The Psychology of Real Happiness
Psychologist Martin Seligman helped change his profession's focus from what's wrong with people to what's right with them.
BY: Interview by Wendy Schuman
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?
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?
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.
What was the epiphany that led you 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!"