Martin Seligman’s Journey From Learned Helplessness to Learned Happiness

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The renowned Penn professor of psychology has refocused the field toward the encouragement of mental health, launched an investigation into the causes and prevention of ethnopolitical warfare—and vowed to stop being such a grouch.

By Rob Hirtz

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, Gr’67, professor of psychology, is delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the North Carolina Psychological Association. Though he has been delivering riveting lectures on psychology for three decades now, this speech is a little different.
   Speaking to his fellow psychologists as their national leader — the 1998 President of the American Psychological Association (APA), the world’s largest professional mental-health organization, with more than 155,000 members — his message is clear and blunt: He wants American psychology (and psychologists) to change.
   This is not totally unexpected by his audience. Since 1995, when Seligman first started campaigning for the APA presidency, he has been actively advocating for the field of psychology to expand its myopic focus on treating mental illness to include promoting mental health.
   On this balmy October night, Seligman warns his audience that some parts of his speech will sound downright “uncongenial.” This too, is not totally unexpected. By the time Seligman finished earning his Ph.D. at Penn in 1967, he had already become internationally known as one of the brash and brilliant enfants terribles who so often move science forward. (As Dr. Henry Gleitman, another venerated Penn psychology professor and a long-time poker companion of Seligman’s, put it: “Marty reminds me of the young Orson Welles — sometimes purposely naive, sometimes enormously sophisticated, often appearing larger than life. Like Welles, Marty has occasionally been a sort of enfant terrible — and he can exude that look and aura of gravitas like Orson — but goodness, he’s nowhere near that fat!”)
   Tonight, in this North Carolina hotel ballroom packed with hundreds of psychologists, many of whom still have a little dinner or dessert left to eat, the room falls into an utter and foreboding silence. These psychotherapists, like TV’s Dr. Frazier Crane, are listening.
   “I was out weeding in my garden last summer with my daughter, Nicki, who had turned five, some 11 months earlier,” Seligman began. “Now, you should know that I’m a very serious gardener, and this particular afternoon, I’m very focused on what I’m doing — which is weeding. Nicki, on the other hand, is having fun. Weeds are flying up in the air, dirt is spraying everywhere.”
   Seligman pauses. “Now, I should mention here, that despite all my work on optimism, I’ve always been somewhat of a nimbus cloud around my house. And despite all my work with children, and despite having five children of my own, ages five to 29, I’m really not that good with kids. And so, kneeling that afternoon in my garden, I yelled at Nicki.”
   Seligman looks down at the podium. Reliving that moment obviously hurts. Then he raises his head again, and forges on.
   “Nicki got a stern look on her face, and she walked right over to me. ‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘I want to talk with you.’ And this is just what she said. ‘From the time I was three until I was five, I whined a lot. But I decided the day I turned five, to stop whining. And I haven’t whined once since the day I turned five.'”
   Seligman pauses for the simmering chuckles, and continues. “Then Nicki looked me right in the eye, and said ‘Daddy, if I could stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.'”
   The room erupts with laughter, and Seligman holds the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Professional Pessimist to Expert Optimist
   That story says quite a bit about the ever-evolving life and work of Martin Seligman. After receiving his doctorate from Penn, he proceeded, during the 1970s and 1980s, to help redefine how psychology and psychiatry viewed the mental illness of depression. His groundbreaking and rigorously-tested theory of learned helplessness — which argued that a major component of human depression consisted of a “learned” pessimistic attitude — led to major breakthroughs in treating and preventing depression.
   Today, thanks in part to his 1990 bestseller, Learned Optimism, Seligman is recognized as the world’s preeminent psychological authority on optimism. That might seem an ironic mantle for a self-admitted grouch. But it wasn’t until an exploratory meeting in the late eighties with literary agent Richard Pine, C’77, about writing a mass-market book, that Seligman started viewing his prodigious research on learned helplessness from the point of view of the half-full, versus the half-empty, glass. “At the end of that meeting, as I was walking to the door,” Seligman related over breakfast in Raleigh, N.C., “Richard said, ‘I’m going to give you a gift: Learned Optimism — that’s your title.'” A nostalgic smile came over Seligman’s face. “Until that moment,” he said, “I had been under the impression that I’d been studying pessimism all those years.” (Seligman, incidentally, has repaid the “gift” from Pine many times over; the most recent fruits of their collaboration include Pine’s supervision of a new deal struck with the APA wherein Pine will shepherd the publication of at least four APA-sponsored, mass-market books a year.)
   Transforming himself from one of the world’s experts on pessimism and depression into its premier scientific authority on optimism is characteristic of the protean Seligman. “In any given year,” he says, “I try to toss about 10 balls into the air, and see which ones bounce up high enough to catch.” This past year, Seligman tossed up at least that many when he assumed the APA presidency on January 1, 1998. He clearly laid out his goals in his first “President’s column” for The Monitor, the monthly APA newsletter. The column, titled “Building Human Strength: Psychology’s Forgotten Mission,” included the following observations:

