Martin Seligman is not naturally a happy person. But, as a result of his work on resilience, pupils across the world are now being taught to challenge their negative thoughts and discover their inner optimism.
“I’m a depressive and a pessimist,” Seligman tells TESS. “So these are techniques I use on myself all the time. Before, it would have been very easy for me to go under.”
As an example, he mentions the fact that he plays bridge competitively. “I’m not a great bridge player,” he says. “I’m just a competent bridge player. When I make a bad error and think I’m hopeless at bridge, I have to dispute that with myself immediately and get back on track.”
Seligman will be visiting the UK at the end of this month, at the invitation of Lord O’Shaughnessy. It was the former adviser to prime minister David Cameron who originally pushed for Seligman’s lessons in positive psychology – translated to become the much more British-sounding “character” – to be taught in England’s schools.
And Seligman has long said that he believes that state schools should follow the lead taken by independent schools such as Wellington College, and offer happiness lessons to pupils.
His work on resilience began as a cognitive behavioural therapy anti-anxiety exercise for adults. Patients were taught to recognise catastrophic thoughts – “no one loves me” or “I’m a loser” – and to counteract them with reality: “Here is evidence showing that people do, in fact, love me.”
“One of the consequences of not being resilient is going under and being depressed when bad events occur,” he says.
But then it occurred to him that he could teach those same resilience skills preventatively. “Depression tends to start at puberty. So we thought it would be good to teach those skills before puberty.”
He therefore started working with middle schools near the University of Pennsylvania, where he is professor of psychology. Children between the ages of 10 and 12 were taught resilience skills.
For example, Seligman says, a 12-year-old girl might walk into the school dining room and see all her friends sitting together at one table. She waits for them to invite her to join them but they do not. Someone who had not learnt to be resilient might think “I’m a loser” or “No one likes me”.
With resilience training, however, the girl would know to counter those thoughts with something more rational: “They’re all members of the volleyball team, so they must be having a team lunch. I’m not a member of the volleyball team, which is why they haven’t invited me to join them.”
And this, says Seligman, is at the heart of positive thinking: “For me, resilience boils down to trying to overcome catastrophic thoughts. When you dispute catastrophic thoughts, you try harder and you’re more present.”
When he compared the Pennsylvania children with a control group, he found that there was a decrease in their rates of depression.
But there are other benefits to resilience. Professor Seligman’s positive-thinking programme has since been taught in schools around the world. Most recently, programmes have run with 8,000 children in Bhutan, 60,000 in Mexico and 700,000 in Peru.
“The kids [in all three countries] had higher wellbeing,” he says. “But, most importantly, two years later they had higher standardised test scores. When you make kids happier, their science, maths and literature test scores go up. Those kids are more engaged in school. Those kids are more persistent and perseverant.”
Even better, he says, is the fact that teachers who have been trained to teach children positive thinking are able to use the techniques on themselves. “When you give those skills of wellbeing to teachers, the teachers are more engaged,” he says. “The teachers are rejuvenated. They’re producing more engaged and persistent pupils.”
The 73-year-old was educated at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. He has been director of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center since 2004. Staff at the centre include Angela Duckworth, whose work has sparked the interest of UK teachers. She began examining the role that grit plays in predicting an individual’s success while she was studying for a PhD under Seligman.
“Grit is an extreme form of persistence,” Seligman says. “Gritty people never give up. Catastrophic thoughts are one of the things that make people give up, and gritty people are at the extreme end of noncatastrophic thoughts.
“I’m not convinced that grit can be taught. But the milder form of grit that is persistence can be taught. We do that by making kids more resilient.”
Among those who come to him for training are drill sergeants for the US military. Each month, 180 of them take an eight-day course in positive psychology. The aim is that they will pass what they learn on to new recruits in order to cut down the number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Seligman is in England this month for meetings at the House of Lords to discuss how to introduce resilience programmes for NHS staff and patients.
New technology, he says, shows where in the brain catastrophic thoughts originate. He believes that they – like panic – are the default mammalian response to bad events.
“You can’t annihilate them,” he says. “I don’t think you annihilate the catastrophic thoughts. They’re always there. You just buffer against them. Teaching yourself to manage emotions is the best thing that mammals have to keep from being helpless and panicked.”