On Friday, I went to ‘The Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference’ – hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, President of IPEN, and co-founder of Action for Happiness.

It was a jam-packed day that discussed topics ranging from the wellbeing of teachers, to measuring students’ wellbeing to sex and relationships to simple laughter. However, the highlight of the day was an hour-long presentation by Professor Martin Seligman.

Seligman has often been referred to as the ‘Father of Positive Psychology’ and his most recent book The Hope Circuit was published earlier this year – a memoir in which he takes the reader through his own journey of developing his theory of psychology.

Seligman is a huge influence for us here at the Happynessub, so I thought that for this week’s blog, I would do something a little different and share some of the things I learned… so get ready for lots of fascinating and fun psychology!

In his talk, Seligman took us through his progression from ‘learned helplessness’, to ‘learned optimism’, ‘positive psychology’ to ‘prospection’.

Learned Helplessness

He started by explaining that often, when humans and animals lack control, they become helpless. Helplessness has the same symptoms as depression – including low mood, fatigue and feelings of worthlessness. And so, Seligman and Steven Maier, a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, explored this further. They discovered that when the part of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus is stimulated, the patient experiences symptoms of helplessness / depression. However, if the circuit in the brain that connects the central medial prefrontal cortex to the dorsal raphe nucleus is activated, the dorsal raphe nucleus is no longer stimulated. Seligman calls this circuit ‘The Hope Circuit’. Whilst it is impossible, currently, to activate this circuit in human brains, he believes that in the future, we will be able to develop a transmagnetic stimulation to turn the circuit on and off… and thus create a possible cure for depression.

BUT… we can’t do this yet, and so, he took us into the concept of ‘learned optimism’.

Learned Optimism

The next stage in Seligman’s research took him to learned optimism. He found that, actually, one in three, when put in an inescapable situation, did not become helpless. These people were optimists (as opposed to pessimists). And so, experiments in resilience were conducted. It was then found that pessimists are 2 to 8 times more likely to be depressed than optimists. However, this resilience can also be taught.

Seligman’s team went into schools with 8-10 year olds and taught them cognitive therapy – including recognising the catastrophic thoughts they can have when bad things happen, and how to argue against them. These children were 50% less likely to develop depression than those who did not learn cognitive therapy.

It was also found that when drill sergeants were trained in positive psychology and this was taught to the army, anxiety and depression was lowered. And so, what becomes evident, is that we can train ourselves into being optimists, even if we are naturally pessimistic. This is a key concept for us at the Happynesshub. Through engaging in tools such as gratitude, positive focus and focusing on our strengths, we can become more optimistic, and therefore less susceptible to depression.

Positive Psychology

Seligman then went on to explain the key elements that form the basis of his theory of wellbeing: PERMA. These are:

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement and Flow
  • Relationships
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment

If a person has high PERMA, this has a positive impact on health and life expectancy, social relationships, work productivity, virtuous behaviour, creativity and resilience. It was also shown by Seligman’s colleague, Alessandro Adler, that teaching such skills to middle school children resulted in an increase in their happiness and in turn exam results. Positive psychology is not only about reducing symptoms of poor mental health, but also helping people to be as happy and positive as possible. It’s prevention and cure.

Homo Prospectus

The most recent development in Seligman’s thinking is the notion that we should work on the way we think about the future. We are, indeed, creatures of the future, spending 50% of our time thinking about the future. And so, Seligman asks, are there exercises to help us think more postively about the future? Perhaps this is the next direction positive psychology will take us in!

So Hubbers, I wanted to share Seligman’s talk with you because so much of his work is integral to ours here at the Happynesshub. We want to share the techniques of positive psychology to adults and children alike, so hopefully, we can help to make the world a happier place!