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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Please join us at the Annual Soaringwords Soiree at
WeWork Bryant Park on Monday, June 4.
Honoring Sheri Sobrato, Founder of the Digging Deep Project
and Soaringwords Volunteers
54 West 40 Street
Bryant Park 2nd Floor Ballroom
New York, NY 10018
Cocktails 6:00 Dinner at 7:30
Click here to buy tickets through Eventbrite website.
Soaringwords’ mission is to inspire ill children and their families to take active roles in self-healing. Soaringwords provides fun, creative and educational activities both in person and online based on positive psychology concepts. Soaringwords is unique as it is the only organization to motivate ill children and families to “pay it forward” to help others. Studies show that when a child does something kind for another child it accelerates transformative healing.
If you would like to purchase tickets via check, please mail to:
54 West 40th Street
New York, N.Y. 10018
For more information contact: Lisa Honig Buksbaum, 917-499-3783, email@example.com
Click here to download Soaringwords Soiree Invitation.
Each morning the locker room overflows with people from all walks of life who come to stretch, swim, meditate, or pump iron. At 7:30 am, the early morning crew of active seniors completes water aerobics class and heads out for coffee as the pre-work professionals grab pilates or yoga classes before running to their offices.
As I toss my towel into the bin and head out to work, I relish seeing my favorite cohort, adorable babies with mommies and babysitters getting ready for swim class. Watching these small humans proves the adage that we’re actually born with distinctive character traits. Many babies happily munch on Cheerios intrigued by locker room activity all around them. But sometimes piercing wails reverberate off locker room walls making sure everyone knows that someone is NOT HAVING A GOOD DAY while earnest mothers cajole and plead with their precious offspring to take off socks or put on bathing cap and goggles.
As we grow wiser, we begin to understand that we are the only ones truly responsible for our own happiness. It’s a choice to let someone else’s mood, actions, or words destroy our happiness. So today, on the 2018 International Day of Happiness, here are three simple actions to elevate your well-being.
Take a deep dive into what makes you unique.
The VIA Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) Classification emerged from three years of globe-spanning research as leading scientists searched for universal character strengths that answered the question: “What is it that makes us human?”
Click to see larger view
The scientists gathered artifacts from art, literature, and music across time, geography, world religions, and multi-cultural relevance. The 24 strengths that met their criteria include Creativity, Bravery, Love and be Loved, Fairness, Humility, and Gratitude, as shown in this image of the 24 strengths arranged in 6 virtue categories.
When you take a little time to complete the VIA survey you will be immediately delighted to access your signature strengths, the ones that make you the best version of yourself. Reading through your Character Strengths and Virtues Classification is like running into a dear friend from college or grade school, someone you used to enjoy. Perhaps you haven’t thought of this person in a long time due to the press of responsibilities that bear down on your busy, active, grown-up life.
The best part is that everyone has signature strengths. Empirical research by Gander and colleagues posits that use of signature strengths in new ways can lead to feelings of enhanced well-being, which can last for up to six months. Thus, doing something you love, in which you excel, can result in positive cascading emotions for up to half a year! I hope you will take the VIA this week. Post a comment about what you discover when you reconnect to your essence.
Over the past 17 years that I’ve led Soaringwords, I have seen thousands of patients use signature strengths in pay-it-forward expressive arts projects to inspire other ill kids to “Never give up!” In my capstone research, I found that inviting a child or teen to do something kind for someone else by harnessing his or her unique strengths accelerates transformative healing.
Reframe things in the face of difficulty
The only certainty in life is that nothing is constant. Your ability to be flexible in the midst of challenges plays a significant role for you to be able to experience greater equanimity and balance, even in turbulent times. One way hospitalized children, teens, and family members experience greater optimism is by a process called reframing. Reframing is the ability to look beyond the negative or painful aspects of an illness or hospitalization and to see and appreciate some of the unexpected, delightful things that happen.
Courtesy of Photo courtesy of All Saints Episcopal School
In my upcoming book, I profile Anna. Anna is legally blind and deaf and the heart of the girl’s middle school basketball team in her small New Hampshire town. Her tenacity and courage inspire her teammates and opponents to put aside competition several times during each game for the purpose of giving Anna the thrill of scoring a few baskets. Although only twelve years old, this girl is a master reframer. As her family was driving home from a recent game in which her team was trounced, she told her parents, “I’m so happy, that was a great game. Last time we lost by 92 points, today we only lost by 75! I think we’re getting so much better.” Both of her parents raised her to find the bright side of every situation. They encouraged her to figure things out without excessively coddling her.
Think of an example in your life right now that could use some reframing.
Experience sacred moments of awe
Sometimes we experience positive moments that take our breath away. Most people state that awe is experienced in the midst of massive and staggeringly beautiful natural phenomena, such as a gorgeous sunset, an epic mountain range, or the beauty of the sea. Other people describe feelings of awe when listening to a powerful piece of music.
In the Bois de Hal
Awe arises with feelings of admiring wonder when witnessing the feats of high-performance athletes or dancers.
However, children, teens, and families grappling with serious illness often recount that they experience sacred, fleeting of awe in the midst of pain or suffering. Awe involves being in the presence of something powerful often associated with feelings of submission or being overwhelmed.
I remember being on the beach with dear friends Elissa and Clint when their son, Jake, stood up by himself for the first time in six years. Anyone who witnesses a loved one speak for the first time after a debilitating stroke surely knows an awe that may be the most powerful emotion they’ve ever experienced. Be present. When you are receptive to awe, you will be rewarded.
Since awe is often inspired by nature, pay attention to rainbows, stunning sunsets, moody clouds, glorious trees, or the dazzling array of color on a single leaf.
Remember a moment of awe that you experienced in your life. How does this experience of awe and wonder make you feel more hopeful? Is there anything that happened after this experience that makes you feel more hopeful about something else in your life? Take a few moments to savor the experience by writing about it and send me a post.
International Day of Happiness: March 20, 2018
International Day of Happiness is a wonderful time to remember that there are literally hundreds of opportunities each day to flex your character strengths. When you use your signature strengths you harness the best parts of yourself.
When things are not going well it’s an excellent opportunity to reframe things to recognize anything for which you can be grateful.
Remember that giving yourself time for stillness and reflection provides a daily opportunity to experience awe, a powerful emotion that elevates thoughts and souls.
Buksbaum, L. SOARING into Strength: The New Science Approach to Help You Heal. In preparation.
Gander F., Proyer R. T., Ruch W., Wyss T. (2012). The good character at work: an initial study on the contribution of character strengths in identifying healthy and unhealthy work-related behavior and experience patterns. International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, 85: 895–904. DOI: 10.1007/s00420-012-0736-x
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Most are used courtesy of Soaringwords.org.
The forest image is used courtesy of INABA Tomoaki with a Creative Commons license, retrieved from Flickr using Compfight.
Official logo of the International Day of Happiness