Seligman’s call for a “science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called ‘the good life,’” as he put it in Authentic Optimism, his 2002 bestseller, was a timely one, for both good and ill. It more or less coincided with an explosion in the self-help industry aimed at addressing emotional happiness: Books, audio and videotapes, seminars, one-on-one sessions with life coaches, and other products poured forth and found an eager audience. While this has helped raise positive psychology’s profile very quickly, it has also engendered a fair amount of confusion when it comes to separating the science from the hype.

“There’s a danger of the publicity [about the field] far exceeding the science,” Seligman noted in a Chronicle of Higher Education report on the first meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association in Philadelphia this past fall, attended by more than 1,500 people from 52 countries. Another leader in the field, Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Principal Investigator of the Positive Emotions Psychophysiology Lab at the University of North Carolina, put the issue more bluntly: “The curse of working in this area is having to distinguish it from Chicken Soup for the Soul.”

Positive psychology’s content is based upon what Seligman calls “three pillars” of scientific inquiry: positive emotion, positive traits (strengths and virtues) and positive institutions. From the beginning, Seligman enlisted the help of leaders in the field to pursue these inquiries, notably Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and senior scientist for the Gallup Organization; Raymond Fowler, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama and past president of the APA; Chris Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and co-author with Seligman of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and director of quality of life research at Claremont Graduate University, all of whom teach in the MAPP program.

Seligman gave himself the task of raising money, an endeavor at which, by all accounts, he has been incredibly successful. “I’ve spent a good part of my adult life begging one agency or another for funds … and my knees are just about worn out,” he writes in Authentic Happiness. “Raising funds for positive psychology, in contrast, was a walk in the park.”

That stroll has helped garner more than $226 million in grants to researchers in positive psychology over the last 10 years from the National Institute of Mental Health. More funding has come from the John Templeton Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which supports the current initiative in positive health), the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and numerous private foundations.

“We were streetwise enough to know that change in the focus of a science does not occur unless there are jobs, grants, prizes, and supportive colleagues,” Seligman adds.

From the beginning, he was also intent on making the field “understandable and attractive” to non-experts and scholars alike. “Marty has always been dedicated to making sure that the science doesn’t stay in the journals,” says Pawelski.

 

 

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FEATURE: Degrees of Happiness by Kathryn Levy Feldman
Illustration by Daniel Fishel

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