Wednesday, March 29, 2006

How full is your glass?

I'd originally hoped to enrich SHAM with some incisive quotes from psychologist/author Martin Seligman, but at the last, he declined to participate in the project. This came as no great shock. "Marty"--known among his peers in rock-star-ish, one-name fashion*--may be as legendary for his oft-unapproachability as for his impact on postmodern psychotherapy. In any event, it's too bad it didn't work out. Giving greater coverage to "positive psychology"--the movement Seligman fathered, certainly in this country--might have mollified those critics of my book who shriek that "there has to be something worthwhile in all that stuff you're writing about...!"

In one sense, it's a shame that Seligman has so often been indiscriminately lumped together with "all that stuff" by armchair followers of the self-help scene. You could say he was a victim of his own success, anointed something of an ambivalent guru when his watershed work, Learned Optimism, became a smash bestseller--and a touchstone for those who dropped out of traditional psychotherapy after concluding that it wasn't reaching them, helping them, or even talking to them. (The book instantly gave Seligman the franchise in optimistic therapy and, for want of a more scholarly phrase, "the happiness movement.") Yet Marty Seligman is no Dr. Phil, gleefully spewing goofy down-home buzzwords and catch-phrases like "get real!" or "how's that workin' out for ya!" Seligman's guru-dom notwithstanding, he may in fact be the most respected figure in "serious" psychology of current vintage.

This is the point at which I must also admit that if I've given him short shrift, it's largely because I feel out of my element. I never thought that a whole lot of expertise was necessary to deconstruct, say, Dr. Laura; if I phoned a few credentialed notables (which I did), who basically confirmed my own impression (which they did), I felt I was on sufficiently solid ground to venture the kind of take I ventured in SHAM. Seligman is different. I'm not sure I'm qualified to expound on, or even intelligently assess, his theories and arguments, which mate elements of philosophy and standard clinical psychology to a "program for practical living," if you will. It's as if his ideal psychotherapist were equal parts Neitzsche and Jung, with maybe a pinch of Joy Browne thrown in for good measure.

Now, with all those caveats duly noted.... On the surface of it, I think Seligman's body of work represents the restrained approach to positive thought that's so notably lacking in popular self-help, Empowerment Division. At the risk of oversimplifying, I'd propose that Seligman is exhorting us (or, more to the point, exhorting his colleagues) to stop dwelling on what's wrong with us and instead concentrate on what's right with us. He is psychology's answer to songwriter Harold Arlen, tirelessly accentuating the positive; he is the foremost academic exponent of the upbeat side of that old conundrum about the glass being half full or half empty. Understand, now, that Seligman is not telling people to see the glass as completely full, which is where pop psychology goes off the rails. He's saying (again, to my read) that in a scenario where things are both bad and good, it is surely more humane, as well as more pragmatically expedient, to (a) emphasize the good, and (b) learn to make the most of the bad, rather than engaging in protracted hand-wringing over what's missing from our lives and how we came to this unfortunate state. (Unlike NLP or the more intellectually dishonest former sales-training regimens now reborn in the mainstream as "success training," Seligman's worldview does not define away failure or create psychic gambits by which you try to trick yourself into believing that all is possible...when it isn't.) It's a totally refocused lens on therapy, requiring a revamped lexicon as well as a revamped set of reinforcements and expectations.

It's also a wildly popular college course these days, hence the reason for this post. (Note to my former j-school students: Yes, I buried the lede.) While I don't think I have much quarrel with what Seligman has set out to accomplish in clinical settings, I do wonder whether reducing his approach (which is quite complex, if you get into his books) to a once-over-lightly college course almost makes it--well--a bit too SHAMy. Seligman** doesn't seem to think so; he says his goal has long been to build a bridge between "the Ivory Tower and Main Street." I urge you to follow the link in the first sentence of this paragraph, as well as those elsewhere in this post, and weigh in....

* others make comparisons to The Godfather: "If Marty wants to see you, he reaches out for you. You do not simply go to see him..."
** who, interestingly enough, describes himself as a "born pessimist."


Anonymous said...

A college course should focus on the statistical validation of theories, not on how to make students happy

Steve Salerno said...

But just for the sake of argument--isn't college also supposed to produce a well-rounded, well-adjusted, nicely balanced citizen of Earth?

Anonymous said...

Good point, but I thought that was the main purpose of families. Universities can certainly help students by teaching basic life skills, such as how to adjust to college, but they are not well suited for the long term game of parenting students to be well-adjusted citizens, which contrary to popular thought, often extends into the late 20s or early 30s.