Foundations of Positive Psychology: Q&A with Dr. Martin Seligman

Foundations of Positive Psychology: Q&A with Dr. Martin Seligman

Dr. Martin Seligman otherwise known as the Father of Positive Psychology is one of the most cited psychologists in the 20th century. His work has not only increased the well-being of people around the world but has transformed the scientific community. He is the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and is an instructor in the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization on Coursera. We had the chance to hear from Dr. Seligman about his new book The Hope Circuit, how psychology has changed in the past 50 years, and tips on how to be a happier person.

What advice do you have for people who struggle with being happy?

I always say that only pessimists and depressives can do reasonable work in psychology on optimism and fighting depression – and I happen to be both a pessimist and a depressive. In my life, I’ve had to use, and sometimes invent the techniques that help people like me.

The first most basic technique that I still use to this day is:

  1. Recognize the worst things you’re saying to yourself
  2. Treat them as if they were being said by someone else
  3. Argue logically against that external person and the negative thoughts

What is The Hope Circuit about?

There are three remarkable things that have happened in my life and in the field of psychology in the last 50 years, and The Hope Circuit is about that. The first is that I went from being a depressed and anxious person to being a happy person. The second thing is that the field of psychology went from being about conflict, depression, aggression, and competition to focusing on finding meaning, love, positive emotion, happiness, and fulfillment. The third thing is that the world became a better place.

In the last 20 years, you have focused on making psychology more positive. What is your next focus?

The form of psychology I’m most interested in now is prospective psychology – humans are prospectors, and we’re constantly looking into the future. Prospection refers broadly to the mental representation and evaluation of possible futures. This may include planning, prediction, hypothetical scenarios, daydreaming, and evaluative assessment of possible future events.

When you start to think about what you want in life, you think about the future. So I began to think about how we see the future and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that psychology should be about prospection. Historically, psychology’s premise has been that if we knew everything about your past and present, we would know about the future. That’s what psychology has tried to do and it has been a colossal failure. All you need to do is look at the holes in the last American election to know that we’re very bad at predicting futures.

How do we build more happiness and hope in the world?

The natural place for me is positive education – teaching kids how to be happy at school. An important question is: if you taught kids happiness, would they become more literate and scientifically knowledgeable? With Alejandro Adler, we worked on a study where we taught teachers positive psychology so that they could then teach it to their students. We found that not only did the happiness of the students go up, but their national standardized exam results also increased by almost a quarter that year – a major effect. Happy kids learn better.

What’s one thing you’d like people to walk away with after reading your book or taking one of your courses?

There’s enormous hope in the world. You would have to be blinded by ideology to not realize that everything we care about has gotten better. Technology has made a positive impact on how we live: higher incomes, longer and more healthy lives, increased women’s rights, and less malnutrition. I’d like people to walk away from The Hope Circuit with reason to believe that there’s hope for the future.

Sign up for Foundations of Positive Psychology here and start your journey towards a happier life. You can purchase Dr. Seligman’s new book The Hope Circuit here.  


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