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

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

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?

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.

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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.

The second is a life of engagement — a life in your work, your parenting, your love, your leisure, time stops for you. That’s what Aristotle was talking about.

And third, the meaningful life. So I want to say a little bit about each of those lives and what we know about them.

The first life is the pleasant life and it’s simply, as best we can find it, it’s having as many of the pleasures as you can, as much positive emotion as you can, and learning the skills — savoring, mindfulness — that amplify them, that stretch them over time and space.

But the pleasant life has three drawbacks, and it’s why positive psychology is not happy-ology and why it doesn’t end here.

The first drawback is that it turns out the pleasant life, your experience of positive emotion, is heritable, about 50% heritable, and, in fact, not very modifiable. So the different tricks that Matthieu Ricard and I and others know about increasing the amount of positive emotion in your life are 15% to 20% tricks, getting more of it.

Second is that positive emotion habituates. It habituates rapidly, indeed. It’s all like French vanilla ice cream, the first taste is a 100%; by the time you’re down to the sixth taste, it’s gone. And, as I said, it’s not particularly malleable.

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And this leads to the second life. And I have to tell you about my friend, Len, to talk about why positive psychology is more than positive emotion, more than building pleasure. In two of the three great arenas of life, by the time Len was 30, Len was enormously successful. The first arena was work. By the time he was 20, he was an options trader. By the time he was 25, he was a multimillionaire and the head of an options trading company. Second, in play — he’s a national champion bridge player.

But in the third great arena of life, love, Len is an abysmal failure. And the reason he was, was that Len is a cold fish.

Len is an introvert. American women said to Len, when he dated them, “You’re no fun. You don’t have positive emotion. Get lost.” And Len was wealthy enough to be able to afford a Park Avenue psychoanalyst, who for five years tried to find the sexual trauma that had somehow locked positive emotion inside of him. But it turned out there wasn’t any sexual trauma. It turned out that — Len grew up in Long Island and he played football and watched football, and played bridge — Len is in the bottom 5% of what we call positive affectivities.

The question is, is Len unhappy? And I want to say not. Contrary to what psychology told us about the bottom 50% of the human race in positive affectivity, I think Len is one of the happiest people I know. He’s not consigned to the hell of unhappiness and that’s because Len, like most of you, is enormously capable of flow. When he walks onto the floor of the American Exchange at 9:30 in the morning, time stops for him. And it stops till the closing bell. When the first card is played, until 10 days later, the tournament is over, time stops for Len.

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