Martin Seligman's Journey (continued)
Professional Pessimist to Expert Optimist
That story says quite a bit about the ever-evolving
life and work of Martin Seligman. After receiving his doctorate from Penn,
he proceeded, during the 1970s and 1980s, to help redefine how psychology
and psychiatry viewed the mental illness of depression. His groundbreaking
and rigorously-tested theory of learned helplessness -- which argued that
a major component of human depression consisted of a "learned"
pessimistic attitude -- led to major breakthroughs in treating and preventing
Today, thanks in part to his 1990 bestseller, Learned
Optimism, Seligman is recognized as the world's preeminent psychological
authority on optimism. That might seem an ironic mantle for a self-admitted
grouch. But it wasn't until an exploratory meeting in the late eighties
with literary agent Richard Pine, C'77, about writing a mass-market
book, that Seligman started viewing his prodigious research on learned
helplessness from the point of view of the half-full, versus the half-empty,
glass. "At the end of that meeting, as I was walking to the door,"
Seligman related over breakfast in Raleigh, N.C., "Richard said,
'I'm going to give you a gift: Learned Optimism -- that's your
title.'" A nostalgic smile came over Seligman's face. "Until
that moment," he said, "I had been under the impression that
I'd been studying pessimism all those years." (Seligman, incidentally,
has repaid the "gift" from Pine many times over; the most recent
fruits of their collaboration include Pine's supervision of a new deal
struck with the APA wherein Pine will shepherd the publication of at least
four APA-sponsored, mass-market books a year.)
Transforming himself from one of the world's experts
on pessimism and depression into its premier scientific authority on optimism
is characteristic of the protean Seligman. "In any given year,"
he says, "I try to toss about 10 balls into the air, and see which
ones bounce up high enough to catch." This past year, Seligman tossed
up at least that many when he assumed the APA presidency on January 1,
1998. He clearly laid out his goals in his first "President's column"
for The Monitor, the monthly APA newsletter. The column, titled
"Building Human Strength: Psychology's Forgotten Mission," included
the following observations:
Before World War II, psychology had three missions:
curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling,
and identifying and nurturing high talent. After the war, two events changed
the face of psychology. In 1946, the Veterans Administration was created,
and practicing psychologists found they could make a living treating mental
illness. In 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was created,
and academic psychologists discovered they could get grants for research
on mental illness Š
Fifty years later, I want to remind our field that it
has been side-tracked. Psychology is not just the study of weakness and
damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not
just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves
Fifty years of working in a medical model on personal
weakness and on the damaged brain has left the mental-health professions
ill-equipped to do effective prevention.We need massive research on human
strength and virtue. We need practitioners to recognize that much of the
best work they do is amplifying the strengths rather than repairing their
patients' weaknesses. We need psychologists who work with families, schools,
religious communities, and corporations to emphasize their primary role
of fostering strength.
Ten years ago, this kind of "revolutionary"
rhetoric would have won few friends and influenced even fewer votes among
APA's 155,000 voting members, who historically have a notoriously stodgy
reputation. But times have changed.
"Actually, I haven't encountered much criticism
from [the clinical wing of APA] at all," Seligman says matter-of-factly.
"I think they see that I'm giving them a way out."
He is referring to a growing crisis facing psychologists
who directly treat clients and patients -- one that goes by the name of
"managed care." Seligman estimates that the real income of psychologists
directly treating clients has decreased by as much as 25 percent over
just the past five years. The reason is clear: managed-care organizations
have severely curtailed health-care insurance coverage for services rendered
by psychologists. As Seligman quipped during his campaign for the APA
presidency, "Knowing a lot about helplessness is a good credential
for being an APA member today."
Before the spread of HMOs, talk used to be comparatively
cheap -- when you talked with a psychologist and you had health insurance.
If the psychologist told your health-insurance company that you needed
to talk, then your insurance company would pick up all, or at least a
significant chunk, of the bill for those discussions.
These days, depending on your HMO, you may be lucky
if your health insurer doesn't challenge the psychologists' fees incurred
if you're hospitalized for suicidal behavior ("Let's see -- there's
your mental-health hospitalization deductible, then there's your lifetime
cap on psychotherapeutic services -- oh, and two of the therapists who
visited you on the ward are not preferred providers on our plan, so we'll
only cover 13 percent of their charges Š ").