Before World War II, psychology had three missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent. After the war, two events changed the face of psychology. In 1946, the Veterans Administration was created, and practicing psychologists found they could make a living treating mental illness. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was created, and academic psychologists discovered they could get grants for research on mental illness …
   Fifty years later, I want to remind our field that it has been side-tracked. Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves …
   Fifty years of working in a medical model on personal weakness and on the damaged brain has left the mental-health professions ill-equipped to do effective prevention.We need massive research on human strength and virtue. We need practitioners to recognize that much of the best work they do is amplifying the strengths rather than repairing their patients’ weaknesses. We need psychologists who work with families, schools, religious communities, and corporations to emphasize their primary role of fostering strength.

   Ten years ago, this kind of “revolutionary” rhetoric would have won few friends and influenced even fewer votes among APA’s 155,000 voting members, who historically have a notoriously stodgy reputation. But times have changed.
   “Actually, I haven’t encountered much criticism from [the clinical wing of APA] at all,” Seligman says matter-of-factly. “I think they see that I’m giving them a way out.”
   He is referring to a growing crisis facing psychologists who directly treat clients and patients — one that goes by the name of “managed care.” Seligman estimates that the real income of psychologists directly treating clients has decreased by as much as 25 percent over just the past five years. The reason is clear: managed-care organizations have severely curtailed health-care insurance coverage for services rendered by psychologists. As Seligman quipped during his campaign for the APA presidency, “Knowing a lot about helplessness is a good credential for being an APA member today.”
   Before the spread of HMOs, talk used to be comparatively cheap — when you talked with a psychologist and you had health insurance. If the psychologist told your health-insurance company that you needed to talk, then your insurance company would pick up all, or at least a significant chunk, of the bill for those discussions.
   These days, depending on your HMO, you may be lucky if your health insurer doesn’t challenge the psychologists’ fees incurred if you’re hospitalized for suicidal behavior (“Let’s see — there’s your mental-health hospitalization deductible, then there’s your lifetime cap on psychotherapeutic services — oh, and two of the therapists who visited you on the ward are not preferred providers on our plan, so we’ll only cover 13 percent of their charges … “).
   Indeed, these are tough times for psychologists. “Thirty years ago,” Seligman says, “when universities were churning out psychology Ph.D.’s, we never envisioned — how should I say this? — that payments for medical care could so swiftly become, for lack of a better word, so efficient.”
   Although Seligman’s word choice at the moment has a positive connotation, he quickly qualifies it. The efficiency wrought by managed care is clearly, to Seligman, counter-productive. Paying for psychology as “preventative” medicine to encourage human strength, he believes, would save untold billions of health-care dollars.
   One of Seligman’s major initiatives as APA president was to appoint a task force on prevention. He appointed (or, more accurately, persuaded) two noted psychologists to serve as co- chairs of this task force. One, Dr. Roger Weissberg, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-founder and executive director of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning, comes from a background working with persons experiencing mental illness, their families, and various support and advocacy organizations. The other co-chair, Dr. Susan Bennett Johnson, has a background more focused on physical health.
   For the past four years, Johnson has been running the University of Florida Health Science Center. “Marty was very clever to appoint both me and Roger as co-chairs,” she says. “Roger comes from a more ‘traditional’ mental-health background, emphasizing work on social and emotional skills. I work in a medical center, working with kids who are physically ill.”
   Johnson makes a strong case for the “health-care dollar sense” of preventative psychology. “The public thinks the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, diabetes,” she says, “and they think of these as primarily medical problems. But the fact is, seven out of the top nine causes of death are caused by behaviors. Take heart disease. The major causes are all behaviors — smoking, dietary and exercise practices. And most of these behaviors start before adulthood. Managing these behaviors is up to kids and their families.”
   And, if Johnson and Seligman have anything to do with it, it will also be up to the government to pay psychologists to help schools and other community institutions foster the kind of healthy behaviors, both physical and mental, that will save health-care dollars down the road.
   Incidentally, Johnson and Seligman are hardly strangers. When Seligman taught experimental psychology at Cornell University, from 1967 to 1970 (when he returned to Penn to teach), Johnson was one of his undergraduate students. Seligman convinced her to join his psych lab, which at the time was staffed primarily by male graduate students.
   “Marty got me to be a psychologist,” says Johnson. “At the time, not many women went to graduate school. Going to grad school had never registered on my radar screen. But Marty’s attitude was ‘You’re brilliant — of course you’re going to graduate school … ‘”
   Johnson approaches the subject of Martin E. P. Seligman as an almost larger-than-life phenomenon.
   “Marty never ceases to amaze me,” says Johnson. “When you’re young, you think you can change the world. But as the years go by, we start to realize that what we can actually accomplish is not that big, and so we concentrate on achieving goals in smaller areas where we can exert some degree of control.” Johnson pauses. “Marty never grew up. He still thinks he can change the world. And so he takes on something outlandish like this ethnopolitical-warfare thing.” She is referring to a task force Seligman launched a few months into his APA presidency; its far-fetched goal was to gain funding for psychological investigations and interventions that might prevent and intervene in wars caused by ethnic conflicts.
   “How many people would say to themselves, ‘What can I do about ethnopolitical warfare?'” Johnson asks rhetorically. “And yet, Marty’s convinced lots of talented people to devote loads of time and effort to this project — and, even more improbably, I hear that he’s actually managed to get some significant funding for it.” By the time this article appears in print, Seligman’s brainchild, the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict — based on Penn’s campus under the aegis of Penn’s psychology department and co-directed by Dr. Clark McCauley and Dr. Paul Rozin — will be up and running, thanks to a $120,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation and another six-figure grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The Center already counts collaborators from universities around the globe.
   Seligman has also succeeded in delivering on a promise made during his campaign for the presidency of the APA to gain funding to launch major studies on the effectiveness of psychotherapy — to reinforce “the fact that what psychologists do, works, and works well.” While the available evidence may be enough to convince the already converted, he notes, it is “not compelling to the much sterner jury of health-care decision-makers, Congress and the American public.”
   NIMH has agreed to fund such studies on a large scale, to the tune of what Seligman expects to be about $20 million. This is truly beautiful music to psychologists’ ears. Armed with mountains of new data showing that an array of psychological programs and treatments are both efficient and effective, psychologists might be able to counter restrictive managed-care policies and gain more respect and confidence from lawmakers and the general public.

