Seligman had been tired of studying mental health from the underside, the downcast, the negative. His questions were, "what makes for happy people?" instead of "what causes depression?" Most of psychology has looked at health from a disease model, instead of a well-being model. We have seen this in medicine, and fortunately, have watched as even the stodgy medical world has moved toward "well-being." As a subjective experience, happiness (and other ephemeral experiences, like joy, well-being, gratitude) has been difficult to measure. It has generally been the purview of artists, theologians, philosophers, writers and poets to add to our collective understanding of positive emotions. But now, data is everywhere...Or it appears to be everywhere, including the internet, hence the millions of hits. Still, depression, anger, hatred and fear top the list of most research you will find in the academic literature. The body of research in positive psychology is growing exponentially.
I'm thrilled by this shift in psychological research for personal reasons. I originally went to graduate school at Georgia Tech in the experimental analysis of behavior to learn how to live a better life and to figure out why people behave as they do, as I was flummoxed by most human activity. But watching pigeons and rats copulate and push levers was not my idea of fun until I added a more positive dimension, that of "tactile stimulation". Now stay with me, and don't think "horny" just because I used the words "tactile" and "stimulation" together. I studied how touch increased the amount, speed, and accuracy of learning in rats. I compared various groups, young rats ("pups") who received touch (they were held, stroked and played with), those who had no stimulation, and a group that was handled in ordinary ways (they were picked up for measurements and things of that nature). No surprise, what the results showed: positive touch increased the amount, speed and accuracy of learning! But no one seemed to care at Georgia Tech. In fact, my all-male team of professors thought I was a bit "soft" because I found this area so fascinating. Well, between the negativity in my learning environment and a personal matter, I left academia...for theology. Ironically, my own experience absolutely proved the power of negativity and its consequences.
Today, however, it feels rather delicious to report that the study of positive emotions and well-being is out-pacing the established fields of psychological study. Hooray! So on Wednesdays, right here at the THD blog, we'll check in with what the academic world is discovering about well-being. Maybe we will all learn something new. I hope so.