Interview with Martin Seligman, January 2019


Ilona Boniwell: What fascinates you right now? Is there a recent finding (not yet published) that you are excited about?

Martin Seligman: One is about prospection, I am working to develop exercises that would make people better prospectors, in the same way as twenty years ago we developed and tested exercises to make people more positive.

Secondly, a national police force wants to PERMAfy its troops. You know policemen, they are very negative, they see the worst in everything and they have often many prejudiced reactions. We want to develop their wellbeing and social skills to see if this makes them feel better and make them better able to diffuse tense, escalating confrontations..

The third thing, we are working with A Royal College of Surgeons. It is well established that after surgery people heal better if they are in a good mood, so I have raised the question about having “PERMA people,” people who make you feel more cheerful, merrier, as part of the hospitals. Like rays of sunshine that increase mood. So that’s the third project.

And another one is about digitizing and gamifying positive education – there are just so many kids out there in the world that could become happier adults. And there are not enough teachers of well-being for kids, so it cannot be done from person to person. How about digitalizing it and gamifying it?

IB: What have you not figured out yet? What is your next big question?

MS: I guess what bugs me is that the science that is happening in prospection and positive psychology is good, but there could be better, more incisive, more precise science. So I am waiting for the better science to emerge. I think the applications are working pretty well. But you know, breaking into the academia, and getting better basic science is something I always wanted but I wasn’t really able to get widespread traction that well-being—as opposed to misery– is a viable scientific topic.

IB: Even now?

MS: Yes, the science is good, but not great.

IB: Well, fair enough…Taking about gamifying, playing. This is actually what I mainly do at the moment – developing tools that end up creating playing. What is the role of playing in positive psychology? It seems to me that we haven’t really looked into it yet.

MS: Well, you know, I have always been interested in play, and it has never really been integrated into positive psychology. And the question of fun, you know, is also closely related to it, and it hasn’t been integrated either. There is a distinction between playing and fun. I play really serious bridge and I love bridge, but it is no fun at all. So one would want to distinguish play (bridge is play, for example) from fun, which is a completely different matter, but no one has researched this.

IB: I agree. What I do is mainly about play. Serious play. Group level play. Sometimes it is fun, but not always. For example I integrate a lot of Lego Serious Play in my positive psychology training – it is highly engaging, but may or may not be fun. In my work, I also integrate Lego Serious Play into my training. In your book, you keep coming back to bridge. What is the meaning of bridge for you? Is it about changing the scenery, having a breath of fresh air?

MS: I am not sure what it is, but it is also has to do with being really good in something, doing something you are good at and getting better at across the entire lifespan. I have been playing bridge for 65 years and just in the last couple have had a growth spurt. After my lecture in Paris, I am off to Monaco for the bridge championship.

IB: And to what extent being good at something is fully integrated into strengths, especially a character strengths approach?

MS: No, probably not completely. You see Jenny is fifteen, she has taken positive psychology in her High School. She is clearly great in it, she does it really well. Chemistry is hard, Mandarin is hard, but she is a natural at psychology. I would like young people to find what they are naturally good at and what the world needs and then find a way to make a living doing it.

IB: The idea of being natural goes back to being good at something, and then eventually it becomes fun. It is not just flow, it is only a part of it. It is not the whole experience.

MS: Yes, flow is a part, but at the cutting edge it is very hard work.  it is not flow when progress is being made

IB: Yes, flow is an optimal experience, or one of the optimal experiences. There are several of them, but we just haven’t researched them yet. Another question that I have after reading your book is that you keep going back to dreams on numerous occasions. In the Hope Circuit, you speak of developing a theory of dreams in 1987. Dreams clearly play a very significant role in your life. How can the work on dreams be integrated into positive psychology? Is there a place for it? I personally believe that yes, and hugely so – our understanding of our dreams can contribute to optimal functioning.

MS: One of the chapters I cut out of the book, because they said it was too long was the one on dreaming. I think my theory of dreaming  is some of the most creative stuff I have ever done, but it is not in the spotlight of positive psychology, and no one is doing the right kind of research on dreaming.

IB: I guess this is because the dreaming is associated with the “old school”, psychoanalysis and the like. Another question I have been thinking about is at the end of the book you talk about therapy becoming more focused on the future, but is that not fundamentally the difference between therapy and coaching? Coaching, life coaching, executive coaching are fundamentally future focused and are usually presented as such. What is your view on the development of the coaching profession?

MS: Yeah. I have a lot of hope about coaching, and not a great deal of hope about traditional therapy. We have just had a book come out called “Positive Therapy” (Rashid and Seligman, Oxford, 2018), which takes what we do it in positive psychology and does it therapeutically, but in general I think once someone has been diagnosed with a pathology, it is a hard, uphill battle filled with relapse, so if you can do prevention and coaching, I think you basically prepare people for the future. So I have much more hope for coaching, for prevention and education.

