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

Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, talks at TED conference on The New Era of Positive Psychology – Transcript

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Martin Seligman – Psychologist

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?

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.

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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.

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.

So in the last 10 years and the hope for the future, we’ve seen the beginnings of a science of positive psychology, a science of what makes life worth living. It turns out that we can measure different forms of happiness. And any of you, for free, can go to that website and take the entire panoply of tests of happiness. You can ask, how do you stack up for positive emotion, for meaning, for flow, against literally tens of thousands of other people?

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We created the opposite of the diagnostic manual of the insanities: a classification of the strengths and virtues that looks at the sex ratio, how they’re defined, how to diagnose them, what builds them and what gets in their way. We found that we could discover the causation of the positive states, the relationship between left hemispheric activity and right hemispheric activity as a cause of happiness.

I’ve spent my life working on extremely miserable people, and I’ve asked the question, how do extremely miserable people differ from the rest of you? And starting about six years ago, we asked about extremely happy people. And how do they differ from the rest of us? And it turns out there’s one way. They’re not more religious, they’re not in better shape, they don’t have more money, they’re not better looking, they don’t have more good events and fewer bad events. The one way in which they differ: they’re extremely social. They don’t sit in seminars on Saturday morning. They don’t spend time alone. Each of them is in a romantic relationship and each has a rich repertoire of friends.

But watch out here. This is merely correlational data, not causal, and it’s about happiness in the first Hollywood sense I’m going to talk about: happiness of ebullience and giggling and good cheer. And I’m going to suggest to you that’s not nearly enough, in just a moment.

We found we could begin to look at interventions over the centuries, from the Buddha to Tony Robbins. About 120 interventions have been proposed that allegedly make people happy. And we find that we’ve been able to manualize many of them, and we actually carry out random assignment efficacy and effectiveness studies. That is, which ones actually make people lastingly happier? In a couple of minutes, I’ll tell you about some of those results.

But the upshot of this is that the mission I want psychology to have, in addition to its mission of curing the mentally ill, and in addition to its mission of making miserable people less miserable, is can psychology actually make people happier? And to ask that question — happy is not a word I use very much — we’ve had to break it down into what I think is askable about happy. And I believe there are three different — and I call them different because different interventions build them, it’s possible to have one rather than the other — three different happy lives.

The first happy life is the pleasant life. This is a life in which you have as much positive emotion as you possibly can, and the skills to amplify it.

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