Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

The Psychology of Happiness

I’ve mentioned psychologist Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness” (also the name of his website) and the father of positive psychology in past posts because his approach to depression and mood disorders has been helpful. Wendy Schuman of Beliefnet recently interviewed him about how his work has influenced his views on happiness and spirituality.
It’s good stuff. HOWEVER, I do have to warn depressives that while positive psychology offers some important tools with how to tackle intrusive, negative thoughts, a person who is severely depressed should stay away from this stuff. Because it can sometimes contribute to her depression (“I shouldn’t be whining …. I have so much to be grateful for … I’m even more pathetic for not being thankful … The fact that I can’t turn around my thoughts is proof that I’m a failure”).
I loved the way Dr. Seligman described to Wendy the epiphany that led him 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!”


And yet I know (read my posts “Enough with Gratitude” and “Whining Welcome on Beyond Blue“) that what might be perceived as whining to others is, for me at least, expressing honestly the symptoms of my illness so that I can know better how to move forward in gratitude and love.
For Wendy’s entire interview with Martin Seligman, click here.
It begins this way ….

Dr. Martin Seligman is a pioneer in the areas of positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and optimism and pessimism. Currently Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, he is the author of 20 books, including “Learned Optimism” and “The Optimistic Child.” His latest book is “Authentic Happiness.” He spoke with Wendy Schuman about how his work has influenced his views on happiness and spirituality.
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.

  • Larry Parker

    Very interesting idea about G-d being the opposite of a “Big Bang”/Deist Creator. A bit Eastern, I suppose. I’ll have to think about that (being a well-known skeptic of Eastern thought on these boards, smile).
    It’s certainly congruent with the 12-step model of working your program toward a Higher Power — i.e., building up to Something rather than looking back to worship Something. (Not to insult anyone’s religious beliefs, of course.)
    I agree the interview had good information for generally managing your life — in fact, I found it quite fascinating. But I also found it was based on a “mental wellness” model rather than a “mental illness” model — which is Seligman’s full intention, except a lot of us haven’t even gotten to his starting line, let alone begun the race.
    So I also agree with you that for anyone who is “in the hole,” all the kindly meant but nevertheless forceful rhetoric about motivating yourself will likely only lead you to dig deeper :-(

  • Jennifer

    I really have enjoyed Seligman’s books, and have learned techniques that have helped me bunches. That said, yup, that alone can’t help me avoid anxiety and depression.

  • Douglas Cootey

    I’ve been lurking in the background for a while and think I’ll finally pipe up here.
    Obviously, your mileage may vary but I was severely depressed, suicidal, and anti-social and the only thing that saved me was positive thinking. I didn’t have the benefit of the book “Mind over Mood” or “Learned Optimism”. I couldn’t use anti-depressants. They made me moody, woozy, and loopy, plus lots of other nasty words that end with “y”. The side-effects were killer. I think it’s no small coincidence that I was suicidal on Zoloft. Years later we learned more about that drug than was ever revealed when it was first released to the public. Anti-depressants are not for everyone.
    I came to my new lifestyle through prayer. I was miserable and I believed He had an answer for me. The answer was to think more positively. To be more optimistic. I dismissed that answer the first dozen or so times because it was too simple, yet nothing was so complicated to implement than forced optimism. In fact, that’s what I called it. Forced Optimism. I started by just thinking of one nice, positive, optimistic thing a day. I eschewed glassy eyed white washing. I was no Pollyanna. Instead, I chose to tackle something I had been pessimistic about that day and look at it in a different light. This was not easy, by any means, but I got better at it. Soon I could rethink several things a day, then I could correct myself when I caught myself thinking negatively, then I taught myself that the emotions were just my brain playing tricks with me and I slowly mastered it.
    I still suffer from Depression today. In fact, I had a terrible bout with it a few days ago that lasted almost two days. But where I once lost months to Depression, I shortened to weeks, then days, then hours. Last week was an aberration in long track record of success through positive thinking, but I got over it by forcing myself to think positively and to push the waves of sadness aside. And if I can do it, I know others can too. That’s what I blog about.
    Meds work for some people, but for others they don’t. And those people are lost in a pill happy society that is short on coping strategies without prescriptions.
    I’m really glad that you wrote about Dr. Seligman today. I look forward to reading the interview. I’ve not read his work before, though I’ve obviously heard of it. I just thought that your worry for severe depressives might be needless. We can benefit greatly from learned optimism. We just need to prayerfully set our goals and wisely not expect ourselves to run before we can walk.
    Great blog!
    The Splintered Mind – Overcoming Neurological Disabilities With Lots Of Humor And Attitude

  • Corinne Edwards

    Dear Therese –
    As a life coach for 15 years, I would not touch severe mental illness -it is not my arena of expertise – but there are so many ways we sabotage our own happiness. I don’t know exactly why except it is almost as though we don’t deserve peace in our lives.
    Some of us can be helped by just caring about ourselves more and recognizing our limited ability to solve the world’s problems in a really big way. One way is to turn off the news after 6 PM. The closeness of television makes us feel we are in the movie.
    Little things can life our spirits. And can send positive energy into this so disfunctional world.
    I have addressed some of these in my post:
    It may not solve our core unhappiness and discontent but it will remind us that we are worth a little more attention and loving actions.
    If only because – we are worth it.
    Corinne Edwards

  • Larry Parker

    Without in the least meaning to demean the well-intentioned (and frankly useful) GENERAL advice being given, I feel a need to caution that there are some psychiatric conditions more than others which medicine can improve — and some where medicine is absolutely necessary on a life-saving basis.

  • Babs

    I think that there is so much that we don’t understand about the human mind. The plethora of books, “steps,” and medicinal approaches, not to mention therapies, is proof that there are no easy answers to depression. What one person swears by, another swears *at*.
    There are “signs” that we are supposed to look for that indicate depression: persistent sadness, change of appetite, lack of sexual desire, etc., but how each person defines these symptoms for themselves is not something that can be quantified. Even one doctor’s diagnosis of “depression” and the accompanying treatment, is another doctor’s “bi-polar disorder,” with its treatment.
    In the end, as you observe how other people respond to positive thinking, medication, meditation, and talk therapy, it gives pause to consider how amazing our minds are, and how different we are from the person next to us. It also explains why some people are so passionate about others following a particular treatment because of what they have achieved as a result. I think it is pretty natural to want the next person to get the same benefits that you have experienced.
    In Douglas’s post above, he mentions that even though he still has “days,” they are no longer weeks or months. That has been my experience as well, though I am still on medication. I think that those with depression *can* experience progress in abating their symptoms, but what works for one person, may not for another. One thing that I think is important, is that we see ourselves as whole people, with many different facets, rather than allowing a disease to define us. No matter who you are, you are more than a disease. Maybe one key in working toward recovery, is looking for the attributes and talents that are uniquely yours and finding opportunities to grow or express them. They don’t have to be big things. Sometimes the most lovely parts of a person are overlooked and underappreciated.
    It is so easy to become lost in depression, and lose yourself.

  • Douglas Cootey

    That was a really nice comment, Babs. Nicely expressed as well. I’m really glad I read it.
    The Splintered Mind – Overcoming Neurological Disabilities With Lots Of Humor And Attitude

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