The Child Optimist
   One psychology program whose effectiveness won’t require much study to ratify is Seligman’s brilliant Penn Depression Prevention Program, which broke new ground in 1990. Detailed in his fascinating 1995 book The Optimistic Child, this remarkable program was developed by Seligman and three young psychologists at Penn — Dr. Karen Reivich, C’88, G’92, Gr’96, Dr. Lisa Jaycox, G’89, Gr’93, and Dr. Jane Gillham, G’90, Gr’94. It has, in several different situations and over several years, repeatedly reduced the occurrences of depression in children by half.
   The program, which has since been renamed the Penn Resiliency Project, was inspired by a life-changing discussion that took place in 1984, when Seligman attended a conference at the MacArthur Foundation. He describes those meetings as a “face-off between prominent psychologists and immunologists.” The issue was what to do (and in particular, how to fund) a fledgling discipline called psychoneuroimmunology, a field of science widely investigated today, which basically studies how the mind affects the body’s immune system.
   Among the many celebrated participants at this 1984 conference was Dr. Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine had changed the world decades before. Being the most famous immunologist in the world, the elderly Salk attempted to arbitrate the heated arguments being waged between the biological immunologists and the psychologists. And his private words to Seligman, recounted in Learned Optimism, resonated:
   “If I were a young scientist today, I would still do immunization. But instead of immunizing kids physically, I’d do it your way. I’d immunize them psychologically. I’d see if these psychologically immunized kids could then fight off mental illness better. Physical illness too.”
   The Penn Resiliency Project typifies how Seligman was able to switch his scientific gears away from learned helplessness and toward psychological immunization. By then, his work on learned helplessness had already made him an expert on depression and pessimism. He had created powerful tools capable of diagnosing how a person’s level of pessimism could measure their risk for developing depression. Inspired by the work of Penn’s legendary “depression wizard,” Dr. Aaron T. Beck, the University Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Seligman had also spent years refining a number of cognitive techniques and exercises which helped to relieve and heal persons with depression, and prevent future recurrences of that ever-more-pervasive illness.
   To vastly oversimplify the very complex field of cognitive psychology, its fundamental, revolutionary concept, first articulated by Beck in the late 1960s, is that severely negative or depressed emotional states are caused by the negative thoughts we tell ourselves. This may seem like simple common sense, but at the time it was revolutionary, and its implications staggering.
   Since Freud invented psychotherapy, the basis of all therapy rested on the nature of events that had affected people in their lives, and the behaviors and emotional states that people developed as a consequence of those events. Beck, soon joined by Seligman, postulated that it was not the events themselves but the thoughts we used to explain these events to ourselves that were the major determinants of whether or not, for example, we might develop depression. If so, Beck and Seligman maintained, then people at risk for depression should be able to fend it off by intellectually “disputing” the severely negative thoughts they think to explain various events in their lives.
   For example, with the benefit of treatment to alter his or her “self-explanatory style” and develop a reflex of disputing negative thoughts, the ruminations of someone going through a painful divorce might sound something like this: “I failed at my marriage — well, there’s nothing particularly unusual about that, marriages fail half the time … in the end, it was my fault: I could have saved it — well, then again, my lousy spouse could have saved it too, and now that I think about it, what I’m missing most about our marriage were those terrific early memories when it was good; in fact, if we were still together right now, we’d probably still be at least as miserable together as we were the last few years … I made so many terrible mistakes — well, I wasn’t the only one in this marriage, and after all, to err is human … ”
   With astounding scientific power, Seligman and a host of collaborators around the country (and even beyond) have proven that learning these inner “disputation skills” can speed the recovery of depression, and, perhaps more important, can actually prevent it.

