August 19, 2008

Thoughtful Talk about Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology ("a field of study that examines healthy states, such as happiness, strength of character and optimism") spoke at the Ted Conference back in 2004, and the video has just been made available online:

He talks clearly about the state of positive psychology today, including some background. Psychology (arguably, clinical psychology, though he doesn't explicitly say this) has long been known for making "miserable people less miserable" - but Seligman argues that there is a cost to this: we become "victimologists," ignore "normal people" and genius, and we don't work on developing "interventions" on helping people become happier.

He describes three kinds of "happiness:"
  1. The "pleasant life" includes having as many pleasures and pleasant emotions as possible. Some drawbacks: much of this is "heritable," meaning that you are born with it or you're not; and like tasty food, pleasant emotions can be "habituated," (Seligman analogizes French vanilla ice cream: the first bite is scrumptious, but by the sixth bite, you forget it's the best ice cream you've ever had).
  2. The "good life," which Seligman describes as being about "flow:" when time stops, you have intense concentration, and you are totally consumed by what you're doing.
  3. Meaning. Knowing what your strengths are and using them to good effect for yourself and others.
Finally, Seligman talks about successful "positive interventions" which help improve people's happiness. He assures the audience that studies for these interventions are done in the same "rigorous" manner in which drug effectiveness is tested, including long-term studies, placebo controlled, and random assignment of therapies. He describes some interesting activities which enhance the pleasant life:
  1. Plan a beautiful day
  2. Gratitude visit
  3. Strengths date (with couples)
  4. Fun vs. philanthropy (note: philanthropy has longer-lasting "pleasant" results than fun)
Watch the video for details about these activities, and check out his web site for even more information.

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