Home All Positive Psychology in Space

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., works on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and on optimism and pessimism. Dr. Seligman is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is well known in academic and clinical circles and is a best-selling author. Full biography here.

His articles are here.

Space Shuttle Discovery Positive Psychology is the study of positive emotion, of engagement, and of meaning. Each of these turns out to be measurable with adequate precision and buildable. The central thesis of this article is that there is ample reason to select crews for long exploration for these three states and to monitor and support these three states during the mission.

What is happiness? What does it do? And how is it relevant to the ability of a crew to handle an arduous space mission?


The first measurable aspect to happiness (an unwieldy scientific notion) is hedonic, positive emotion. When people refer in casual conversation to being happy, they are often referring to this. Within limits, we can select for and increase our positive emotion about the past (e.g., by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness), our positive emotion about the present (e.g., by savoring and mindfulness), and our positive emotion about the future (e.g., by building hope and optimism). 


The second measurable aspect of happiness is “gratification” or “flow.”  The key characteristic of a gratification is that it engages us fully.  It absorbs us.  Individuals may find gratification in participating in a great conversation, fixing a bike, reading a good book, teaching a child, playing the guitar, or accomplishing a difficult task at work.  We can take shortcuts to pleasures (e.g., eating ice cream, masturbating, having a massage, or using drugs), but no shortcuts exist to gratification.  The pursuit of gratifications requires us to draw on our highest character strengths such as creativity, social intelligence, sense of humor, perseverance, and an appreciation of beauty and excellence.  Each of these character strengths is measurable and buildable.

Although gratifications are activities that may be enjoyable, they are not necessarily accompanied by positive emotion. We may say afterwards that the concert was “fun,” but what we mean is that during it, we were one with music, undistracted by thought or emotion.  Indeed, the pursuit of a gratification may be, at times, unpleasant.  Consider, for example, the gratification that comes from training for an endurance event such as a marathon.  At any given point during the grueling event, a runner may be discouraged or exhausted or even in physical pain, yet she may describe the overall experience as intensely gratifying. 


Finding flow in gratifications need not involve anything larger than the self, but the third aspect of happiness comes from using these strengths to belong to and in the service of something larger than ourselves—something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice, or a higher spiritual power—or a successful mission.  The third route gives work meaning.  


Testing EVA Suit


There is ample reason to believe that individuals (and likely) teams that score well on positive emotion, on engagement, and on meaning function much better than those who score poorly: they fight depression better, they accomplish more at work and on the playing field, they are physically healthier and longer lived, and they are better liked.

Crew members can easily be selected for each of these three forms of happiness. Each of these states can be monitored during a space mission, either unobtrusively by content analysis, or directly by validated on line questionnaires. Most importantly, each of these states is buildable and there are validated, brief exercises to increase them  both momentarily and in the long run.

In summary, I suggest that we complement (not replace) our usual tool kit of measuring and undoing negative states and traits, with a new toolkit: the measurement and building the positive states and traits in our space crews. It seems likely that selecting and monitoring crew for these will produce more harmonious work and will buffer against the emergencies certain to occur in ambitious space exploration.


Space shuttle (NASA), Extravehicular activity space suit being tested (NASA). Note: Dr. Seligman prepared this paper for ESTEC.  Workshop: Tools for Psychological Support during Exploration Missions to Mars and Moon, March 10, 2007.

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Jeff Dustin 2 April 2007 - 10:09 pm

The use of PP exercises to buffer against the perils of space travel will become a trial by fire for the interventions.

How are you going to tailor the exercises to boost happiness in a restrictive artificial environment like a space shuttle? Exercises that diminish loneliness, boredom, distress and boost SWB may prove key. In my personal, informal ‘action research’, I’ve observed that disputing is great for breaking up automatic thinking and building optimism, however in an environment low on entertainment and high on distress, (in my experience using your book Authentic Happiness during a military deployment) performing them seems more difficult and less effective. An unsatisfying answer might indicate that any increase in happiness, no matter how small, equals a positive change. Yet if mission success demands a much happier crew, no matter what numerical value on the AHI & CESD the psychologist-in-charge considers an appropriate benchmark, then the exercises must produce substantial happiness increases. Anything else would seem insufficient.

Secondly, what kind of positive behavior supports will ensure that the astronauts complete the exercises regularly and consistently? As with the Three Blessings (3+), apparently keeping a nightly log produces substantial SWB increases up to 6 months later. So, as with dieting, introducing a new habit may become quite challenging. Presumably the astronauts are hard-charging and highly motivated individuals, but living in a cramped space with other stressed out cosmonauts might dampen their spirits.

Finally, where are the measures for grit that might demonstrate tenacity with the exercises and will you provide the spacefarers with computer administered tests to monitor their grittiness with respect to completing the happiness exercises?

Jeff Dustin 2 April 2007 - 10:13 pm

Maybe a year of pre-flight happiness training would start the astronauts at a higher point in their happiness set range.

Kathryn Britton 3 April 2007 - 9:29 am

How was this received by the audience? One of the challenges of putting positive psychology into action in industry is the knee-jerk reaction that happiness is something warm and fuzzy — not something that real men (who don’t eat quiche) consider worth attending to, even though there are a number of measures that link employee satisfaction to improvements in key business indicators.

One area that could be very fruitful for positive intervention in tight teams is the way people deal with trials and tribulations — limits on resources, unpleasant but necessary tasks, audits, restrictions, performance appraisals, etc.. There is an unspoken view that venting is good — people get together to complain. I find that complaining tends to reinforce the bad feeling. Sometimes it converts people who hadn’t really felt bad before. I’ve helped groups turn the complaining into reframing — putting multiple heads together to find some other way of viewing what’s going on, some way that makes them actors in their own stories, not victims, even some way that opens up new opportunities to shine. It might be helpful when managing a space team to measure how often people complain and whether they are actors or victims in their own stories.


Jeff Dustin 3 April 2007 - 9:10 pm


Reframing is a great way to get into problem solving and I especially enjoyed reading your take on victimization. Be an survivor and not a victim, right? What a refreshing idea!

Here’s a short story for your collection. I worked inside Cheyenne Mountain as a defense contractor quite briefly. As management practices became repressive and “macho” and people started getting told about layoffs, there was a lot of backroom talk about unionizing. Yet not one person took the idea seriously. We all assumed that the Corporate machine would crush our efforts easily.

The victim story reigned and very little action was taken to protect ourselves from the multimillion dollar company’s “right-sizing”.


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