Feeling Good Versus Doing Well
   The Penn Resiliency Project has for the past eight years proven that cognitive therapy can not only help adults, but also can successfully immunize children against depression. It recently earned a five-year, $2 million grant from NIMH to continue its work.
   Even the most jaded critics of government-funded science would be hard-pressed to object to this use of their tax dollars. Whereas childhood depression (in a strict, clinical sense) was a relative rarity just two generations ago, American children are now suffering from a full-fledged epidemic of depression. Today, about one in four children experiences serious, debilitating depression before reaching adulthood.
   What’s gone wrong? Seligman has a few answers. To again oversimplify a complicated argument, Seligman lays a lot of blame on the “self-esteem” movement for replacing the old-fashioned goal of “doing well” with the contemporary goal of “feeling good.”
   While the Penn Resiliency Project has earned the attention of child- psychology experts around the world for its effectiveness, its cost-efficiency has also earned the admiration of school administrators, whose focus is the bottom line. The program consists of just 12 sessions, held once a week for about 90 minutes, with children whose answers to a questionnaire indicate that they are particularly susceptible to depression. Employing an engaging series of exercises utilizing stories, cartoons, group discussions, and other techniques, the program ingrains powerful reflexes in pessimistic children — to change what they tell themselves about failures and to encourage them to persist in the face of those failures.
   In essence, the project tries to re-imbue today’s children with the values taught a generation ago. In his speech to the North Carolina psychologists, Seligman touched upon what was my own favorite book as a child. “Thirty years ago,” he said, “the most influential children’s book of the time was The Little Engine That Could,” the endearing tale of the little locomotive engine who wasn’t sure if she could pull a train over the mountain but who kept telling herself, “I think I can, I think I can” and prevailed.
   “Think for a moment about what you are most proud of,” Seligman asked his audience, then paused briefly. “I’ll bet that what you just thought of now has something to do with some goal at which you at first encountered failure, but which you persistently kept pursuing until you achieved your goal, whether it was love, work, or play. ”
   This sense of persistence in the face of failure forms the heart of Seligman’s vaccine against depression in children. It involves not only sophisticated disputation skills but also a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Seligman’s emphasis on hard work clearly separates, and elevates, him from his more popular, less scientific peers in the wide world of popular culture’s optimism gurus.
   “A pessimistic attitude may seem so deeply rooted as to be permanent,” Seligman writes in the introduction to his profoundly realistic 1993 mass-market book, What You Can Change And What You Can’t. “I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable. Pessimists can in fact learn to be optimists, and not through mindless devices like whistling a happy tune or mouthing platitudes … ”
   By putting a happy face on failure, he argues, the blind optimism pushed by the self-esteem movement is actually counterproductive. “Optimism that is not accurate is empty and falls apart,” he writes in The Optimistic Child. “Life defeats it.” In the long run, he says, encouraging your child to work harder to achieve his or her specified goals will be far more effective.
   As he writes in The Optimistic Child, “The feeling of self-esteem is a byproduct of doing well. Once a child’s self-esteem is in place, it kindles further success. Tasks flow more seamlessly, troubles bounce off, and other children seem more receptive. There is no question that feeling high self-esteem is a delightful state to be in, but trying to achieve the feeling side of self-esteem directly, before achieving good commerce with the world, confuses profoundly the means and the end.”

