Martin Seligman responds to unfounded criticism of positive psychology

Martin Seligman responds to unfounded criticism of positive psychology

Recent months has seen some unfounded and at times ridiculous criticism of the happiness and positive psychology movements. In this letter to the editor, one of the founders of the positive psychology movement and author of, among other things, “Authentic Happiness”, Martin Seligman challenges some of the absurd claims.

To the Editor of the Guardian:

Mark Vernon (2/2/2008), reporting a lecture by Richard Schoch, asks what has Positive Psychology taught us in the ten years since its inception. “In three words, not a lot – especially when compared with the insights buried in the ancient wisdom on the good life.” Perhaps Mr. Vernon and Mr. Schoch knew the following, but science did not know these things until recently, and the ancients certainly did not:

Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors.

– Women who display genuine (Duchenne) smiles to the photographer at age eighteen go on to have fewer divorces and more marital satisfaction than those who display fake smiles

– Externalities (e.g., weather, money, health, marriage, religion) totalled together account for no more than 15% of the variance in life satisfaction.

– Several specific exercises ( produce increases in happiness and decreases in depression six months later while other plausible exercises are mere placebos.

– The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure.

– Economically flourishing corporate teams have a ratio of at least 2.9 to1 of positive statements to negative statements in business meetings, whereas stagnating teams have a much lower ratio; flourishing marriages, however, require a ratio of at least 5:1

– Self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high school grades as IQ

– Learning optimism at ages 10-12 halves the rate of depression as these schoolchildren go through puberty

– Happy teenagers go on to earn very substantially more income fifteen years later than less happy teenagers, equating for income, grades, and other obvious factors

– How you respond to good events that happen to your spouse is a better predictor of future love and commitment than how you respond to bad events.

– People experience more “flow” at work than at home.

More egregiously, Vernon tells us “the fundamental error of the science – and the reason why so many of its recommendations sound trivial or just confused – is the assumption that happiness is the same as positive emotion.” If Vernon had bothered to crack Authentic Happiness (2002), the first major book in Positive Psychology, he would have found that its foundation is the denial that happiness is the same as positive emotion. Positive Psychology is the study of positive emotion and engagement and meaning; how to measure them rigorously and how to reliably build them.


Martin E.P. Seligman

Professor of Psychology

Director, Positive Psychology Center

University of Pennsylvania