned their brightly colored ceremonials robes.

Seligman holding honorary degree

After the ceremonial march and the bestowal of the honorary degree, waiters arrived with champagne flutes on silver platters. Sir Anthony Seldon invited everyone to raise their glasses to toast the occasion. He then invited the audience to listen to an intimate interview with Professor Seligman.

Seligman began his initial remarks by addressing the audience. “If well-being is going to be a moral compass, then we need to understand what’s missing.” He then posed a stark question, “In the past year, how many of you experienced a major tragedy directly?”

Hands shot up and Seligman calculated the response.

Seligman: About 5-10%. That’s the correct percentage of the general population. It’s typically what I see when I ask audiences this question. So here’s the missing piece. Given this relatively small percentage of people who experience profound tragedy, why do people think that the world is in terrible shape?

Today the Worldwide Well-being Index is 6.5 out of 10, while there is more flourishing globally more than at any time in recorded history. More people have been pulled out of poverty. Many life-threatening diseases have been eradicated. There’s a huge gap between actual negative events and the reporting of negative events.

This is because the media’s continual bombardment of tragedy and terror. Young people today perceive that the world is a terrible place. So the first thing that is needed to enhance well-being is balanced journalism that reports positive, hopeful events that are happening all the time, rather than just reporting the negative, catastrophic events.

Interview underway

Seldon: In your estimation, what are other trends that impact global well-being?

Seligman: We are in need of positive political leadership because a positive human future cannot happen accidentally. We need leaders who actively cultivate a positive future.

Seldon: You’ve written twenty books and co-authored hundreds of scholarly articles. You are considered the founder of the field of modern Positive Psychology. Can you share your career trajectory with us?

Seligman: There are five stages of my career. When you get to be my age you have perspective on what you’ve accomplished. When I was 21 years old, I worked on helplessness: what happens to people and animals who experience uncontrollable events. The conclusions were that helpless beings experience more depression, have more ailments, and actually die sooner. At the time I was doing this work the field of psychology was male-dominated with 80% of the practitioners being men, compared to 20% women.

For decades I had been sweeping important data under the rug. In time I noticed that some people did not become helpless. In fact, a third of the people and animals resisted helplessness. So I wondered, what is it about these humans and animals that makes them resilient? I started to study the way people thought about tragedy and noticed that some people tended to view things as permanent, pervasive, and their own fault whereas the more resilient respondents had a different tendency: “Things will not always be this way. I can do something to improve my situation. The current state of affair is not my fault.”

A relief to study optimism

That started the third phase of my career when I decided to study optimists. I must say this was a welcome change from studying helplessness and depression for so many decades!

There is so much data on why optimism is a good thing, including significant positive health outcomes. Among the findings we discovered were that optimists get depressed less than pessimists, have fewer colds than their more pessimistic counterparts and tend to live eight years longer. This work led me to question the way the psychology profession was oriented where everything was diagnostic and professionals were focused on what was wrong with people and how to cure them. It was 1998 and in my inaugural speech to the American Psychological Association convention I called for a science of positive psychology to study what makes us human and what makes us experience more well-being.

Seldon: Can everyone on Earth become happier including neurotic people and depressed people if they do the right things?

Seligman: When you are below the poverty line, the more money you have, the happier you become. Today 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Tomorrow an additional 300,000 people will come out of poverty. Once the majority of the world population rises above the safety net the challenge for the human future is building more well-being into our lives. Once someone earns more than $95,000 there’s a curvilinear impact as a person earns more. Around $120,000, happiness flattens out.

Seldon: What things can people do for themselves and their loved ones to be even happier?

Seligman: Look at how you celebrate in your marriage or key relationships. How do you celebrate together, what rituals do you do together? Another essential thing is how you respond to each other without tuning each other out or responding in habitual, numbing ways. Active Constructive Listening is a wonderful way to reinforce your partner’s strengths and to let them savor what they really are and what they are good at.

Mandy Seligman

Earlier today my wife Mandy got elected to PhotoSoho as a professional photographer, a clear distinction after years of being perceived as an amateur photographer.

Instead of saying something Passively Constructive such as, “Congratulations Mandy, you deserve it”

Or something Passively Destructive such as, “What’s for dinner?”

Or Actively Destructive, “Do you know what tax bracket this will put us into when the gallery starts to sell your photos?”

I decided to be Actively Constructive in my response which went something like this: “You know Mandy when I saw the portfolio you brought to the meeting with the gallery, that photo of the swan you took from our vacation in UK at Blenheim Palace, it was the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen of a bird. Where were you in the gallery when they told you that you were elected? What specifically did they say to you? What strengths do you have that draws you to this profession? How can you use these strengths more? Let’s open a bottle of Dom Perignon and celebrate.”

Seldon: Thanks for sharing such a wonderful personal example from the master of positive psychology. To be happier is not selfish, it’s actually pro-social. There’s a difference between happiness and pleasure. If we make our relationships happier and our organizations happier than everything works for the greater good. Marty, I have one last question: Can you teach this to children?

Seligman: Yes students are malleable and readily embrace the Character Strengths based learning. Alejandro Adler at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center just concluded a study in Peru among 700,000 students. The findings clearly show that character strengths education has a positive impact. It can significantly enhance literacy, numeracy, and scientific reasoning. Read more about this study here “Teaching Well-Being increases Academic Performance: Evidence …

Seldon: So Marty what’s your current focus?