A New Seligman Frontier: Learned Happiness
   Several months before Seligman passed on the torch of the APA presidency on New Year’s Eve, I posed the de-riguer question for an American celebrity who’s just come off the field from a great victory: Hey Marty, you’ve just helped re-focus the entire field of psychology towards a more positive and profitable direction. What are you going to do now? Go to Disney World?
   Well, close. He’s going to Grand Cayman Island. Thanks to a comfy grant from the Gallup Corporation (the polling organization), he’ll soon be spending several days in the company of about 20 other Nobel-laureate-level geniuses, trying to develop and articulate a “Taxonomy of the Good Life.”
   The folks at Gallup are interested in being able to measure the “progress” of various nations around the world toward making the lives of their citizens better. While that may seem like a relatively simple task, it’s actually astoundingly complex. The “good life,” as Seligman says, is more complicated than “a Porsche, champagne, and a suntan” (although he will probably be enjoying at least two out of those three this month as he contemplates the subject on Grand Cayman Island).
   I won’t hazard a guess at what Seligman and his colleagues may come up with to define specific, universal measurements of what comprises the good life. But if I had a chance to place a bet on which of these 20 geniuses would turn up the most surprising and significant components, I’d bet on Marty Seligman. When Seligman stays on an island, interesting things happen.
   On the “Big Island” of Kona, Hawaii, for example, he and Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton went out swimming one day to explore some underwater arches some distance from the rocky shoreline — and came very close to drowning when a tropical storm blew in, transforming the quiet water into a lethal combination of crashing waves and ferocious currents.
   After listening to Seligman recount that near-disaster, I asked something genuinely stupid, along the lines of “So, what did you guys talk about as you were swimming for your lives and contemplating your imminent deaths?”
   “We actually talked about quite a few things, like how we should have taken out bigger life insurance policies,” he responded, “and I remember Michael lamenting how now he’d never get to see the film version of Jurassic Park. ” Thus began a beautiful friendship.
   Seligman and Crichton were not the only bloodied, beaten-up swimmer/ writers to wash ashore on the beaches of the Big Island during the Seligmans’ vacations at Kona Village. Another was Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian-born chair of the psychology department at the University of Chicago and author of Flow, a brilliant book about how people achieve their most productive states. Two years ago, after getting caught in some strong currents, Csikszentmihalyi struggled back to the beach and was washed ashore, bleeding. A man saw him and rushed to help. It was Seligman, who only later figured out who he had just saved.
   Today, Seligman and “Mike” Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks-send-me-high”) are not only the premier progenitors of the Gallup good-life project but also co-authors of a forthcoming book that Seligman says “will have something to do with what it means to be happy.”
   Asked how he’s personally progressing with the challenges proposed by his daughter Nicki’s anti-grouch “garden lecture,” he responds:
   “For almost my entire life, until that moment with Nicki, I never viewed happiness as a primary goal. Mike views happiness as an end unto itself. I’ve viewed happiness as somewhat of an ‘epi-phenomenon,’ something that came as a kind of a byproduct generated by work well done.
   “As I’ve [recently] learned more about happiness, I’ve discovered some interesting things,” Seligman continues. “I’ve been reading some good science [compiled recently], that strongly supports the premise that the happier you are, the more productive you are … That’s helped to motivate me.”
   As Seligman launches himself this new year into compiling the thoughts and research for another groundbreaking book, exploring the measurable, scientific components of happiness and the good life, I recall what, two months ago, he confided to me was the only part he was somewhat confident about including:
   “I’m pretty sure the book will begin with the story of Nicki and me in the garden.”

Rob Hirtz, C’80, is a writer in Durham, N.C. His books include Tales of Orp, a musical-instruction book of etudes (along with a pedagogical sci-fi comic strip), co- authored with his brother, William Gugala Hirtz, and The North Carolina Handbook, co-authored with his wife, Jenny Daughtry Hirtz, and due out in February.

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