Episcopal Academy sits on 32 acres of unfettered green in Merion, Pa., its pristine classrooms surrounded by serenity and splendor reminiscent of a college campus, which is where 100 percent of its graduates will be headed next year. It's a place that nurtures the minds and souls of the gifted and affluent; a great place to study, obsess about the opposite sex and pop pimples if your parents have an extra $20,000 a year. It's also, as it turns out, the ideal place for the ideas of Dr. Martin Seligman.
Taking the auditorium floor amid enthusiastic applause on an Episcopal in-service faculty day last month, Seligman looks very little like "the rock star of professors in education" he's introduced as. A white-haired, balding man with hearing aids in both ears, Seligman looks like an academic, and possibly one who might induce snoozing. Until he opens his mouth to speak. Then, if you're any kind of idealist, he's got you.
A psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania for 35 years and former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), Seligman is here at Episcopal to talk about positive psychology, a field he willed into existence nine years ago while surrounded by like minds on a sparkling beach in Mexico. But today Seligman is focused on the future, and how to make it happier for future generations.
In many ways this endeavor is the culmination of Seligman's work since the early '80s, when he began asking why psychology focused only on healing the sick, or as he puts it, "bringing people from a minus five to a zero," and not enriching the healthy. Now, armed with years of research in this burgeoning new field, he's teaming up with Episcopal to teach kids skills that won't just combat depression, but can actually increase happiness in their lives.
"Education, as the Greeks taught us, is the fulcrum for the question of, ‘What is the good life?'" he explains to some 200 attentive Episcopal faculty members.
These days there's strong evidence that young people — even the nurtured, well-off, intelligent ones — have lost sight of the answer to that question.
Take a quick survey of national morale, and it's easy to conclude we've hit a low point. Iraq. Global warming. Terrorism. Katrina. White House scandals. It all weighs heavily on our collective subconscious.
We're also in the midst of a depression epidemic. In the last 50 years depression levels have increased tenfold, and the average age of initial onset has dropped from 30 some 40 years ago to 15 today. Fifteen percent of children will now experience a "depressive episode" — which may include lethargy, sleep disturbance or morbid thoughts — by the time they leave high school.
Seligman speculates that "an ethos that builds unwarranted self-esteem, espouses victimology and encourages rampant individualism" is a major contributor to depression earlier in life. Kids are growing up self-centered and self-inflated, and are reluctant to take responsibility for their own lives, characteristics that work against long-term happiness. Our culture relentlessly bolsters these qualities, and for the most part, we're doing nothing to combat them.
"Statistics suggest this is the most individualistic our young people have ever been," Seligman says. "Our young people tend to believe they're all that matters, that their successes and failures are of monumental importance."
Symptoms of this mindset can be found on MySpace, YouTube and reality TV.
"The problem has to do with failure in life," Seligman explains. "What do you turn to when you fail? If you believe all there is in life is you, the spiritual furniture you have to sit in is quite threadbare."
A movement began in California in the '60s requiring self-esteem programs, which encourage children to focus on themselves and their internal goodness, be taught in schools. Seligman speculates this has also contributed to the increase in depression, causing an abundance of "unwarranted self-esteem." The movement spawned the "I am special; so are you" mentality.
"This question of boosting kids' self-esteem in the absence of boosting skills that warrant self-esteem might be one cause of depression," he says. "It's like telling us to jiggle the meter without changing the underlying emotion."
Another source of the depression epidemic, says Seligman, is the culture of victimization that began with Alcoholics Anonymous, persisted through the civil rights movement and has continued right up to the current resurgence of rehab. "Some of this was good for society," he says. "But to the extent to which you believe you're a victim, you don't do anything to change it."
Lastly, shortcuts to happiness are another biggie. "Wealth and shortcuts go together," Seligman says, referring to things we do for instant gratification, including shopping, drug use and loveless sex. "Evolution doesn't want us to take shortcuts," he says. In the long run they leave the person who employs them feeling empty.
Hoping to curb such trends, Seligman began studying the effects of optimism, which has been linked to good health, long life and decreased depression. What he found was surprising. Optimism could be taught; even better, optimistic thinking could combat the possibility of developing depression. Teaching 10-year-olds optimistic thinking skills cut their rates of depression in half by the time they reached puberty. This wasn't the boast of a self-help guru preaching the power of positive thinking; this was solid scientific evidence.
Seligman's theories and methods of "learned optimism," as outlined in his book The Optimistic Child, led to the creation of positive psychology — the study of promoting happiness and overall well-being — when he took the helm of the APA in 1996.
While watching crystal-clear waves tumble shoreward with some of the world's leading psychology scholars, Seligman developed the happiness-seeking concept that would become the legacy of his term and the future of his research: positive psychology.
Which brings us back to the question of our current happiness. We're certainly more depressed these days, but are we unhappy?
