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The power of a positive thinker

Marty Seligman
by Stacey Burling
May 30, 2010

His goal is to advance the well-being of the world - one sector at a time.

No one could accuse Marty Seligman of thinking small.

The University of Pennsylvania psychology professor earned the respect of his peers studying the equivalent of depression in dogs, but it is his more recent fascination with the flip side of sadness - how to get life right - that has made this serious man a pop-psych power hitter. At 67, he is using his academic reputation and his formidable sales skills to reform, well, just about everything. His premise: that we've spent too much time trying to fix what's wrong and not nearly enough figuring out how to make more things right.

Let's start with the Army, an unlikely target for the branch of inquiry that Seligman fathered: positive psychology. Instead of mental illness, positive psychology focuses on what makes some of us stronger, happier, and more satisfied than the norm. It involves learning to think differently about both good and bad events and appreciating that there is more than one path to an emotionally satisfying life.

Such touchy-feely stuff would seem out of place among people who wear heavy boots and fatigues.

But there was Seligman at Penn last summer, explaining to a group of sergeants the audaciously ambitious Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program that their generals had just decided to undertake. Ultimately, 1.1 million soldiers will receive training based on positive psychology. The Army hopes it will make them more resilient - less prone to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Seligman is short and a little paunchy, but not soft. Built more like a butcher than a professor, he paced before the impressively fit soldiers with a rough energy that conveyed both physical vitality and mental restlessness. The product of an unhappy stint in an Albany, N.Y., military school, he easily commanded the room's attention. The sergeants applauded loudly when he said they would teach their fellow soldiers better coping skills.

He talked about blessings, signature strengths, and support for spouses' successes, but his manner was disarmingly rational, backed by charts and studies. His deep, authoritative voice - possibly his best physical attribute - lent his words just the right gravity. He confidently walked the line between grand and grandiose as he pronounced: "We're after creating an indomitable Army."

Changing military culture would be a lifetime's work for most psychologists, but it's just part of what Seligman is up to. He's expanding the Positive brand to education, health, and neuroscience, and still hopes to take it to corporations. Then there's plain old positive psychology, for which he has the grandest goal of all.

He talked about that in Philadelphia last year at the first World Congress on Positive Psychology. It drew 1,500. While most countries measure their wealth in dollars, some positive psychologists advocate measuring well-being, a broad concept that goes well beyond the transitory pleasures so many associate with happiness. People at the top of the well-being scale are said to be flourishing.

Only 10 percent to 18 percent of the world's population is flourishing, Seligman said. Not enough. His goal is to make the world happier.

"I believe it is within our capacity that by the year 2051 that 51 percent of the human population will be flourishing," he said. "That is my charge. That is our aim."

Psychology rock star

James Coyne, a fellow Penn psychologist, recalled meeting Seligman in California in the late 1970s. "You can be a psychologist like a rock star," he contended Seligman had told him, "and have fame and money, and that's what I intend to do."

Decades later, Seligman, who said he had never even thought such a thing and hadn't met Coyne until 1996, is indeed a rock star in his world. A former president of the American Psychological Association, he has won awards as a serious scientist, but also gets shelf space in chain book stores. He has given speeches around the world and shared the stage in Australia with the Dalai Lama.

He has written or cowritten 25 books - textbooks, and more accessible works like Learned Optimism and What You Can Change and What You Can't. His Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment has been translated into 17 languages.

While many academics settle for a cluttered cubbyhole of an office, his Positive Psychology Center merits a floor in a modern building on the fringes of the Penn campus. Seligman, his second wife, Mandy, and the youngest three of their five children live in a rambling, three-story mansion once occupied by Eugene Ormandy. A large portrait of Seligman hangs over the mantel, a decorating choice some critics see as a sign of his sizable ego. But, overall, the house is furnished for comfort, not ostentation, and much of it is devoted to home-schooling the kids so they and Mandy can accompany Seligman on his travels.

Not a bad vantage point for considering the good life.

Acolytes gush about his brilliance. Friends and former students call him "inspiring" and "visionary." Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a Yale University psychology professor, who studied at Penn with Seligman, said of his communication skills: "He is to psychology what Barack Obama is to political speeches."

Others, though, deride positive psychology as "happiology" and worry that some adherents - especially life coaches - are taking it too far and too fast for the science. Doubters worry that negative feelings and thoughts, which enrich life and stimulate change, will become overly stigmatized.

"We didn't get into 9/11 because of too much pessimism," said Barbara Held, a Bowdoin psychology professor, who wrote Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining. "We didn't have the Great Recession because of too much pessimism. These catastrophes didn't happen because too many people were thinking about what could go wrong."

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