By Willow Lawson, published on January 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
My first assignment was the gratitude visit. It goes like this: Pick a person in your life whom you'd like to thank, someone who has meant a lot to you. Write this person a letter. After you've written it, call the person and ask to visit. Read the letter aloud when you are face to face.
Whom to thank? My mom, the ultimate role model? My first boss, who taught me the value of a to-do list? Reading aloud sounded a bit dramatic, probably involving a few tears and possibly a plane ride. The introverted Minnesotan in me began to panic.
I shared my fears with Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the man who had in effect given me the assignment. "I think you may be a very good candidate for this," he murmured. His deep voice was sympathetic but firm. "I'm like you. And for those of us who are reserved and live in our heads and just do words, these are good exercises."
Positive psychology focuses on cultivating personality strengths and honing an optimistic approach to life rather than on cataloging human frailty and disease, which Seligman says has too long been the focus of psychology. The movement has taken the field by storm, especially among young clinicians and students. But it has also attracted a growing number of critics.
If you want to learn to be a happier person, only a relatively small body of knowledge exists to help you, Seligman says. "After 60 years, clinical psychology can claim that it makes miserable people less miserable," he said at the second International Positive Psychology Summit in Washington, D.C. "But what about the person who wants to go from a plus three to a plus eight?"
Seligman has become positive psychology's street preacher, though he's long been recognized for other work in the field. In the 1970s he became known for his research in learned helplessness, the idea that continuous negative stimuli induce a permanent state of apathy and bring on depression. Later, he tackled the subject of learned optimism, a model for treating depression. He has written some 20 books, including The Optimistic Child and What You Can Change... and What You Can't. His latest undertaking is Authentic Happiness coaching, a spin-off from his book, which he teaches via telephone conference call to some 300 eager students in 24 weekly sessions. Despite the occasional clatter of typing or a barking dog in someone's living room, the teleconference has the atmosphere of an intimate seminar. Responses from students can sound at times like a virtual group hug. These "students" are in fact therapists, life coaches and psychiatrists who call in from 11 countries. Increasingly, CEOs, lawyers, human resource managers and schoolteachers are also paying the $2,000 fee. They are the first brigade in an army poised to disseminate positive psychology throughout their offices, clinics and schools. Seligman's dream is that in several years, 10,000 people will be certified Authentic Happiness coaches, ready to light the way for the rest of us to live joyous, meaningful lives.
But first the Authentic Happiness approach must be proven scientifically valid, a task Seligman and his research group are tackling online 24 hours a day. Anyone can take part in their online study, which randomly assigns exercises like the gratitude visit to users. (See authentichappiness.org.) Can the average person learn to be happier? I logged on to find out.
The first step in the Authentic Happiness regime is the Values in Action (VIA) survey, an online test of 240 questions that computes a person's five "signature" strengths, the basis for the rest of the course. Seligman and Chris Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who devised the strengths test, divide good personality traits into six categories, or virtues—wisdom and knowledge, transcendence, temperance, justice, love and courage. Each virtue contains between three and five strengths. The virtue of love, for example, is broken down into the three qualities of intimacy, kindness and social intelligence.
The VIA test is the most popular and useful part of Seligman's teachings according to participant surveys, even though most people aren't surprised by what the test tells them. "Love of learning" and "curiosity and interest in the world" are common strengths among reporters and writers, whereas photographers and artists seem to score highly in "appreciation of beauty." Philosophy majors may find "judgment, critical thinking and open-mindedness" at the top of their list. That friend who always says what is on her mind may find that "honesty, authenticity and genuineness" is her core strength. Three or four of the skills are usually traits familiar to people, says Seligman, but one or two may be unexpected.
Codifying one's strengths "gives people permission to know what they already know about themselves," says Betsy Rodriguez, a Bethel, Connecticut, family therapist-turned-life coach. "Sometimes when people are in jobs and are unhappy, they know it, but they're afraid to make the leap. If you took this test and found out that your career doesn't really match your strengths, you might think, 'Well, no wonder I've been miserable.'"
Rodriguez says her awareness of her strengths helped her cope with the sudden death of her parents, halfway through the coaching course. Her mother and stepfather were killed in a traffic accident in Tennessee. In the days that followed, Rodriguez comforted herself by expressing her second signature strength—appreciation of beauty and excellence—when writing her mother's obituary. She spent extra time recording the details of her mom's life, looking up the correct spelling of her mother's prep school, for example.
At the funeral she consciously tried to use gratitude, her third signature strength. "I went up to everyone I knew, thanked them for coming and told them my parents would have been so honored that they were there," she says. "It made me feel strong."
Seligman teaches that knowing your strengths makes it easier to achieve more meaningful forms of happiness. He identifies three forms of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life and the meaningful life. The pleasant life is what most Americans think of when considering whether or not they are happy moment to moment. Many people are cheerful; others are not, a trait which studies show is for the most part heritable. Identical twins usually have a similar level of good cheer, which leads researchers to suspect that mood is largely dependent on genes.
