Seligman on optimism, individual and global well-being, and the US army

Martin E. P. Seligman, known for his famous theory of learned helplessness, was this year’s speaker for the annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of Michigan, which took place today. Since he’s been doing a lot of studies on Positive Psychology recently, and based on what I heard about his talks, I was looking forward to what I assumed would be a motivational and inspirational speech. In my head, as soon as the talk was over I would hurry back to my office with a rush of excitement, to what would end up being the most efficient and productive night of my life. Things didn’t really go as planned.

Seligman’s talk was based on happiness (which he now prefers to call well-being) on three levels: individual, national, global. His formula for well-being is simple: PERMA. Positive emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

Optimism is key in this model, and he has several studies that demonstrate this. If you are thinking right now that you lose because you were born a pessimist, don’t despair. According to Seligman, people can change – his own experience suggests that they can change even at the age of 50.  He gives examples of exercises that he has used in his studies and that have seemed to work pretty well in causing this change. One that I personally appreciated was the 3 Blessings tactic. For one week, every night they have participants write down 3 things that went well that day, and why they went well. Even though they ask them only to do it for one week, they find that participants continue this exercise on their own, and within 6 months there are observable changes in the well-being of those who kept at it, compared to the control group, which did not engage in this exercise at all. I find this easy to believe, because it seems like a simple strategy that makes the person focus on the positive things that happen in a day, rather than the negative things. I can imagine how this soon turns into a feedback mechanism where the person gains a more optimistic outlook by passively ignoring negative events and actively recognizing positive events.

Apart from small exercises like the one I’ve just described, I also appreciated the idea of how simple it is to expand individual well-being over global well-being. In Seligman’s view, and according to some of his findings that he mentioned, positive education systems where the teachers are trained to teach with a positive framework cause significant changes in large numbers of people’s well-being and optimism. So with this idea, he thinks it is not only possible to have organizational or national well-being, but global well-being as well. Between you and me, he even used a somewhat cheesy line like, “We just need to choose what we are going to say ‘no’ to: no to poverty, no to racism, no to human rights violations…” All was well, nice and pink, up until this point.

That’s when he started explaining his collaboration with the Pentagon. He told us that the Pentagon had called him in for a meeting on how to lower rates of depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, suicide, divorce, and other significant problems that were prevalent among American soldiers. As a result of that meeting, his positive education system was adapted to the army, and currently the US army is going under an extensive training program where 40,000 drill sergeants are learning to teach a positive outlook to their soldiers. I had a feeling there was something strange about Seligman getting engaged in the improvement of the army, but then I thought, soldiers are people too, and they deserve and particularly need assistance in maintaining their psychological health. So, I let it go.

In the context of global well-being, Seligman referred to the year 1451 – the beginning of Renaissance in Florence under the rule of the House of Medici. He pointed out how the Medici, having a certain amount of economic wealth, had chosen to channel their resources to the betterment of arts and sciences, or in Seligman’s words “to beautification.” He called this the “Florentine Moment,” and pointed out that the European Union countries and America were ready to have their own “Florentine Moment,” and that this should be utilized. Again, I thought to myself, why is there no mention of the rest of the world? Earlier in his talk, he had also shown a graph of countries’ well-being values, and the graph contained only the US and members of the EU. I thought it was strange, but tried not to take it in a negative way. After all, he was promoting global well-being and optimism – I must be misinterpreting things, I thought. He obviously must be implying that the US and the prosperous European countries should be the ones to initiate the effort for promoting global well-being.

One more thing I want to point out from his talk is this largely confident statement he made: “One must only be blinded by ideology if he or she cannot see that there is more democracy, more human rights, less poverty, less racism, and overall more well-being in the world, than there was 200 years ago. There is definite human progress, and no one can deny that unless they are blinded by ideology.” I’m really not so sure about this. For example, just because the Civil Rights Movement took place, doesn’t mean there is less racism. Maybe less active racism – that might be true. But then again, I have no data on this to insist that I am right and he is wrong.

But here is what really put me off. At the end, a young man, whom I could tell was not American from his subtle accent, asked what I thought was a very clever and well-thought question. It was something like this:

“I really enjoyed your talk, and your ideas about optimism and well-being. I have a friend who will be going to Afghanistan soon, and I think he will really need these, because it will be very difficult for him. So I think this sort of understanding could really help him. But on the other hand, my friend is going to Afghanistan to kill people. And the Medici, as you said, were prosperous and promoted the advancement of arts and science, but they also tortured a lot of people, and one example I can think of is Machiavelli. So, I like the idea that this is our Florentine Moment, but I fear that our Florentine Moment resembles the Medici’s Florentine Moment far too much.”

Here is how Seligman answered, more or less, in pretty much the most condescending and dismissive way one can imagine:

“There were two goals the Pentagon had for the project that I am working on with them: one was to improve the mental well-being and health of soldiers in the army, and the second was to train better, more successful soldiers. I am proud of both of these goals, and support both of them. I am an American citizen, and I am proud to be so, so I support our troops and I think both of these goals are important and worth pursuing. Unless you think otherwise.”

I feel privileged whenever I get to see such big names talk in flesh and bone. Names we have been reading about and discussing for years, names whose ideas we’ve honored for so long, names whose theories have influenced scientific trajectories. Thus, the disappointment is proportionately big when I hear them give such statements. I’m not sure whether those were Seligman’s initial feelings about war and the army, or whether having been employed by the Pentagon has an effect on his opinions and feelings now. And it probably is important for one to support his or her country’s troops to some extent. But to propose that a country needs good and successful soldiers, after spending an hour talking about individual and global well-being, is simply contradictory, and almost comical, if not tragic. I can’t help but question the scientific method, the scientists around me, the aim and goal of the scientist in life. Do we really do science for the sake of science, or are we mostly confused about what are aims are?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s