Happiness and depression are related, but they aren't polar opposites. (Women experience more happiness and more sadness than men.) Depression levels in every wealthy nation in the world have spiked in a big way over the last five decades, but happiness levels have remained the same.
"This is a paradox because the quality of life in every one of these nations has gone up," Seligman observes.
This phenomenon — labeled the "progress paradox," in a book of the same name by Gregg Easterbrook — is partly what led Seligman to expand his research from learned optimism to positive psychology. He wanted to see if we could teach not only ways to curb depression but also ways to increase happiness.
"Things that decrease depression generally increase happiness," Seligman explains. His analogy: "If you clear away the underbrush, you're going to have a better chance if you have a rosebush there, but you have to have a rosebush there."
To plant the rosebush of happiness and help it grow, it's important to know what makes us happy in the first place.
The answers can be surprising.
Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, has been studying what makes people happy for decades. There are a lot of things that just don't do it for us.
Money doesn't buy it: Once our basic needs are met, additional cash flow does little to increase life satisfaction. Education and IQ have no effect: A study comparing the Harvard graduating classes of '39 and '43 with a group of men from inner-city Boston showed no difference in happiness levels, depression or alcoholism over a period of more than 50 years. Attractive people are only slightly happier than unattractive people. African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States have lower rates of depression than Caucasians but similar levels of happiness.
Youth no longer cuts it either. The old are more likely to rate themselves higher in life satisfaction and experience fewer emotional highs and lows overall. And residents of sunny California are no happier than Midwesterners, though both groups incorrectly believe Californians are happier. Northeasterners, however, do rate slightly lower in happiness than people in the South or the Midwest.
The biggest red herring in all this is having children. Despite the fact that Americans most often cite their children as the biggest source of their happiness, people with children are no happier than the childless. In fact, one study of Texas women found "taking care of my children" ranked below cooking and just above doing housework in creating positive emotions.
So what are the keys to lifelong bliss? Researchers say there aren't any. But there are several vital components.
People who have strong relationships with family and friends are overwhelmingly happier than those who don't. A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by Diener and Seligman revealed family bonds and friend bonds as the biggest shared characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of kids surveyed. Countless other studies support the indispensable importance of friends.
Marriage and religion are also strongly related to happiness. Forty percent of married people rank themselves as "very happy," compared to 24 percent of singles. Religious Americans are less likely to divorce, commit crimes, abuse drugs or commit suicide. They also live longer, and survey data consistently shows them to be happier and more satisfied with life. But both religion and marriage are complex findings. Married people might be more likely to be happy to begin with, and the aspect of religion that may make people the happiest isn't belief in a divine power but the strong community bonds it builds.
Happiness is also 50 percent genetic. A 1996 study of fraternal versus identical twins found that genetics far outweighs any other happiness predictor. This supports the theory that everyone is born with a set range of happiness, or as Seligman puts it, "You can't take a giggler and make him a grouch, and you can't take a grouch and make him giggle all the time."
But that remaining 50 percent of happiness is up for grabs, and that's where Seligman comes in. There are also controllable characteristics that determine happiness, and they're precisely what Seligman hopes to teach future generations.
"The bar is raised so high for kids, and there's such a competitive element that when they're disappointed, they haven't gotten to the point where they can handle those coping skills as well as they could," says Kim Piersall, who teaches sixth-grade health at Episcopal, where the R4 Power program — a computer program designed to build optimism and resilience in kids — was introduced at the beginning of the school year.
Piersall's talking about students at schools like Episcopal, for whom college is a foregone conclusion and a primary source of pressure. But Piersall believes what's taught in the program can be beneficial to all kids.
"Helping them manage life — disappointment and good things — is all part of this," she says. "It absolutely can have an impact on somebody's depression or their perception of the goodness in their life, or what they see as the badness."
Piersall and other Episcopal faculty members attended training sessions last summer with Karen Reivich, a research associate under Seligman and a researcher behind a University of Pennsylvania project called the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP), which led to the creation of R4 Power.
"We teach children how to challenge overly pessimistic beliefs, how to be more flexible thinkers, how to use evidence to test perceptions, and also assertiveness skills," says Reivich. "The program is meant to be broad in effecting positive outcomes in kids; certainly preventing depression and anxiety, but also enhancing general well-being."
The original R4 program Episcopal wanted to implement in the classroom — one that uses a 10-session online question-based format — wasn't yet complete, so the program had to be modified before the beginning of this school year. The current program includes video, worksheet and discussion components, but the final incorporates a much larger online piece.
Seligman divides happiness into three "lives": the pleasant life, which involves successfully pursuing life's pleasures, such as sex, music or vanilla ice cream; the engaged life, which involves using what he calls your "signature strengths" to pursue your passions; and the meaningful life, which involves using your strengths and virtues to serve a larger purpose.