There are shortcuts to achieving the pleasant life. "You can take drugs, masturbate a lot, or engage in mindless entertainment," Seligman says. It will probably make you happy for a bit, but at some point, most people look in the mirror and ask, "Is this all there is?" Seligman calls this the "fidgeting until death" syndrome.
Enter the higher paths to happiness: the good life and the meaningful life, both attained by harnessing one's strengths. The good life comes through deep engagement in work, family life or other activities. The meaningful life comes from devotion to an institution or a cause greater than oneself. Some find meaning in family or friendships; for others it might be charity or a religion. So instead of the sports car as the antidote to a midlife crisis, positive psychology recommends that you savor time with your kids or find a way to give to others, whether they are needy strangers or your own kin. Data from those who have completed the Philanthropy vs. Fun exercise in Authentic Happiness have said the act of giving provides more long-lasting good feeling than an exercise of hedonic pleasure.
Amanda Levy, an executive coach with Andros Consultants in Morriston, Ontario, says the Authentic Happiness coaching has given her new tools for her lifelong battle with depression, which she traces to a family history of mental illness. "I now have this marvelous way of looking at myself that confirms that I'm not demented and that has shown me day-to-day ways to improve my well-being." Levy swears by the Longcuts vs. Shortcuts exercise, which advocates spending extra time on a routine activity. Instead of buying Mom a birthday card, "longcut" the task by creating one yourself. Instead of juggling e-mail and paying bills while dutifully chatting on the phone with a friend, why not just focus on your friend? "Most of us multitask and end up completely empty at the end of the day," says Levy. "If you take one task and longcut it, you end up feeling that the day is far more meaningful."
Seligman's blend of self-awareness and optimistic thinking is hardly new, but novelty is not a selling point: Seligman freely admits that he draws on a large body of research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow," or absorption in a task, to Robert Emmons' findings on gratitude. Positive psychologists are, however, the first group to pull together these strands, push for more research and zealously disseminate the results. "It would be really easy to say, 'What's the big deal here?'" says Levy. In fact, the positive psychology method of focusing on existing personality strengths has made the course more useful than traditional counseling, she says. "I don't need my past delved into," explains Levy. "I just need to know how to manage a blue day."
The movement has its detractors, in part due to the relentless push to see life's glass as half full. Some, including Barbara Held, a psychology professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, say the discipline needs to address both disease and ways to increase positive mood. "If psychology is going to be whole, we need to study the good and bad together," she says. The positive psychology movement is an example of what Held calls the "tyranny of the positive attitude," a trend she says is pervasive in the U.S.
Indeed, there is a push in some public and private sectors to show the benefits of being optimistic. For three years, the John Templeton Foundation sponsored a $100,000 Positive Psychology prize, which was awarded to a scientist whose findings further research into positive emotion. Seligman himself has helped raise some $30 million to sponsor research in positive psychology.
Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, says years of research have taught her that pessimists are generally as successful in life as optimists, though their tactics are far different. For so-called defensive pessimists, who account for about 25 percent of the population, mentally bracing for a variety of imagined worst-case scenarios is a natural coping strategy.
"It helps them feel that they're in control," says Norem. "They often say: 'I wish others could understand that they don't need to cure me. My biggest problem with my pessimism is other people's reactions to it.'"
Optimists, on the other hand, might cope with anxiety by pushing those thoughts away, watching TV or calling a friend. Norem has found that you can force pessimists to be optimistic, but "they fail at what they are doing," she says. "The bottom line is, one size just doesn't fit all."
When bad things happen, positive psychology does not tell people to just sing a happy tune, Seligman says. "I'm a great believer in psychotherapy," he says. "When people have a lot of troubles, psychotherapy really helps. But I also think that [such trouble] doesn't deprive them of happiness or engagement and certainly not of meaning in life." Using signature strengths can buffer the mind against the inevitable things that will go wrong. "Hardship is terrifically important in character building," he adds. "But we might increase positivity some."
Seligman argues that despite the many advances in clinical psychology, one third of patients don't respond to treatment, regardless of which disorder they have. "Starting about 20 years ago, we hit a 65 percent barrier for nearly every disorder," he says. "There's been no new drug or psychotherapy that takes us well above that." He intends positive psychology to be another "arrow in the quiver."
Whether that arrow hits the mark depends on current research. Early indications are that the research will be a "blockbuster" in the field of psychology, Seligman claims.
So it may be time to get started on my letter. Chris Peterson, a leader in the movement, says the gratitude visit needn't involve cashing in frequent-flier miles. "When I give this assignment to my students, I don't call it a 'visit,' because I live in the real world," he says. A fear of public speaking needn't get in the way either. "Writing the letter might be more your style."
Peterson has no doubt that exercises like the gratitude visit can be life-changing events. "This is one of those things that I have great faith in because I've seen it done dozens of times," he says. "The letter will work."