Who is Martin Seligman and what does he have to do with your Happiness?

In Psychology, Psychology of Success, Success on July 24, 2009 at 7:25 am

By Bakari Akil II, Ph.D.

Martin Seligman claims that when he used to fly on airplanes and a seat mate would ask what he did for a living, they would lean away when they found out he was a psychologist. That was over two decades ago. Now, Seligman says, when he tells people what his profession is they “lean forward.” 

What’s the reason behind the dramatic change?

Well, the history of psychology has been one that focused heavily on depression, neurosis and psychotic behavior. For a very long time Freudian psychoanalysis, based largely on unconscious sexual issues, the focus on schizophrenia, concerns on animal experimentation, etc., has affected the general public’s perception of psychology.

Besides, who wouldn’t be a little leery of someone they think could put them in a strait-jacket?

Seligman, who specialized in abnormal psychology, reversed course in the early 90s and decided to use his expertise in a different way. What if psychology could be used to improve the lives of the average person? Average being people whose daily lives aren’t crippled or constantly disrupted by their own neurotic or psychotic behavior. 

Seligman is credited with creating positive psychology. Which according to Lynda Warwick, Ph.D., focuses on human behavior that encompasses “well-being,” “happiness” and “being a functional member of society.” His book, “Authentic Happiness,” which discusses these concepts in detail, is what truly propelled him to fame. Seligman discovered that those who were tested as the happiest among us, the “very happy” as author Tom Butler-Bowdon describes it, socialize more than those who score in the average range for happiness or those considered depressed. 

Money, power, status and many of the things people believe the more they have, the happier they would be, are just not good predictors of how happy people are. The predictors of high levels of happiness in Seligman’s research were involvement with many groups and high levels of interaction with other people. Married couples report higher levels of happiness than those who are divorced or separated. Single people who have lots of social activity are happier than singles who are not very socially active, etc.

Disclaimer: Seligman, in a speech at the TED Conference notes that very high levels of happiness and high levels of social activity are “correlated” (positively) but social activity is not necessarily the cause of happiness.

That aside, I would say cultivating social relationships to increase (or maintain) happiness is worth a shot. There is no use having success if you can’t enjoy it.

  1. I think it is common knowledge that money is definitely not the answer to happiness. I believe it can help, but unless you have other people in your life to share the money with, the initial happiness gained from instant success soon fades to resentment and loneliness. Indeed it is true that the happiest richest people are those with more social interaction in their lives.

  2. Anna,

    I think you are right. Seligman went as far as saying that when people reached the “barely comfortable” stage then increasing the amount of wealth had little influence on their “happiness” quotient.

    I can remember some of the best times I have ever had as an adult was when I was in the Army and in my doctoral program. I was short on money in both settings but almost always surrounded by friends and associates. The work was tough, both in their own way, but the relationships I formed I’ll never forget..

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