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Surprising Science

Optimism: The Path to Happiness

Psychology can and should do more than reduce mental suffering, argues positive psychology guru Martin Seligman in his new book. It should encourage optimism about life, he says.

What’s the Latest Development?

As founder of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman recalls during his years as a clinical psychologist that he did help relieve his patients of mental suffering, but that the result was not necessarily happy people. Instead, says Seligman, people came out of therapy feeling empty. In his new book, he says that there is more than positive emotion to being happy—and perhaps here he parts ways with critics who see him as a new-age, self-help guru—relationships, meaning and a sense of accomplishment are equally important to a sense of well-being. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Marting Seligman pioneered the booming field of positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania when he began teaching the nation’s first master’s course on the subject. Dissatisfied with psychology’s focus on outliers, i.e. people with negative psychological characteristics, he wanted to steer the field in a new direction—toward improving the psychology of the majority of the population. People whose psychology was not crippled by a debilitating condition should also benefit from psychology’s lessons, he thought. To this end, he wanted to help amplify positive psychological characteristics rather than just tame negative ones. 


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