I am completely in awe of Martin Seligman’s work on Optimism and Happiness. He began his career working on conditioning and learning, as most psychologists did in the 60’s. But he and colleagues stumbled upon “learned helplessness”, a condition in which lab dogs and rats were “helpless”: many (not all) the animals had reached a stage, after being placed in situations where they could not do anything to avoid something bad happening to them, that they were passive in the face of shocks or the threat of shocks.

Seligman realized that the animals had expectations about what was going to happen, and for some of them, ‘despairing’ was better than trying to escape, which would be futile. This led in time to exploring how humans deal with expectations, and thence to optimism and pessimism about the future.

Seligman and his team found that they could measure optimism quite precisely, and that they could identify people who were more or less optimistic. They showed for one of the toughest jobs, with the highest drop-out rate, insurance salesmen, that the most successful were the most optimistic – indeed they had to be, because the proportion of positive calls and meetings for an insurance salesman is so low, only those with massive optimism about themselves could keep making the calls.

The measurements in turn led to better techniques to teach people to be more optimistic about themselves, using cognitive behavioural techniques. He wrote about this work in “Learned Optimism” in 1991.

In the last 20+ years, he and his collaborators at the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania have looked more broadly at happiness, and are steadily building their scientific database of interventions that can positively increase happiness. They suggest there are 3 kinds of happy lives, those with lots of pleasant emotion, usually enjoyed by people with a very sociable outlook; those who may not be very sociable but who are really engaged by some of the things they do, they “get into the flow” of these activities and don’t need ‘pleasant’ feelings; and those whose lives are meaningful, because they have discovered some of their strengths and can use them for the benefit of something or some people other than themselves.

Seligman is a persuasive advocate of “positive psychology,” identifying strengths and what works for people, rather than identifying difficulties, however accurate this may be. I am looking forward to reading his new book, “The Hope Circuit” (2018). I commend everything he has written; happily, the messages are positive but the style is not preachy or sugary. It feels real, too.

Written by
Tim Bunn

EdD, MSc, BA (Hons), PGCE
Consultant Educational Psychologist
SACAC Counselling

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