Positive psychology focuses on improving all three levels in an effort to increase happiness. Seligman suggests various exercises, ranging from the simple act of savoring good moments, to writing down three things you're grateful for every night before bed, to something he calls a "gratitude visit."
Gratitude visits require students to write a well-crafted, well-thought-out one-page letter to a person who's meant a lot to them and whom they never properly thanked. They must then call the person to arrange a visit, and when they arrive, read the letter to them face-to-face.
These methods can easily sound like warm-and-fuzzy baloney, particularly to those familiar with the problems facing inner-city schools. But Seligman supports his recommendations with science. The gratitude visit, for example, is the best-tested of the bunch. It also has the strongest short-term effects. People who made the visits showed large increases in self-reported happiness for up to a month afterward and residual effects for up to three months.
All of these exercises are performed at Episcopal, but the core of what Seligman teaches relates to the notion of signature strengths, the results of a test conceived by colleague Chris Peterson at the University of Michigan. The VIA Signature Strengths Questionnaire is a series of 240 questions used to isolate a person's most prominent good qualities. Some examples are social intelligence, curiosity about the world, honesty and rational thinking.
"The idea is to identify your highest strengths, and recraft your life around them," Seligman explains.
While Seligman has field tests going on around the world — including a planned trip to teach the principles of positive psychology to teachers at the well-known Geelong Academy in Australia — he has yet to determine the effectiveness of the program, or if it can be replicated across academic settings.
"For the learned optimism stuff, we've worked with schools enough to know that in controlled settings it works," says Seligman. "The question of disseminating this into the real wild world is something I don't think we know."
This June in Lawrenceville, N.J., Seligman has organized a meeting of 40 heads of some of the world's best-known schools, including representatives from the venerated KIPP public schools — which serve primarily low-income, minority students — to discuss if and how the program could be applied.
"The question is, if a very limited number of people know how to teach this, how do you disseminate it responsibly so it doesn't become this watered-down slogan of ‘smiley face, be positive,' which would be useless?" he says. "Should we create a new master's in education through a university? Should we do teleconference stuff? Should we try to find master trainers, and send them to the KIPP schools?"
He worries that merely putting the R4 online program in schools won't be effective. "You really have to demonstrate that the web stuff has the same impact as face-to-face," he says.
If it turns out entire schools must be on board and trained for the program to work, Seligman says he'd have no interest in continuing the program because it couldn't be realistically put in place. For this reason, his team is exploring options such as teleconferencing.
When it comes to Seligman's research, both England and Australia seem to be thinking big. The Australian government brought Seligman in to discuss ways of implementing his ideas in Australian politics. And part of the British school district's rationale for the optimism training is an attempt to reduce violence among kids. ("Depression is what it works on," Seligman says. "Violence is a stretch for me.")
To Seligman, this high-level interest is a good sign. In order for these programs to have a significant impact on the depression epidemic and long-term happiness levels, he says, education policies have to change. There must be a top-down approach.
"I've been waiting for the first candidate to run on the platform of happiness," he says. "Someone's done it in England."
As for this country, don't hold your breath.
"Our political agenda has mostly been about economics and defense. No one has run on the agenda of making our lives happier, more fulfilling, having more meaning," Seligman says. "We're a nation at war, and we're preoccupied."
Of course positive psychology isn't without its critics. Many view it as merely a Band-Aid, or think it places too much emphasis on the American concept of happiness as the ultimate goal. The movement's most outspoken critic, Berkeley psychology professor Richard Lazarus, died years ago, but while he was alive he published attacks on the science of positive psychology, deeming it "simplistic thinking."
Julie Norem, chair of the psychology department at Wellesley College and author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, argues that for some people pessimism can actually be a healthy, productive approach to life's challenges.
"Research shows that anxious people who use defensive pessimism perform better than anxious people who are influenced to be more cheerful or optimistic in their thinking," she explains. "And research shows that optimism and pessimism function differently and are regarded differently in unsimilar cultural contexts."
Norem also believes there hasn't been enough conclusive long-term testing to demonstrate clear benefits to these programs, or to anticipate their potential costs. "What else might change in negative ways if you try to influence explanatory style in children?" she asks. "And the current research pays virtually no attention to individual differences; in other words, which children are helped, and might some children actually be hurt by these programs?"
At the end of Seligman's talk at Episcopal, one faculty member asks how it's possible to teach kids happiness when there's so little to be happy about.
"The facts, I believe, are over the last 60 years the world has gotten better," Seligman replies. "Osama bin Laden isn't Hitler or Stalin. He's not a player in the same way. The messages are very pessimistic, so the question is to match what, I think, is a rosy reality to the messages that are received. Educators can play a huge role in the mismatch. You'd have to be completely ahistorical to believe this is the worst of times."
A version of this story appeared originally in Philadelphia Weekly.[email protected]