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The New Era of Positive Psychology by Martin Seligman (Transcript)

Martin Seligman

Full text of Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, on The New Era of Positive Psychology at TED conference.

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When I was president of the American Psychological Association, they tried to media-train me, and an encounter I had with CNN summarizes what I’m going to be talking about today, which is the 11th reason to be optimistic. The editor of Discover told us 10 of them, I’m going to give you the 11th.

So they came to me — CNN — and they said, “Professor Seligman, would you tell us about the state of psychology today? We’d like to interview you about that.”

And I said, “Great.”

And she said, “But this is CNN, so you only get a sound bite.”

So I said, “Well, how many words do I get?”

And she said, “Well, one.”

And cameras rolled, and she said, “Professor Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”


“Cut. Cut. That won’t do. We’d really better give you a longer sound bite.”

“Well, how many words do I get this time?”

“I think, well, you get two. Dr. Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”

“Not good.”

“Look, Dr. Seligman, we can see you’re really not comfortable in this medium. We’d better give you a real sound bite. This time you can have three words. Professor Seligman, what is the state of psychology today?”

“Not good enough.”

And that’s what I’m going to be talking about.

I want to say why psychology was good, why it was not good and how it may become, in the next 10 years, good enough. And by parallel summary, I want to say the same thing about technology, about entertainment and design, because I think the issues are very similar.

So, Why Was Psychology Good?

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Well, for more than 60 years, psychology worked within the disease model. Ten years ago, when I was on an airplane and I introduced myself to my seatmate, and told them what I did, they’d move away from me. And because, quite rightly, they were saying psychology is about finding what’s wrong with you. Spot the loony. And now, when I tell people what I do, they move toward me.

And what was good about psychology, about the $30 billion investment NIMH made, about working in the disease model, about what you mean by psychology, is that, 60 years ago, none of the disorders were treatable — it was entirely smoke and mirrors. And now, 14 of the disorders are treatable, two of them actually curable.

And the other thing that happened is that a science developed, a science of mental illness. That we found out that we could take fuzzy concepts — like depression, alcoholism — and measure them with rigor. That we could create a classification of the mental illnesses. That we could understand the causality of the mental illnesses. We could look across time at the same people — people, for example, who were genetically vulnerable to schizophrenia — and ask what the contribution of mothering, of genetics are, and we could isolate third variables by doing experiments on the mental illnesses.

And best of all, we were able, in the last 50 years, to invent drug treatments and psychological treatments. And then we were able to test them rigorously, in random assignment, placebo controlled designs, throw out the things that didn’t work, keep the things that actively did.

And the conclusion of that is that psychology and psychiatry, over the last 60 years, can actually claim that we can make miserable people less miserable. And I think that’s terrific. I’m proud of it.

But what was not good, the consequences of that were three things.

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The first was moral, that psychologists and psychiatrists became victimologists, pathologizers, that our view of human nature was that if you were in trouble, bricks fell on you. And we forgot that people made choices and decisions. We forgot responsibility. That was the first cost.

The second cost was that we forgot about you people. We forgot about improving normal lives. We forgot about a mission to make relatively untroubled people happier, more fulfilled, more productive. And “genius,” “high-talent,” became a dirty word. No one works on that.

And the third problem about the disease model is, in our rush to do something about people in trouble, in our rush to do something about repairing damage, it never occurred to us to develop interventions to make people happier, positive interventions.

So that was not good. And so, that’s what led people like Nancy Etcoff, Dan Gilbert, Mike Csikszentmihalyi and myself to work in something I call positive psychology, which has three aims. The first is that psychology should be just as concerned with human strength as it is with weakness. It should be just as concerned with building strength as with repairing damage. It should be interested in the best things in life. And it should be just as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling, and with genius, with nurturing high talent.

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