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Martin Seligman & Happiness

As Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, Seligman has undertaken the development of a new approach to psychology. He acknowledges the great contributions of clinical psychology in relieving suffering. The DSM, or Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a psychologist's bible, gives evidence of this. The therapist can consult its pages for various patient symptoms and turn to a classification that professionals on both sides of the Atlantic agree upon. Prozac and a host of other drug psycho therapies have also gone far to relieve patient symptoms. These and various advances have reduced human suffering to foster individuals who can cope with their lives.

Still, Seligman believes more must be done. He acknowledges the progress while noting that ninety percent of psychological science relates to the disease model of therapy. He asks, What about happiness?

To make his point, Seligman notes outcomes of the disease model. One is that psychologists study victims and pathology. This leads to a belief that mental illness is a weight that can almost overwhelm character, responsibility, and related matters. People become victims of their disease with no way out except for the interventions of therapists. Another outcome is that non-victims have had little attention paid to them. That is, they are assumed to have little need for study by psychologists. As a result, efforts were expended to make people less miserable, without attention to making them happier.

As he began to think about this, Seligman asked himself a question, " Who never gets helpless? That is, who resists collapsing? " He became interested in optimism because he discovered that such people didn't think about adverse situations as permanent. Instead the events are regarded as temporary, controllable, local, and not the individual's fault. Those who fell prey to depression or pessimism, see a bad event as permanent, uncontrollable, pervasive, for which they are to blame. He found that these types became ill more frequently while the optimists had better immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimists.

For his research, he used a term, eudaemonia, the good life.

His eudaemonia has its echo in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights, which include the pursuit of happiness. Seligman observes that Jefferson and the founding fathers didn't have lots of giggles in mind. Nor did they take the modern hedonistic view, that it involves thrills, orgasms, and related highs. Instead, they had a view more akin to Aristotle's, who offers a way to think about happiness when he links it in the Nichomachean Ethics to leisure--not our modern leisure, which is really recreation. No, not water skiing, or NASCAR race watching, but rather leisure as contemplative activity, or as good conversation with people of developed sensibilities.

The key question becomes, How is happiness measured? Psychologists agree upon the symptoms of bi-polar disorder and schizoid paranoia, but what about happiness?

Seligman says that apart from the Hollywood version of happiness in which everybody giggles and has fun, which is merely pleasure, two other types exist. The second type accounts for a person's signature strengths, as Seligman terms them, and life should be reshaped so that these strengths come into play as much as possible. This type involves flow, another term, and one he borrows from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. If a person truly enjoys something he becomes wholly immersed in it, be it a bridge game or woodworking. This immersion is called flow.

The third type is found beyond the other two, though, and it is a pursuit, the pursuit of meaning, which Seligman relates to the pursuit of happiness as expressed by Thomas Jefferson. In this regard, meaning must connect you to something bigger than the ego, which is too small, too selfish, as a repository for large values.

Meaning can be found in religion, in charity, in work that allows service to others, so long as fairness, justice, and good will are exercised. In short, meaning does not come in a package with a bow ribbon on it. Each of us must find it for ourselves. It can be raising children, saving whales, or fighting in Iraq.

Here, we encounter a problem with meanings as the third happiness type. In Najaf or Bagdad or Falujah, a terrorist fires a rocket-propelled grenade at an American convoy because his beliefs, his meanings, have brought him to Iraq.

Seligman observes that some people don't like his theory because it allows the terrorist in its scope. His answer is that he would condemn the man as evil, but not because of meaning. Education, values, and thought, allow evil to be seen for what it is. Otherwise, it becomes holy righteousness for the ignorant.

He says that he has gathered various interventions to help people become happier, over a hundred in all, and ranging from those endorsed by Tony Robbins to the Buddha. He surmises that ninety percent of them are ineffective, which is to say, placebos. Among these, he includes some interventions offered by Robbins and the Buddha. He doesn't reveal which are ineffective because as placebos they will offer documentation for his happiness research as people take them.

He states that he spent twenty five years studying helpless rats, helpless dogs, and helpless people. Now, he is looking through the binoculars from the other end, and expects that his research will guide people not only to un-learn helplessness but also to learn happiness.

At his web site, Authentic Happiness, he provides a variety of tests for happiness and depression, along with a questionnaire to identify signature strengths such as appreciation of beauty and excellence, curiosity and interest in the world, helping others, and spirituality. As people take these tests he will gather information to help him further develop measures of happiness.

For a related article at this blog, see Learned Helplessness, 2 April 2004, also about Martin Seligman. Helplessness is itself a learned response, and not something that just happens to us. If we learn to respond in this manner we can also learn to take action to improve things.

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