#276 – At The Second World Congress on Positive Psychology: Part 1 with Dr. Martin Seligman & Others

Dr. Martin Seligman needs little introduction. He’s arguably one of the most famous and influential psychologists alive. His work first on learned helplessness and later on optimism solidly established his reputation. Then, as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he essentially created a new field within psychology, which he called Positive Psychology. His book, Authentic Happiness , and more recently, Flourish, have helped both to popularize this new field and to solidify it.

I was privileged to attend this Second World Congress in Philadelphia during July of 2011. I recorded Dr. Seligman’s opening keynote on my iPhone and later received his verbal permission to reproduce it here. Because it was recorded on an iPhone from my seat in the audience, the audio quality is less that regular listeners to Shrink Rap Radio have come to expect but is quite intelligible. Unfortunately, I missed the first few words but you should be able to get into the flow of it fairly quickly.

Also, included in this episode, are a few of the interviews I conducted with other presenters and attendees. I hope these will help convey the diversity and excitement of the event.

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A psychology podcast by David Van Nuys, Ph.D.



  1. Posted September 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    ?Dr. Seligman is a genuine curmudgeon. That’s being polite. His successful attraction of scarce
    resources to his sunshine philosophy will set back psychology for a generation. So far he has
    established that humans are very resilient. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that has studied
    successful species. Resilience is just another bell curve.

    The positive psychology movement attracts funds as Dr. Seligman confesses because it feels
    good. It is not a cure for mental illness. In fact it is another way of ignoring the serious mental
    diseases that continue to plague humans. We don’t chain schizophrenics any more but we
    choose to assign them to a dark corner of pill popping so we can enjoy our marvelous resilience.

    Although a lot of Jung was self-indulgent shamanism he got one thing right. Individuation –
    brutal self awareness – is the key to a successful life with or without “happiness”.

    The problem with Dr. Seligman’s premise is that it gives only lip service to the fact that
    resilience correlates with personality factors that have a strong genetic component. Like most
    bell curves 60-70 percent of people are resilient. Good for those who are genetically predisposed
    to be resilient. But there are people at the left side of the curve that need to be aware of their
    tendency to magnify their discomfort by turning their inconvenience into a horrific tragedy.

    Maslows description of the self-actualizing person was an earlier attempt to force a model of
    “healthy” behavior on everyone. People have a tendency of taking an idea like resilience and
    torturing themselves with all sorts of techniques and practices to produce the ideal state.
    Resilience is natural to the right side of the curve. The left side is apt to feel guilty because they
    never seem to be able to achieve it. The naturally resilient majority can take care of themselves.
    There remains the need to care for those who live their lives in darkness even though the sun is
    shining. That’s where the millions of dollars need to spent.

  2. Alastair Leith
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Please expand on the ‘dark side’ of his military funding. I was very impressed with his book and reading a little more about him online I found he consulted to the CIA.

    I couldn’t find details — and the devil is in the details in this case. I would seriously question his ethics. I know all good Americans are patriots but consulting to the CIA?!

  3. Posted September 18, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    John Danzer’s criticism of Seligman indicates he doesn’t really know much about positive psychology.
    Oooops. I’m John Danzer. And I must confess that I have a tendency to judge an idea based on other peoples critical analysis. Well, I just finished reading Seligman’s book, “Flourish”. It has forced me to take a 180 degree switch in my opinion about what he is doing.

    He admits to the heritability of many of the traits associated with resilience. He also addresses the problems of those who have a predisposition to various mental problems. He suggests that everyone, including the naturally positive types need to learn methods for disputing negative self-talk.

    He isn’t really ignoring mental illness. He is trying to affect public policy so that those who have natural resilience work on that strength and create a better environment for everyone. Maybe 55 minutes of weekly therapy is not enough for those with problems. Maybe they need to be in nourishing environments where they can imitate the model of resilience. If healthy people learn how to be even healthier it is bound to pull along those who are at the fringes.

    In the words of “Emily Litella” (played by Gilda Radner on SNL) – “NEVER MIND”.

  4. Posted September 19, 2011 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    I wish positive psychology didn’t ignore history. Frankl isn’t exactly unknown – he talked about being drawn forward by our values decades ago.

    I am not an employed psychology academic and I know about Frankl. It makes me wonder about what else is being glossed over.

    As to the contention that psychology had been all about the negative. This ignores utterly the third force psychologies by obscure figures like Maslow and Rogers.

    I really find this glossing out of the past worrying.

  5. Posted September 19, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Seligman’s work with the military.

    I too was immediately put off by his work with the military. I think this is the natural gulf between killing and helping. However, killers (hunters) are a large gene pool and it ought to be studied. Too much psychological research is done on psychology majors which may not be a representative cross section of the population. I have to give Seligman credit for getting funding wherever he can find it.

    Part of the resentment is due to temperament differences between Seligman and the general membership in the APA. He is definitely a person who is committed to his personal goals. Sometimes at the expense of the group.

    The thing that stands out is that he seems to have a clear appreciation of his strengths and his weaknesses. He apologizes readily and admits to being off track on occasion. For example he points out flaws in the interpretation of his research on trying to change gays.

    Maybe mental health is too big a problem to be solved by endless analysis of individual problems. Getting people to be more open, socially aware, “positive”, is probably the best way to stop soldiers from having to kill on behalf of paranoid politicians.

  6. Morgan Blackledge
    Posted October 8, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Dr. Dave
    Thank you for the Seligman keynote. I have no idea why it wasn’t podcast by the event producers, but as usual, you stepped up and made this amazing materiel available to us. Thank you so much. I have listened to nearly everything you have posted on both shrink rap and wise counsel. It’s litterally the only source for these types of interviews. You and your work are priceless. I’m currently a (psych) graduate student, and am (needless to say) broke. But some day I will donate something to your show. Please keep ‘er going, were listening.

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