DISCUSSED: The American Psychological Association, Learned Helplessness, Carl Sagan, The Meryl Streep of Psychology, Clinically Unhappy Fifteen-Year-Olds, Positive Affect, Reviving Ophelia, Emotional Intelligence, The Overprescription of Prozac, The Moral Reset Button, Romance by Ralph Lauren, Noam Chomsky, An Emotion Called Elevation, Drinking Apple Juice out of a Bedpan, Corporate Love


It is entirely possible that if you met Dr. Martin Seligman in an airport lounge, or in a coffee shop, or in any other place conducive to encounters with strangers, and you had gotten to talking, and he had thought that you were smart or connected or otherwise worth knowing, he would have delivered his positive psychology sales pitch. Positive psychology, he might have said, was his idea for shifting his field’s focus away from negative things like depression and anxiety and mental illness. A positive psychology would center on optimizing things like courage and hope and joy; it would be a science that focuses on the needs of regular, non–clinically ill people like you and me, he might have explained.

Like all good salesman, though, Seligman would likely have wanted to make sure that his pitch began, in fact, before it began. He might have eased you into it—told you about his professorship at the University of Pennsylvania before segueing into the fact that he was now also the head of the American Psychological Association. He might have told you about several of his books, The Optimistic Child and Learned Optimism, perhaps, and if he could find a moment when it seemed naturally relevant, he might have mentioned that the latter was a best-seller.

Of course, what he would have been trying to tell you in not so many words is that he has been, in recent decades, a sort of psychology superstar—“the Meryl Streep of the field,” according to one young psychologist I talked to—and that he has been renowned by his peers for his work on optimism and pessimism and a third field of research which he believes is affected by the first two, something he has termed “learned helplessness.” If it seemed not too boastful a move, he might have dropped the name of a reporter or producer who’d interviewed him, one from the New York Times or Good Morning America, depending on what kind of a person you seemed to be. Or he might have told you that, as a young man, he’d been friendly with Carl Sagan, or how great Kathleen Hall Jamieson was. Oh, Jamieson’s name didn’t ring a bell? He would have explained.

Having set the stage, he would officially have begun the pitch. He would likely have spoken in sweeping terms at first—generational and dramatic and even millennial terms—of where we are. America is at a point in its history where we have the best of everything yet we’re still not happy, he might have said. “Our young people have, by every economic statistic, by every objective index of well-being, more—more purchasing power, more education—but almost all of our mental health statistics are going south.” And then he’d deliver the stats. We’re much richer than we were forty years ago but ten times more likely to be depressed. In fact, the rate of depression is the highest it’s ever been, and the average age of a clinically unhappy person’s first bout with the condition has gone from thirty to fifteen years old in recent years.

And so there is a need, he would continue, and then he would probably tell you that there is also an opportunity. “This is a ripe fruit situation,” he might have explained about creating this new focus for psychology. When societies are “poor, or when they’re at war… it’s perfectly natural that the arts and sciences and the ideology of the nation should be about defense and damage.” But when societies are rich, they should turn to questions of the best things in life, of what makes life worth living. Seligman might have told you that we, right here, right now, in America, were experiencing one of those moments.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Strawberry Saroyan is a journalist and author based in Los Angeles. Her memoir, Girl Walks into a Bar, was published by Random House.

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