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Mr. Happiness, Martin Seligman

There was some focus at the Evolution of Psychotherapy conference on not just looking at what’s wrong with people, but what’s right with them. The Gottmans touched on this a bit, and then Martin Seligman gave a three-hour seminar on it on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps, on the surface, this sounds sappy -- like (gak!) the Patch Adams group hug session. (They seriously did a group hug. I made a point of not being there that day.) But, Seligman's approach is actually data-based and very smart.

“We’ve had years and years of explicit training about how to find out what’s wrong,” Seligman said. “We’ve been trained to ask the right questions about disorder. But we’ve not been trained to put people in touch with what’s best inside of them.”

Seligman is the former head of the American Psychological Association, and the author of a great book Lena gave me, called Learned Optimism: How To Change Your Mind And Your Life. He’s in the Albert Ellis camp of therapy (data-based not mumbo-jumbo based), so his research is more than what he called something like “smiley-ology.” (Love that word.)

He explained how therapists got disorder-focused with a bit on the history of psychotherapy. Before WWII, he said, shrinks had three areas of focus: curing of mental illness, improving the lives of relatively untroubled people, and the third, identifying and nurturing very high talent. Then, in 1946, the Veterans Administration Act passed and therapists found they could get jobs treating disorder. But there are three costs of working in a disease model, he said. The first was a moral cost.

The focus is on people being sick, and “…we came to view people as victims.” “…Somehow we omitted the idea of choice, decision, good versus bad character, and the like.” (The National Institute Of Mental Health is not about mental health about about illness, he noted…also noting that he takes a research-based approach, and is grateful for all their bazillions of dollars of funding.)

While in the courtroom, a blame-focused explanation of behavior says, “Oh, she’s a criminal because she had a bad childhood” (my paraphrasing of his quote about the courtroom). But, he countered, “We don’t explain away the good side of life." The moral victimology which views people as pawns of the environment doesn’t work” – vis a vis choice and “agency.” (By “agency” he means autonomy.) It’s a passive view of human nature.

The second cost of the disorder focus is that therapists forgot about relatively untroubled people, and genius became a dirty word. Worst of all, he said, “Because we were paid off for developing intervientions (around disorders),” helping normal people function better went by the wayside.

But, research shows there’s actually something to satisfaction-based therapy. He broke happiness down into three components: Positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. “When you measure life satisfaction across thousands of people – asking who has most satisfaction in life,” he noted that the pursuit of pleasure is isn’t that effective, but the pursuit of engagement (how absorbed one is in work, love, play – when “flow” comes into it), and the pursuit of meaning have a great effect.

He listed a few exercises. One was the “three blessings” exercise. For a week, every night before you go to sleep, write down three things that went well and why. In studies, this makes people significantly less depressed and significantly happier. And, he says, it’s a good exercise because it’s fun to do. Most people keep doing it after the week is up.

He also said that the key to more engagement is finding out what the greatest strengths and talents a person has then helping them recraft their relationships with people, how they use leisure time, etc, to have more eudamonia (satisfaction, via Aristotle), and more "flow." (Flow is what you have when you're "in the zone," in something you're doing.)

Another way to increase meaning is by using your highest strengths to serve something larger than you are. He noted that people get more continuing (quantifiable) satisfaction out of helping somebody than out of shopping. Or going to a movie. When you go to a movie, you have fun while it’s on, then when it’s over, the pleasure is pretty much gone.

He also suggested you not just look at how your family screwed you up, but look at the good things you got from the nutwads, uh, your family, too. And now, I’m looking at the clock, which says deadline all over it, but if you want to read Seligman in more detail, I recommend his book, Learned Optimism, linked above. Then there's Seligman's site,, and here's his link to the Time magazine article by Claudia Wallis on "The New Science Of Happiness."

There's a free test at his site to determine your "happiness/depression" score, and after that, it's $10 a month for a subscription to excercises (due to costs, he said). He'd really like to make this stuff as widespread and low cost as possible (or free -- getting the government to pay, which I naturally didn't approve of). You want to be happy? Pay for it your own damn self, ya chiseler!

Posted by aalkon at December 11, 2005 11:37 AM

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I've interviewed the Learned Optimism guy and he's swell. When I was in my 20's, thanks to Pookie and Annie Hall, I actually thought being neurotic was a really attractive quality, and now--there is no great charm than a cheerful disposition. I'm all for happy, and even--dare I say--perky.

Posted by: KateCoe at December 11, 2005 11:06 AM

Swell is right on in describing him. He talked about how satisfied he feels planting flowers. I like this guy. Happy spreads. Neurosis isn't interesting, it's a substitute for complex thoughts of value. And I say that as somebody who thought being troubled was kind of cool, too, (in my early 20s). Now I listen to Julie Andrews!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 11, 2005 12:09 PM

Why not be happy? It's LIFE-- not a life-long funeral.

I really like casting off stuff that no longer works for me. I just unloaded about a cubic yard of fabric that I've been "tending" for 10-15 years. I just don't sew much any more -- so I can happily give this stuff to quilters.

Life is grand.

Posted by: Deirdre B. at December 12, 2005 5:10 AM

I think a lot of us go through the "tortured artist" phase. I got a clue when I read an interview with Patti Smith and discovered she'd become June Cleaver.

Posted by: That Julia at December 12, 2005 11:06 AM

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