IB: Of course, at present, coaching is still in its early stages in comparison with therapy, but the potential is clearly there. Coaching can be seen as a vehicle for the development of future-mindedness and prospection.

MS: There are not many outcome focused researchers on coaching, and there is no funding for doing research on coaching at the moment, because most funding is for certified diseases. Coaching – some parts are pretty well developed, and the measures are pretty well developed, but we just don’t have outcome studies on how well it works, when it works and when it doesn’t work.

IB: Actually, there are some recent meta-analyses of the coaching effectiveness, so new research is coming through.

MS: Yes, and there are meta-analyses of the separate positive psychology interventions, so that can lead the way to a viable psychology of coaching.

IB: And what about the whole current movement about happiness at work? Do you see any reservations around it or around how it is being implemented? It is such a huge market place nowadays.

MS: For me, it is part of the question of building exercises for prospection that work. No one has done the right set of studies. A lot of morale issues at work can be a good place for positive psychology, and I think workers can be more focused, more in flow, with less burnout – these are possibilities that come out of positive psychology for the workplace, but right now we have not penetrated that market very well, but I think positive psychology could have a lot to offer.

IB: I agree with you. This marketplace is huge, but within it there are a lot of charlatans. The happiness at work slogan is extremely simplistic, and as far as research currently stands, happiness at work is not a very convincing argument. Engagement at work – yes, focus at work – yes, and wellbeing as something to provide for the durability of engagement – yes, but happiness at work is an over-simplification.

MS: I agree with that.

IB: And what about education, what’s next?

MS: I’m just finishing a chapter for the United Nation on positive education – it is spreading all over the world. I think there is uptake all over the world, there is evidence that it increases not only wellbeing, but also achievement, as measured by standardized tests. And also there are lots of different people doing it, so no one has a monopoly over it. There are many validated exercises to make kids’ well-being better, so there are not that many empirical concerns. 

IB: My question around is are we not a little bit outdated – we are working on wellbeing, we are working on resilience, but yet when I talk to my kids they say “Mum, you are living in the last century. The only thing that really matters is being liked on the social media, and if you are not liked, you are not worthy of existence” So I am just wondering if positive education is really synchronized with what matters for the current generations. Are we really hitting the right button?

MS: You should get them to work on it, because I am sure you are right. We have not really integrated positive education with the social media.

IB: I am also wondering whether wellbeing should be our primary priority in positive education, or whether it should be grit and the capacity to focus.

MS:  I agree with you about grit. And focus I think is a great question, and something we really don’t really understand. There has been a psychology of attention for over a hundred years, but it has never really landed on focus. We are not talking about flow here, focus is different from flow. So you are laying out a good set of problems. I wish there was someone who works on focus. I could use it more in bridge. It’s the main problem I have in bridge.

As usual, you are better than me in identifying where the forefront should be J Social media in education and focus at work.

IB: This is thanks to raising five kids in a non-optimal environment (divorced parents, moving countries, reconstituted family) and observing what is actually in the forefront of their lives at the moment 🙂 I have realized, thanks to you, that I am not very optimistic, but I am definitely very good in being future-minded.

MS: Also, talking about education, anxiety and depression and bullying are definitely big issues in American education.

IB: Not only. These are issues not only for American education. And unfortunately, I am not sure if we are teaching these right with our resilience programmes. My gut reaction is that we are not tackling it fully. The problem is that our kids no longer have any real difficulties.

MS: No…Let me put the general problem that worries me most about our education. I think it is clear that we live in a better world than ever before. So the question is why is there still no increase in real wellbeing, but there is increased depression, increased anxiety, increased meaninglessness. Why do our young people not appreciate that the world is so much better and go from there? This is the hairy entitlement issue.

IB: Because they are used to living in a warm and cozy world where everything arrives to them on the plate, more or less.

MS: Yes…

IB: And they don’t face many difficulties anymore, and when they encounter a tiny little thing, like splitting with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, or do not get the expected mark, this becomes a huge disaster. I think that our resilience programmes were well adapted ten-fifteen years ago, but are no longer appropriate for the current historical moment.

MS: It can also be related to the present-mindedness focus, and not much sense of the past, of the history, our kids are astonishingly a-historical. They also learn about control and mastery, but fundamentally are not very good in projecting into the future. This is what I am working on now – developing exercises on prospection that people at schools can use. We can identify some people who are very good as forecasters of the future, and we might learn what they are doing.

IB: What are your last memories of France? Of your last trip to France?

MS: The wonderful wine and food. I am just an Epicurean when it comes to eating and drinking in France.

IB: What do you think of the French unhappiness paradox?

MS: I have been struck by happiness reports on France, the fact that the average happiness of an unemployed Dane is higher than of an employed person in France. I am not convinced that it is actually true. I’d like to know what well-being in France looks like, through the broader measures of Gallup, for example.