Seligman: The fifth phase I’ve been pondering for quite some time actually pertains to the concept of time. I realized that the traditional view of psychology is built on a conceptual foundation of “what’s wrong with our lives” and this framework is wrapped around analysis of the past. For example, ruminating or analyzing about all the things that went wrong in our childhoods, or all the things that have gone wrong in our lives up until today.

Seligman’s new book

This antiquated worldview is a default mode of thinking: the notion that our past would predict our future. When one recognizes the colossal failure of predicting the outcome of the UK election and the most recent US presidential election based on past behavior we can clearly see what a poor indicator past behavior is on future outcomes.

Furthermore, the default mode is the same circuit that lights up when we daydream but there’s another circuit that I call the Hope Circuit. I believe that this is the most significant distinction that makes us human. We are not homo-sapiens, we are homo-prospectus, creatures of the future.

Wishful thinking is passive. Hopeful thinking is active and has a great deal of agency behind it.

Seldon: Thanks to everyone for coming to this special celebration. Please join me in thanking Dr. Seligman for sharing his insights that prove that the highest form of intelligence is to know how to live well.



Adler, A. (2016). Teaching well-being increases academic performance: Evidence From Bhutan, Mexico, and Peru. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania.

Dweck, C. (2014). The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. TEDx Norrkoping.

Lopez, S. (2013). Making hope happen: SoaringWord interview.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). APA President Address 1998.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2018). The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. PublicAffairs.

Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. Oxford University.

Permission to be Human: Tal Ben-Shahar (Part 1)

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On June 12, a standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people gathered at the illustrious Streicker Center at the Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue in New York City for a talk by world-renowned happiness expert, Tal Ben-Shahar. Tal is deeply humble, but he mesmerized an audience that hung on his every word, eager to learn about the science and practical steps necessary to experience greater well-being. At the end of his presentation, Julie Rice, WeWork’s Chief Marketing Officer, interviewed Tal in a riveting discussion of happiness. I shall cover 3 out of his 5 major points in this article and return on Thursday with the rest.

1. Be Open to Negative Emotions

Tal opened his talk with a paradox: when we suppress or reject painful emotions, it actually hurts us because we internalize the trauma. Tal recommends a middle ground where we do not deny painful emotions, but we also do not give in to despair.

Golda Meir

Instead, he recommends active acceptance: experiencing the painful emotions, then letting them flow out of us and dissipate, thereby allowing us, in time, to have room to experience more positive emotions.

We allow ourselves to be human when we experience the full gamut of emotions. In this way we can truly appreciate the good, and then the good grows.

Tal quoted Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel who said, “Those who don’t know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.”

2. Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste!

According to David Schnarch, world-renowned sex and marital therapist, the most common causes of relationship gridlock are things that won’t surprise you. The deepest conflicts ensue from four areas: The Kids/Education, Sex, Money, In-laws.

According to Tal, when couples reach an impasse, there are three common ways to respond:

    • The partners separate.
    • The partners stay together, but they are not really emotionally together.
  • The partners stay together and things are bumpy, it feels hard, and it hurts. With time, the difficult emotions pass, and the relationship is stronger because it endured the difficulty. The best relationships are those where the people work through conflict together. They follow Winston Churchill’s advice:

    “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.”

Things do not always happen for the best, but some people are able to make the best out of things that happen. The most successful learn from the challenging circumstances.

This is true in other arenas besides personal relationships. Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas concluded that adversity brings out the best in real leaders.

“Even when battered by experience, leaders do not see themselves as helpless or find themselves paralyzed. They look at the same events that unstring those less capable and fortunate and see something useful, and often a plan of action as well.” ~ Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas

3. Stress is Here to Stay. It’s All About Recovery.

Everyone appreciates that life today is full of stress. Wherever we turn, stressors abound. It’s naïve to imagine that you can avoid stress, so the operative question is, “How can you best recover from stress?” Tal posits that ability to recover distinguishes those who experience well-being from those who experience burn-out.

Tal presented a three-tiered approach to recovery that is easy to implement in any stressful situation, as long as you remember to pause and detach for a moment.

Micro-Level Recovery

It only takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes to experience a Micro-level Recovery Break. Close your eyes, and take three deep breaths. This puts the brakes on your amygdala flooding your brain with stress hormones. Your mind and body can come back to balance.

Tal recommends setting an alarm or building this practice into your schedule four times each day. This practice can make an enormous difference in your well-being.

Mid-level Recovery

Reciting Blessings over Shabbat candles

Tal expounds the necessity of getting a good night’s sleep (eight hours) and taking a Sabbath or mini-vacation for one day each week. Tal is a sabra born in Israel, so he appreciates the practice of observing a day of rest. The country of Israel officially slows down on the Jewish Sabbath so that people can spend time relaxing and being with family and friends.

Macro-level Recovery

It’s no coincidence that the words creation and recreation are similar. J.P. Morgan, one of the most successful business leaders of all time alluded to the need for recharge and step away from the daily grind by saying, “I can do the work of a year in nine months, but not in twelve.”

To read Part 2 of Permission to be Happy click here



Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life. New York: McGraw Hill.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Professional.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2016, June 23). Relationship gridlock. Happier TV.

Bennis, W. G., & Thomas, R. J. (2002), Geeks and Geezers: How era, values, and defining moments shape leaders – How tough times shap good leaders.Harvard Business Review.

Snarch, D. (2009). Passionate Marriage: Keeping Love and Intimacy Alive in Committed Relationships. W. W. Norton.