Martin E.P. Seligman, Gr'67, professor of psychology, is delivering
the keynote address at the annual conference of the North Carolina Psychological
Association. Though he has been delivering riveting lectures on psychology
for three decades now, this speech is a little different.
Speaking to his fellow psychologists as their national
leader -- the 1998 President of the American Psychological Association
(APA), the world's largest professional mental-health organization, with
more than 155,000 members -- his message is clear and blunt: He wants
American psychology (and psychologists) to change.
This is not totally unexpected by his audience. Since
1995, when Seligman first started campaigning for the APA presidency,
he has been actively advocating for the field of psychology to expand
its myopic focus on treating mental illness to include promoting mental
On this balmy October night, Seligman warns his audience
that some parts of his speech will sound downright "uncongenial."
This too, is not totally unexpected. By the time Seligman finished earning
his Ph.D. at Penn in 1967, he had already become internationally known
as one of the brash and brilliant enfants terribles who so often
move science forward. (As Dr. Henry Gleitman, another venerated Penn psychology
professor and a long-time poker companion of Seligman's, put it: "Marty
reminds me of the young Orson Welles Š sometimes purposely naive, sometimes
enormously sophisticated, often appearing larger than life. Like Welles,
Marty has occasionally been a sort of enfant terrible -- and he
can exude that look and aura of gravitas like Orson -- but goodness, he's
nowhere near that fat!")
Tonight, in this North Carolina hotel ballroom packed
with hundreds of psychologists, many of whom still have a little dinner
or dessert left to eat, the room falls into an utter and foreboding silence.
These psychotherapists, like TV's Dr. Frazier Crane, are listening.
"I was out weeding in my garden last summer with
my daughter, Nicki, who had turned five, some 11 months earlier,"
Seligman began. "Now, you should know that I'm a very serious gardener,
and this particular afternoon, I'm very focused on what I'm doing -- which
is weeding. Nicki, on the other hand, is having fun. Weeds are flying
up in the air, dirt is spraying everywhere."
Seligman pauses. "Now, I should mention here, that
despite all my work on optimism, I've always been somewhat of a nimbus
cloud around my house. And despite all my work with children, and despite
having five children of my own, ages five to 29, I'm really not that good
with kids. And so, kneeling that afternoon in my garden, I yelled at Nicki."
Seligman looks down at the podium. Reliving that moment
obviously hurts. Then he raises his head again, and forges on.
"Nicki got a stern look on her face, and she walked
right over to me. 'Daddy,' she said, 'I want to talk with you.' And this
is just what she said. 'From the time I was three until I was five, I
whined a lot. But I decided the day I turned five, to stop whining. And
I haven't whined once since the day I turned five.'"
Seligman pauses for the simmering chuckles, and continues.
"Then Nicki looked me right in the eye, and said 'Daddy, if I could
stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.'"
The room erupts with laughter, and Seligman holds the
crowd in the palm of his hand.
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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
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