Martin Seligman - Evaluating Positive Psychology Critiques

By Sophie Archibald | 12 December 2018

In April, Sue Langley and the Langley Group team were invited by the Happiness and Its Causes team to participate in a special event: An Afternoon with Martin Seligman.  The event started with a keynote presentation by Dr Seligman, followed by an interview and Q&A session, hosted by Sue.

In the tenth video of our series covering the interview with Sue Langley, Dr Martin Seligman shares his candid thoughts on  Positive Psychology and Wellbeing critiques.

What Are Your Evaluations of Positive Psychology Critiques?

Dr Seligman:

I think there’s one other thing I want to say... not getting it wrong does not equal getting it right.  And a lot of the form of critiques is to show that (someone) got something wrong and to correct not getting it wrong.  I think that’s a huge epistemological mistake. The act of getting something right is very different from the act of not getting something wrong.

And the emblematic of this for me was ... my oldest daughter is a journalist; I think about journalism a lot. I felt myself about 5 years ago being a discussant, so Bill Moyers, who’s the Dean of American journalism, came to Penn (University of Pennsylvania) and talked about journalism, and he said the point of journalism is to uncover what’s hidden... I was the discussant of Mr. Moyers and I said “Imagine Mr. Moyers that journalism really worked and you uncovered everything that was hidden, and even better, you corrected everything that was hidden. Where would you have gotten to? You would have gotten to zero. Well people want things above zero. What is journalism’s vision of what’s right? Of what’s noble? Of what’s virtuous? Of what a positive human future is?"

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All of journalism is about correcting, or pointing out what’s wrong. We don’t have in journalism a vision of a positive human future.

Part of (why) I think what you do is important, and (why) the movement we are involved in is important is that a positive human future ... is not going to happen accidentally. It requires people like you, who think about how it should be put into a company, how it should be measured.

...We should find political leaders who lead about what is right, rather than what’s not wrong. And so, I think stating what’s right, which in many ways is the essence of positive psychology, is a different and more difficult endeavour, (a) more creative endeavour than criticism, than pointing out what’s wrong.  

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The Interview Continues...

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Martin Seligman's latest book 'The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism' is available in our online shop - find out more here.

About the Author: Sophie Archibald

Sophie Archibald

Sophie manages marketing for the Langley Group, helping people around the world use positive psychology, neuroscience and emotional intelligence to flourish. She holds a BSc in Psychology from the University of Exeter, is accredited in the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and is currently studying the Langley Group Institute’s Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.

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