Martin Seligman and the ‘official’ birth of positive psychology

If we measure a discipline’s success by the attention it attracts and the number of people it influences, we can say that positive psychology is a sensation. In only two decades, it has caught the attention not only of the academic community but also of the press and general public. When writing this post, I did a Google Scholar search for “positive psychology” using a custom range 1998-2018, and it showed 86,100 results. The fact that 14,800 were from the first decade (1998-2008) and 75,000 for the last one (2008-2018) indicates that the increase in interest has been tremendous. But, when and how all this started?

Officially, positive psychology was born in 1998, when Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association (APA) and decided to choose positive psychology as the theme for his discourse (Seligman, 1999). We say ‘officially’ because as it has been explained (Hefferon & Boniwell, 2011; Strümpfer, 2005), one of the criticisms of positive psychology is that the ideas, and even the name, are not new. Doubtlessly, different philosophers, researchers and psychologist had explored ‘the good life’ idea before the discipline of positive psychology even existed. For example, AristotleJohn Stuart Mill, William James, Abraham Maslow or Carl Rogers. Maslow even used the term ‘positive psychology’ many decades before Seligman (Maslow, 1954, p. 201). However, we probably need to recognise that Seligman has done a great contribution by bringing back to our consciousness and driving new research studies rooted in the thoughts and ideas of past researchers, philosophers, scientists and psychologist.

Curiously, Seligman didn’t start as a positive psychologist. In one of his lectures (Coursera, 2011), he explains that when he entered the profession, back in 1964, there was a battle between two warring factions -psychoanalysis and behaviourism- and despite the vast differences, they had shared premises. The first was that psychology was about reducing misery and conflict in people. According to the second one, past history, particularly childhood, determined people’s future. Was it true? Seligman tells a story to explain how he had an essential insight months before he was elected president of the APA:

I was weeding the garden with my 5-year old daughter Nikki. She was throwing weeds, singing and dancing while I was actually trying to get the weeding done. I yelled at her, she walked away, then came back and said:

Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.

Seligman realised that raising children is not about fixing and correcting what’s wrong with them. It is about identifying and enhancing their strongest qualities and what they do best. This revelation had a significant impact on what Seligman would go on to promote during his career: that we should teach our children and ourselves to look at our strengths rather than weaknesses.

Since then, as the numbers mentioned at the beginning of this post suggest, the positive psychology movement has dramatically expanded, and many other professionals had contributed to this promising new discipline.

References

Hefferon, K. & Boniwell, I. (2011). Positive Psychology. Theory, research and applications. New York: Open University Press.

Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1999). The president’s address. In R. D. Fowler, M.E.P. Seligman & G.P. Koocher, The APA 1998 Annual Report (pp. 559-552), American Psychologist, 54(8), 537-568. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.54.8.537

Seligman, M. E. P.  (2011). Positive Psychology: Toward a Balanced, Empirical Understanding of Well-Being. Positive Psychology: Martin E.P. Seligman’s Visionary Science. Coursera. Viewed 7th December 2018, https://www.coursera.org/learn/positive-psychology-visionary-science

Strümpfer, D.J.W. (2005). Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Notes on Early Positive Psychology (Psychofortology). South African Journal of Psychology, 35(1), 21–45. https://doi.org/10.1177/008124630503500102

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