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

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Martin Seligman

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

Listen to the MP3 Audio: Martin Seligman_ The new era of positive psychology


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.

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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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