IB: If you look at the French happiness data from the International standpoint, France will usually be between 22 and 30. So it is relatively happy, though less than we can expect on the basis of the GDP. What emerges strongly from most of the international and word surveys, however, is that France is the champion of pessimism. It is not only data, but also my lived experience that French have deep, persuasive pessimism.

MS: Oh that’s very interesting.  Pessimism, unlike, for example, un-smiliness, really holds people back. You could smile rarely, since lack of smiling does not hold you back.  But if you are pessimistic and not resilient, this can really affect your life.

IB: From your experience, how do the French view psychology and optimism?

MS: I wonder if it could be very good to compare France with Russia, because essentially there is a very similar Russian pessimism as well. I would be interested in your thoughts on the relationship between the Gallic pessimism and the Russian pessimism. It might also be the specific issues that one is pessimistic about – individual, or spiritual, or national, or lack of control. Are there similar issues for Russia and France?

IB: How could we introduce optimism to the French, in the way that is palatable for the French and not too far divorced from their perception?

MS: Well, this for me, would be on the list of things to think about, because developing optimism or at least flexible optimism that is suited to the culture  is really very important.

IB: What is the power of optimism?

MS: Pessimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to permanent, and pervasive and uncontrollable factors. People with pessimistic styles are at greater risk for depression than their optimistic counterparts. Conversely, optimists tend to attribute the causes of negative events to temporary and specific and controllable factors.  And these also act as a buffer against depression.  

IB: How did studying optimism change your life? An anecdote?

MS: As you know, I grew up being quite pessimistic.  But then I think only a pessimist can write and do serious science about optimism. The skills I talk about I use every day. What I’ve become thanks to all the years of working on optimism is what I call a “flexible optimist.” I can recognize the situations which call for optimism, and the situations which don’t call for optimism and instead require a realistic, not a rosy view of what’s going to happen.

When I make that separation, if it’s one of the many situations in which the optimism skills are going to pay off, then I throw in my whole complement of optimism skills. It makes me better able to initiate different projects. But when I’m in a situation in which the cost of failure is very high, large and potentially catastrophic, then what I want is merciless realism. In that case I revert to my usual pessimism.

IB: What influence can optimism have on our lives?

MS: There is so much data on why optimism is a good thing, including significant positive health outcomes. Among the findings we discovered were that optimists get depressed and anxious less than pessimists, have fewer colds, stronger immune systems, and a much lower cardiac risk than their more pessimistic counterparts. Optimists tend to live eight years longer. They even recover from surgery more quickly and report a higher quality of life afterwards. Optimists don’t give up easily even when faced with serious adversity, whereas pessimists are more likely to anticipate disaster and give up as a result. Overall, optimists are more action-oriented when faced with problems.

IB: What is your favorite technique for developing optimism?

MS: There is a skill that everyone has, that they usually deploy in the wrong place. The skill is called disputing. In learned optimism programs we teach people first to recognize the catastrophic things they say to themselves. For example, they might say, “No one is going to like me at this party. I never have fun at parties.” We teach them first to treat it as if it were said by an external person whose mission in life is to make them miserable. Then to dispute it in the same way they would an external person who was out to get them. When you say these things to yourself, you treat them as if they were true. We generally have the skill of disputing other people when they make false accusations about us, and we can learn to do so with our own false overgeneralizations as well. That’s the central skill in both cognitive therapy and learned optimism training.

IB: What about positive psychology in general? Do you feel like the battle has been won? That positive psychology has been recognized by the majority of the psychologists and psychiatrists? Or do you feel the challenge is there still? What would you like to respond to the sceptics?

MS: When I started my career as a psychologists, the questions we were faced with were solely about the relief of suffering, what Freud and Schopenhauer told us to do. Now, thanks to positive psychology, we also ask questions about human flourishing and not solely the relief of misery. Positive psychology has received huge recognition from professionals all over the world, including psychologists and psychiatrists. There are hundreds of university programs teaching positive psychology, there over 20 Master degrees in positive psychology, governments are measuring wellbeing and flourishing of their populations, and there are conferences all over the world.


I think criticism is good and it is crucial, unlike a Broadway show where criticism shuts you down; in science, criticism is what you respond to and it enables you to refine and correct your work. But then there is constructive criticism that fuels the science, and then there is strawman criticism. I think there are many critiques that positive psychology needs to respond to. One is that positive psychology is selfish, and it needs to be more about other people. And that’s a very important critique. Another one is that we need to make a better world, create a better economy, to assure that everyone is living better. And I think this is also a very serious critique that we need to think about – whether psychology is just an epiphenomenon of prosperity. And then there is the strawman critique – that is this happyology, smiley stuff? Positive psychology is not about smiley faces, it is about meaning and purpose, about virtue, good citizenship and about accomplishment. When Critics repeat that positive psychology is about superficial happiness over and over that gets under my skin.

So the battle is never fully won, but the progress has been tremendous.

IB: Thank you

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