From its inception, the field of psychology and almost all of its practitioners have focused on mental pathologies—that is, an individual’s psychological problems. For decades, many psychologists have believed that the point of psychology should be to focus on a person’s—to use the parlance of Freud—“neurosis,” in other words, to focus on one’s “mental problems.”
But one forward-thinking psychologist wanted to change that: Martin Seligman.
Seligman began his career in the 1970s, focusing on “learned helplessness,” or, the idea that an individual can actually learn to become depressed. In 1975, for example, Seligman conducted early research on dogs, showing that they would exhibit depressive symptoms when it became clear that the animals could not control whether they would receive an electric shock. Seligman and his colleagues later concluded, as noted by Adam Hart-Davis, that “[a] perceived absence of control over negative events may lead to clinical depression.”
This idea was then applied to people, too.
Seligman “noticed that [depressed people] sometimes showed the same sort of behavior as the helpless dogs: weariness, sleeplessness, foreboding of disaster, mental numbness, and so on.” Seligman and his colleagues then made two suggestions. According to Hart-Davis, the suggestions were:
• Some of the characteristics of depression are the effect of learned helplessness
• The depressed people believed (his emphasis) that they were helpless
This early work on depression and learned helplessness would have a major impact on Seligman’s thinking for decades to come.
When Psychology went Positive
Decades after Seligman published his research on the effect of learned helplessness on depression, the pioneering psychologist laid out an entire framework for positive psychology. At the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Seligman launched his new movement. It was there where, according to author Christian Jarrett, “Seligman lamented the fact that psychology had for so long focused on mental ailments and distress. He called on a new discipline to focus more on the positive—on people’s strengths and virtues.”
This resulted in his masterwork, a “Manual of the Sanities.”
Seligman’s ambition was to create a positive counterpart to the widely used “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or, the “DSM,” as many call it. Over the decades, the DSM has become the go-to reference for mental health professionals—psychologists, social workers, etc.—when mental health diagnosis is needed. Seligman’s Manual of the Sanities, on the other hand, solely focuses on, as noted above, an individual’s positive characteristics.
In the book’s lengthy introduction, Seligman notes: “We write from the perspective of positive psychology, which means that we are focused on strength as on weakness, as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst, and as concerned with fulfilling the lives of normal people as with the healing of wounds for the distressed.”
Throughout the Manual of the Sanities—and in specific, concentrated parts—Seligman focuses a lot on his idea of “character.” He believes that “the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts.” Moreover, this belief has motivated him to focus on character and ways to develop it. Finally, it seems, character remains an important human trait.
Lessons from Seligman
Although there are many critics of positive psychology, the discipline also has those who champion it. Indeed, to echo Seligman, perhaps developing one’s character, an idea that has its roots in ancient Greece, may not after all remain such a bad idea. If the United States and the West in general remain character deprived, with too much focus on materialism, consumption, and celebrity, then possessing character traits—things like temperance, courage, and transcendence—many not remain old fashioned after all.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues a handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Hart-Davis, A. (2015). Pavlov’s Dog: Groundbreaking experiment psychology. London: Metro Books.
Jarrett, C. (2011). 30-second psychology: The 50 most thought-provoking psychology theories, each explained in half a minute. Sydney: Murdoch Books.