Seligman's Psychology

From Clinical to Positive

Posted Dec 27, 2011

In this next series of posts, I am going to critically examine a few major lines of thought that are currently receiving much attention in the field. I am going to start by evaluating Martin Seligman's conception of the field, as articulated here in this TedTalk.

Seligman is one of the most famous living psychologists, having served as president of the APA in 1996, and making a number of important contributions to the field, including the learned helplessness conception of depression, and spearheading the positive psychology movement over the past 15 years. In the talk, Seligman articulates his conception of the field of psychology, both in terms of its mission and how well it is doing, after which he proceeds to discuss what is perhaps the key concept in positive psychology, well-being. Seligman proceeds to share his three pathways to the good life, which are via positive affect, flow (or engagement in life), and meaning. (In his most recent book, Flourishing, he updated his vision, which is now called PERMA, for Positive Affect, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments).

My evaluation of the talk is mixed. On the positive side, the construct of well-being is a central construct that has traditionally been under studied (see Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape for an interesting argument that well-being is one of the central constructs in all of science-although he barely mentions positive psychology). In fact, my graduate students and I are embarking on the development of a clinician administered structured interview of well-being, The Well-Being Interview, which I believe is the first of its kind. That fact in and of itself is an indication this important construct has been understudied. In addition, with PERMA, Seligman offers a reasonable conception of well-being, quite similar to our approach. Seligman also deserves kudos for his ability to coordinate large-scale empirical studies that are yielding good information.

On the negative side, however, Seligman's approach is lacking in philosophical and theoretical depth. Indeed, that Seligman is neither a theorist nor philosopher of psychology was painfully apparent in his talk. Listening to Seligman's conception of psychology, one comes to the conclusion that up until 1995, psychology was indistinguishable from psychiatry, as both were the science of mental disease. Then, eschewing hand waving, wishful thinking, and self-deception (which apparently was what the humanists were doing with their focus on optimal functioning and constructive lifestyles), good, empirically minded individuals like him are now leading the charge in studying the positive dimension.

In the talk, Seligman claims that there are fourteen mental diseases that are treatable (and two that are curable). He makes this claim as though there is consensus in the field about what we study (which there is not) and as if the list of treatable mental diseases is generally known (it is not). Although there have been improvements in the diagnostic reliability and treatment of anxiety and depression, the idea that we can say with precision or consensus that there are 14 (not 13 or 15) treatable conditions is, to me, ludicrous, and an example of proofiness. Moreover, I would strongly contest that the description of the conditions I am guessing are on his list should be characterized as 'mental diseases'. In fact, there are very good theoretical and philosophical reasons to differentiate mental diseases from mental disorders, but Seligman appears to be oblivious to such nuances.

I also cringed listening to Seligman's conception of the field of psychology at large (a conception which is not only given in this talk but in his writing as well). One would hope that a former President of the APA would have a more philosophically grounded conception of the field. Instead, it is a simple, naïve, empirical, pragmatic view. Psychology is what the NIMH has paid it to do, which is to categorize and treat mental disorders/diseases. And now, via Seligman's vision, psychology needs to also pay attention to the other side of the human functioning continuum. Such an approach is completely vacuous when it comes to dealing with the profound philosophical and theoretical complexities associated with the discipline. Unfortunately, it is exactly this vague conception of the field that is prominent and why so many lack an appreciation of the deeper issues.

In conclusion, Seligman has done the field a great service by highlighting the value and need to turn the empirical methodologies of psychology to the positive aspects of the continuum. However, his conception of psychology reveals what I believe is a rampant naïve empiricism. And without a deeper theoretical and philosophical grounding, it seems likely that research in positive psychology will contribute more information about people, but perhaps little wisdom