07 September 2005

Lesson For A Psychologist

Some time after Martin Seligman, an eminent psychologist, first appeared on Oprah's TV chat show something happened which led him to change his ideas about what psychologists should be trying to achieve. As a result, he founded the Positive Psychology movement.

Martin Seligman, a former President of the American Psychological Association, is best known for demonstrating the phenomenon of "Learned Helplessness" by means of experiments on dogs which, it has to be said, were undeniably cruel. He later discovered that he could demonstrate the same phenomenon with student volunteers who undertook tasks that were rigged to cause frustration.

The ingredients which go into his formulation of 'positive psychology' have been known about since the beginning of recorded history. They are central to the ideals of all major world religions. What Martin Seligman has done is to re-introduce them as "personality strengths" that psychologists should investigate. There's a sample book chapter on Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology website. Here is the passage which explains what changed his outlook:
"The notion of a Positive Psychology movement began at a moment in time a few months after I had been elected President of the American Psychological Association. It took place in my garden while I was weeding with my five-year old daughter, Nikki. I have to confess that even though I write books about children, I'm really not all that good with them. I am goal-oriented and time-urgent and when I'm weeding in the garden, I'm actually trying to get the weeding done. Nikki, however, was throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. I yelled at her. She walked away, came back, and said, "Daddy, I want to talk to you."

"Yes, Nikki?"

"Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday? From the time I was three to the time I was five, 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."

This was for me an epiphany, nothing less. I learned something about Nikki, something about raising kids, something about myself, and a great deal about my profession."
And what was it he learned?
"Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them. It is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.

As for my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine. Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grouchiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change."
So there you have it. A top psychologist, President of the APA, learns something new about human nature from his five-year-old daughter - and resolves to change - after spending a major part of his adult life studying what? -- human nature! Martin Seligman deserves a commendation for his candidness.

Many psychologists seek evolutionary explanations for human nature. The feelings and emotions of children reflect the natural adaptations of the most highly evolved primate species on earth. Throughout most of evolutionary history our species lived in close-knit tribal communities. In our modern world it's only after many years of conditioning that children learn to suppress their true feelings in order to adapt to a society in which most people are surrounded by strangers outside their homes, classrooms or workplaces. Most children have to suppress their true feelings in classrooms too, and most adults have to suppress their true feelings in their workplaces. On top of that, many adults have to put their capacity for empathy on hold in order to fit in with the ideological or academic orthodoxies of institutions that offer employment opportunities.

With the decline in supportive community networks since World War II, the requirement to suppress authentic feelings on a regular basis has led to an epidemic of mood disorders. Martin Seligman put it this way in a discussion forum on the Australian ABC radio network:
"In the past, when we failed, as fail we must, there was spiritual furniture we could fall back on for consolation. Our relationship to God, our patriotism, extended families, community, and systematically in the two generations in which depression has increased so drastically, we've seen a waning of all these spiritual furnitures."