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