Indeed, these are tough times for psychologists. "Thirty
years ago," Seligman says, "when universities were churning
out psychology Ph.D.'s, we never envisioned -- how should I say this?
-- that payments for medical care could so swiftly become, for lack of
a better word, so efficient."
Although Seligman's word choice at the moment has a
positive connotation, he quickly qualifies it. The efficiency wrought
by managed care is clearly, to Seligman, counter-productive. Paying for
psychology as "preventative" medicine to encourage human strength,
he believes, would save untold billions of health-care dollars.
One of Seligman's major initiatives as APA president
was to appoint a task force on prevention. He appointed (or, more accurately,
persuaded) two noted psychologists to serve as co- chairs of this task
force. One, Dr. Roger Weissberg, professor of psychology at the University
of Illinois at Chicago and co-founder and executive director of the Collaborative
for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning, comes from a background
working with persons experiencing mental illness, their families, and
various support and advocacy organizations. The other co-chair, Dr. Susan
Bennett Johnson, has a background more focused on physical health.
For the past four years, Johnson has been running the
University of Florida Health Science Center. "Marty was very clever
to appoint both me and Roger as co-chairs," she says. "Roger
comes from a more 'traditional' mental-health background, emphasizing
work on social and emotional skills. I work in a medical center, working
with kids who are physically ill."
Johnson makes a strong case for the "health-care
dollar sense" of preventative psychology. "The public thinks
the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disease,
diabetes," she says, "and they think of these as primarily medical
problems. But the fact is, seven out of the top nine causes of death are
caused by behaviors. Take heart disease. The major causes are all behaviors
-- smoking, dietary and exercise practices. And most of these behaviors
start before adulthood. Managing these behaviors is up to kids and their
And, if Johnson and Seligman have anything to do with
it, it will also be up to the government to pay psychologists to help
schools and other community institutions foster the kind of healthy behaviors,
both physical and mental, that will save health-care dollars down the
Incidentally, Johnson and Seligman are hardly strangers.
When Seligman taught experimental psychology at Cornell University, from
1967 to 1970 (when he returned to Penn to teach), Johnson was one of his
undergraduate students. Seligman convinced her to join his psych lab,
which at the time was staffed primarily by male graduate students.
"Marty got me to be a psychologist," says
Johnson. "At the time, not many women went to graduate school. Going
to grad school had never registered on my radar screen. But Marty's attitude
was 'You're brilliant -- of course you're going to graduate school Š '"
Johnson approaches the subject of Martin E. P. Seligman
as an almost larger-than-life phenomenon.
"Marty never ceases to amaze me," says Johnson.
"When you're young, you think you can change the world. But as the
years go by, we start to realize that what we can actually accomplish
is not that big, and so we concentrate on achieving goals in smaller areas
where we can exert some degree of control." Johnson pauses. "Marty
never grew up. He still thinks he can change the world. And so he takes
on something outlandish like this ethnopolitical-warfare thing."
She is referring to a task force Seligman launched a few months into his
APA presidency; its far-fetched goal was to gain funding for psychological
investigations and interventions that might prevent and intervene in wars
caused by ethnic conflicts.
"How many people would say to themselves, 'What
can I do about ethnopolitical warfare?'" Johnson asks rhetorically.
"And yet, Marty's convinced lots of talented people to devote loads
of time and effort to this project -- and, even more improbably, I hear
that he's actually managed to get some significant funding for it."
By the time this article appears in print, Seligman's brainchild, the
Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict -- based
on Penn's campus under the aegis of Penn's psychology department and co-directed
by Dr. Clark McCauley and Dr. Paul Rozin -- will be up and running, thanks
to a $120,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation and another six-figure
grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The Center
already counts collaborators from universities around the globe.
Seligman has also succeeded in delivering on a promise
made during his campaign for the presidency of the APA to gain funding
to launch major studies on the effectiveness of psychotherapy -- to reinforce
"the fact that what psychologists do, works, and works well."
While the available evidence may be enough to convince the already converted,
he notes, it is "not compelling to the much sterner jury of health-care
decision-makers, Congress and the American public."
NIMH has agreed to fund such studies on a large scale,
to the tune of what Seligman expects to be about $20 million. This is
truly beautiful music to psychologists' ears. Armed with mountains of
new data showing that an array of psychological programs and treatments
are both efficient and effective, psychologists might be able to counter
restrictive managed-care policies and gain more respect and confidence
from lawmakers and the general public.
January/February Contents | Gazette
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 1/4/99