The Day I Met Martin Seligman

By Greg Nathan posted April 8, 2021

My early training to become a psychologist was mostly a miserable experience. In the first month, I was threatened with expulsion from the School of Behavioural Sciences. Three hundred first-year students were sitting in a darkened lecture theatre listening meekly to the Dean telling us there is no such thing as the mind, because you can't see it. According to him, the only real thing was behaviour. I thought this was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, and put up my hand to challenge this point of view. There was a tense pause, and he asked my name. "Mr. Nathan, if you would like to study the concept of a mind, we can arrange for your transfer to the Philosophy Department. Does anyone else have anything to say on this matter?" ... Silence.

While his act of humiliation temporarily shut me (and the other students) up, I continued to question my lecturers and tutors in private. Their obsession with superficial behaviour, and their refusal to discuss the nature of the mind, left me frustrated and demoralised. Toward the end of my third year, I'd had enough and decided to drop out. However, an outside mentor, who I had the deepest respect for, encouraged me to finish my degree. "Complete your studies and get qualified," he said, "and one day you will be able to change the profession for the better."

So I stuck it out, and I'm glad I did, building a business on the business of psychology. And in 1992 I was voted in as President of the Queensland Branch of the Australian Psychological Society, where I worked hard to deepen the professional development of my peers. But I was still frustrated at mainstream psychology's reluctance and inability to address important questions on what creates a meaningful and happy life.

How to be happy

Then in 1998, along came Martin Seligman, the new Chair of the American Psychological Association. Seligman, who was recognised as one of the world's leading experts on the causes of depression, was on a mission to change the face of psychology. A few years earlier, he had been left dumbstruck at a cocktail party when a man innocently asked his advice on how he could live a happy life. All Seligman could say was, "I'm sorry, we don't do happiness!"

Realising the psychology profession knew a lot about the causes of anxiety, misery and depression, but little about what contributes to a sustained sense of happiness, Seligman set out to find some answers. He subsequently led numerous rigorous studies with some of the best and brightest psychologists in the world, and created a movement, known today as Positive Psychology, the science of helping people and communities to thrive.

In my view, Seligman's most profound discovery was that there are 24 universal values, what they call character strengths, that are regarded across all cultures as important for social cohesion and personal happiness. These scientific studies validated what many philosophies and religions have been promoting for millennia - that values such as gratitude, service, kindness, forgiveness, and truthfulness are good for people's mental health. (If you're interested, you can complete a free questionnaire to identify your top character strengths here.) As the Positive Psychology movement gathered momentum, psychologists like myself, who had been disappointed by the profession's lack of scientific knowledge to help people live better lives, gained a new sense of hope. "At last" we collectively sighed.

The 3 good things strategy

In the early 2000's I had the good fortune of attending a seminar with Martin Seligman, where he shared some of his research. In one study, clinically depressed patients, wrote down their thoughts before bed on the question, "What are three things that went well today and why did they go well?" This simple reflection task was shown to significantly improve optimism and well-being, and significantly reduce depression, equally or better than counselling or medication. No costs and no side effects. Using this enjoyable technique every night before bed, anyone can improve their optimism and life satisfaction. It’s also a great end of day ritual to do with your kids. By the way, optimism has been shown in our studies at FRI to drive superior business performance in franchisees. Today I am delighted to be able to share these and other evidence-based techniques and strategies as part of FRI's professional development programs. We have found the principles of Positive Psychology to be especially helpful in these times of high stress and uncertainty. I also reckon the way that Seligman led this fundamental shift in the focus of psychology, should be an inspiration to anyone trying to bring about positive change in their area of work. Now don't you think that's something worth keeping in mind?

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