In a special lecture preceding this year’s first International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) World Congress in Philadelphia, Martin Seligman laid out his vision of a new field called positive education. He also stated that positive psychology is not about being pushed by the past and is about being pulled by the future, an even more intriguing idea in my view.
What is positive education and how is it different from current education? As you can imagine, positive education is about teaching well-being practices within a classroom setting. Seligman declares that these practices not only can be taught, but also augment the teaching of other subjects. This has been replicated 17 times around the world to significant positive effect. (No pun intended!)
Seligman addressed two major questions regarding the new field.
- Should we do it?
His answer is yes. He gave three main reasons for why this is so important right now.
First, depression is so widespread – an epidemic in fact.
Second, happiness (positive emotion) in almost every nation is essentially flat. With the improvement overall of technology and economics, there is something drastically missing in our societies.
Third, positive education is synergistic with current education. Studies show that children learn better when they are experiencing positive emotions, when they are engaged, and when they have good social relationships.
- Can we do it?
In the last few years, documented studies have shown about 12 interventions (so far) that can positively affect the well-being of people. The Penn Resiliency Project (PRP) is one large highly studied and validated application of interventions to increase well-being. Seligman is convinced that each pathway to well-being — positive emotions, engagement, meaning, and positive relationships — is measurable and teachable. Therefore we can bring positive psychology into the classroom.
Can well-being be taught? It turns out that well-being is not trait-like in people. It is quite teachable.
“Human Beings Can Be Pulled by the Future”
Seligman then took a turn in his lecture and addressed his new perspective on positive psychology, that we can be pulled by the future rather pushed by the past.
Psychoanalysis posited that people were prisoners of their pasts. Yet only about 5% of the variance in who becomes depressed is explained by past conditions.An alternative view is that we form our reality from our expectations of the future. We can learn to do this in ways that help us become our best selves and create our best society.
To highlight his view, he references Roy Baumeister’s “brilliant” perspective on consciousness itself. “According to Baumeister,” says Seligman, “the function of consciousness is to simulate the future, and then choose among the simulations.”
“The positive states in life are guideposts to our best lives, to what we want. I think that’s very serious,” he says. “Positive psychology is about three things. It’s not about illness, it’s about flourishing. It’s not about the negatives, it’s about the positives. And it’s not about being repulsed by the past, it’s about being attracted to the future.”
I believe that Seligman’s view of positive psychology is one of true freedom – freedom from our unconscious and oftentimes negative past. We can consciously live as much as possible in a state of positive emotion, envisioning our best possible futures, and then freely and consciously choosing to move in the direction that creates our best lives and our best selves. In a way it is a giant, daunting view of our potential. Do we have it within us to live up to our own greatest potential? Martin Seligman seems to think we do.
“We need a science of being pulled by the future as opposed of being pushed by the past.” – Martin Seligman