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Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness

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And maybe, too, there’s something to all this abundance, all this aspiring, all this choice. For all its confusions, choice is also a source of hope, and for many of us, hope is itself happiness, whether it’s predicated on truths or illusions. This isn’t the sort of thing that gets borne out in surveys. But it’s the stuff of fantasies, novels—of being human. As Julian Barnes asks in Flaubert’s Parrot, “Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure . . . the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfillment’s desolate attic?”

I almost became a professional philosopher,” Martin Seligman says. “I had a fellowship to Oxford. I turned it down.” I’d read this about Seligman. He’s a short man and former high-school outcast who looks a bit like Norman Mailer; today, the day I meet him, he’s wearing a silky Versace shirt of powder blue.

“My education was Wittgensteinian,” he continues. I’d heard this about Seligman too—how fascinated he was by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a famous depressive who nevertheless told his landlady as he was dying, Tell them it’s been wonderful. Seligman’s interested in many famous depressives—Lincoln, Oppenheimer. He identifies himself as a depressive, too. “But in retrospect,” he continues, “I think Wittgenstein suborned three generations of philosophy, including mine, by telling us that what we wanted to do was puzzles and that somehow by solving puzzles, problems would get solved. I spent 40 years struggling out of that mode.”

Seligman spent almost as long struggling out of the mode of traditional psychology. Like most psychologists of his generation, he began his career looking not at well-being but pathology. He co-authored the standard abnormal-psychology text that’s used in colleges around the country (for the 101 course of the same name, fondly called “Nuts and Sluts” when I was at school), and he did his most revolutionary work on helplessness in dogs, discovering that those who received electric shocks in a high-walled pen (from which they could not escape) probably wouldn’t try to escape once they were moved to a low-walled pen, even though they could. This phenomenon, which he called “learned helplessness,” earned him an enduring place in the field. It was a heartbreaking, pathbreaking finding, one suggesting how easy it is for living things to become prisoners of their own habits, virtual shut-ins of their own minds.

But today, Seligman is not interested in dogs that lay helpless in their pens. He’s interested in the ones that tried to escape. “Lying awake at night,” he says in his introduction to Authentic Happiness, written in 2002, “you probably ponder, as I have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three.” Going from minus five to minus three was in fact the goal of Freud, who famously declared that converting “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” was the goal of psychoanalysis. (Woody Allen, similarly, divides life into the miserable and the horrible.) “If you are such a person,” Seligman continues, “you have probably found the field of psychology to be a puzzling disappointment.”

It is Seligman’s contention that psychology’s emphasis on pathology has marginalized the study of well-being. But long before he invented the term positive psychology, men and women were doing research on resilience and functionality. “The indictment of psychology’s entire history in order to make an important place for this movement is a travesty,” says Gilbert. “This movement has enough good things to offer that it does not have to make the case that it is revolutionary.”

What’s even more complicated—and unnerving to many of Seligman’s peers—is that Seligman not only studies happiness for a living but treats it as a goal, and is captain of a cottage industry dedicated to its pursuit. His books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness were best sellers, found on self-help racks and published in twenty languages; until a year ago, he had a life-coaching concern, in which he trained 1,000 people at a clip in positive-psychology techniques, by conference call (and at $2,000 per head). One of his Websites, reflectivehappiness.com, charges subscribers $9.95 per month for his materials, questionnaires, and forums. (“We are so confident that this program will help you, we’ve developed a no-obligation, limited-time offer to try Dr. Seligman’s powerful program for one month free,” the Website assures.)

This is a highly unusual position for a tenured academic—to position oneself as both impartial scientist and impassioned healer, to be the one both in the lab and out on the streets, peddling the cure. It means Seligman hasn’t just started an academic discipline but a movement, and movements, although useful in popularizing ideas, also can trivialize them—and arguably collide with the aims of research.


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