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Psychology neglects the positive experience

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious. That is why psychology journals have published 45,000 articles in the last 30 years on depression, but only 400 on joy.

Joy is not covered by insurance; nor does it lead to tenure.

It was not always like that. When psychology began developing as a profession, it had three goals: to identify genius, to heal the sick and to help people live better, happier lives. Over the last half century, however, it has focused almost entirely on pathology, taking the science of medicine, itself structured around disease, as its model.

That is an imbalance, says Martin E.P. Seligman, the new president of the American Psychological Association, and one that he is determined to change. Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is known for his work on optimism, pessimism, learned helplessness and motivation, has a strategy for transforming a profession he thinks has gone awry.

"I believe America is fed up with the victim model and wants to make life better," said Seligman, who took over the presidency Jan. 1.

"I don't want to cast out the disease model, but we need a science that tells us about human strengths. I want to remind psychologists of normal people."

No one at any of the top university psychology departments, he said, is primarily engaged in studying the three central aspects of people's lives: love, work and play, or in synthesizing what has been learned so that people can make use of their findings.

The three are unusually intertwined in the life Seligman has created at his sprawling home in suburban Philadelphia, with more rooms than anyone seems to have counted. He lives there with his second wife, Mandy, and their three young children, whom she educates at home.

Mandy Seligman was a graduate student in psychology when she had their baby and decided she did not want to leave an infant at home and go off to study attachment theory.

Once at home, she decided that educating her children was a natural progression of the teaching a parent does, and she decided not to send them to school, a choice her husband supported because it meant that when he traveled, all of them could be together.

Their home classrooms look like those in the best schools, with lots of engaging charts on the walls, artwork everywhere, butterflies in the process of being born and ants wending their way through tunnels, with occasional obstructions from strawberry-peach yogurt.

Sometimes, while Seligman digs in or weeds his many flower beds, the children help and get informal botany lessons. The other day, 6-year-old Nikki carefully pulled apart a daffodil and identified its components while the two English sheepdog puppies poked their soft faces onto her lap.

Other times, Seligman participates in their education in a more structured way, teaching the couple's oldest, Lara, 8, about the presidents of the United States. Sometimes the whole family, including their son, Darryl, 4, acts out the stories of the presidents' lives.

But the children seem to teach him as much as he teaches them. When he had his first two children, who are now 25 and 28, with his first wife, he had almost nothing to do with raising them, he said, because he was obsessed with professional advancement. Now he makes time for his children, and in the process he has gained a mission in his role at the APA, which has 155,000 members, most with doctorates in psychology.

Psychology, he said, has been negative "essentially for 100 years." Theories have generally focused on damage, as have techniques for intervention. "Social science has believed negative things were authentic and human strengths were coping mechanisms," he said.

But what he sees in his children are "pure, unadulterated strengths" that are intrinsic, not compensations for trauma.

"I find myself beginning to believe psychology needs to ask, What are the virtues? We need to delineate them, assess them, ask causal questions. What are the interactions? How does it grow? Let's talk about growth and questions of strength."

In his efforts to raise these questions, he has begun giving speeches to groups of clinical psychologists, arguing for a new "positive psychology" that would use rigorous scientific methods to study questions that have not been acceptable, questions that have not had financing. Rather than spending $10-million on, say, phobias and fears, he says, study courage. Citing the standing ovations that have greeted his remarks, he says the time is right for a transformation.

"I was talking about reclaiming our identity," Seligman said, "and people were weeping. I think I'm touching a nerve."