Random Thoughts and Observations
By Steven J. Cersenie, Ph.D.
A most important virtue is tolerance based on humility. Tolerance is welcoming discussions with people who fundamentally disagree with us based on humility - a recognition we cannot be sure we are right about our beliefs.
We underestimate the importance of chance, accident, and luck in the events of our lives. Sure, hard work and character are important in achieving success, but reflecting on our lives highlights whatever success we achieve in relationships and work has much to do from more than just a little bit of luck.
Heard from a client who owns a sailboat about his friend's behavior:
My friend is always making waves in a no wake zone.
Heard from a talented handyman
I'm having such a bad day, I can't even do wrong right.
Martin Elias Peter Seligman, Ph.D.
Martin E. P Seligman. The Hope Circuit. A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. New York: The Hachette Book Group, 2018.
Seligman begins his story about his journey from helplessness to optimism by describing the world as he found it when he arrived "one gestation period after Pearl Harbor." Both his parents had troubled lives - far from the optimism Seligman would later research and apply to the lives of many. His mother was born in Hungary, now Romania - his grandmother died giving birth to his mother Irene. Irene became the center of his father's love and attention until his father remarried and turned all his attention from his daughter Irene to his new wife. Seligman's mother, Irene, always felt the horrible sting of rejection. His father's parents had emigrated from the Dutch border of Germany and from Alsace, and married in New York in 1899. Seligman's father was an anxious child who skipped four grades in school.
Seligman describes his father as "a brilliant young lawyer, armed with a doctorate from Columbia Law School." It was the second year of the Great Depression; lawyers were making a living, but many were poor. His father chose a secure path taking a job in civil service, reporting judges' decisions at the Court of Appeals in Albany, New York. Seligman describes his mother as, "gorgeous - there is no other word: five-foot-one, full-figured, blonde, and blue-eyed. She was well-spoken but reserved and very sympathetic of manner..." Her parents' poverty took a toll on her, and she dropped out of high school to help support the family as a legal secretary.
In Albany, Seligman's parents joined a conservative synagogue. To Seligman's dismay, he later learned his father was an atheist - although his mother was very strongly attached to Judaism.
Seligman was named for his saintly maternal grandfather who died of a sudden heart attack in 1940. Elias was chosen as his middle name to honor his grandfather and his six-year-old sister was given naming rights to call him Peter. So he was named Martin Elias Peter Seligman.
There is much more detail in his elegantly written book about his family background and his early years. A detail that caught my eye was about Seligman, who like one of my younger entrepreneurial brothers, took a job in his early teens selling magazines for five summers. He made more money selling magazines than he made until he was an associate professor.
Jumping ahead to his college years, Seligman was strongly influenced by Robert Nozick (1938 - 2002), a professor of philosophy at Princeton, where Seligman did his undergraduate study. Nozick was famous for his 1974 magnum opus, Anarchy, State and Utopia. In this classic text, Nozick wrote that he believed in capitalist acts between consenting adults - an unusual belief for a college professor during those years. Seligman wasn't sure whether to pursue psychology or philosophy. Looking back, Seligman asked the question, "How much rigor? How much reality?" These questions formed Seligman's role in the transformation of psychology over the next fifty years.
Seligman spent his 50-year psychology career rejecting psychology's basic premises. When he came to psychology, he found help for psychological maladies focused on people's misery and suffering, with Freud and his followers developing treatments hoping to remove the crippling conflicts and memories stemming from childhood experiences. The best humans could accomplish according to this approach was to turn hysterical misery into common unhappiness.
Early in his career, Seligman discovered learned helplessness, where animals and people were exposed to uncontrollable events such as shock or noise and then developing passivity and learning to give up. Over many years, learned helplessness has become a model for studying and treating depression. Seligman noted that when studying learned helplessness, about three of either people couldn't be made helpless, that is, these three people were invulnerable to being helpless. Thus, began his study of the components of optimism and he took techniques from cognitive therapy to teach pessimistic people to be optimistic. I particularly liked the chapter where Seligman discovers he was wrong about the causes of learned helplessness based on new research on the neurological underpinnings of The Hope Circuit. This chapter is worth the price of the book.
In 1998, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association with the largest number of votes of any APA President. During his Presidency of APA and beyond, Seligman created Positive Psychology, a view that there is a lot more to life than suffering, and built his research efforts on what makes life worth living. The alleviation of suffering is only the start to what psychologists can do for their clients - human happiness matters. Positive psychology is now a worldwide movement to enhance well-being and attracting some of the best psychologists in the field who have turned their research interests to what makes people live better lives. Seligman and his colleagues have taken his studies of positive psychology, resilience, post-traumatic growth, optimism and more and applied these mind-enriching concepts to people around the world in schools, corporations, and our service people in the United States Army.
During his career, Seligman challenged the belief that we are creatures whose minds are blank slates, where experience is all important and writes what we take in from our senses to stamp-in experiences on these blank slates- a core tenet of early behaviorism - a theory that didn't take conscious experience seriously; nor did this approach incorporate the findings of evolution seriously.
The blank slate view of humans is personal for me. I remember the first time I evaluated an autistic child while working at a child psychiatric state hospital in the 1970's. I met two warm, loving, guilt-ridden parents telling me through their tears about their unresponsive, odd five-year-old child who didn't talk and was obsessed with playing with door knobs and hinges. When this child entered my office, he walked past me as if I wasn't there, and went straight to the curtains and began sucking on the cloth. Back then, the prevailing theory was autism was caused by the child being raised by a cold "refrigerator mother," a theory I never believed, but an accepted view in the field that caused the suffering of thousands of children and their families. Scientists have now discovered the importance of genetics in autism - and in all psychiatric disorders and personality traits.
Seligman not only challenged the belief that the best outcome humans could achieve from psychological therapy was normal misery, but he argued against the blank slate view of humans, and stressed the importance of evolution in human development. With his colleagues, he showed that not any stimulus paired with any other stimulus would be learned - a challenge to Pavlovian conditioning. Humans, it turns out, are prepared to learn some things and not others.
During his work on Positive Psychology, incorporating his challenges to psychology's basic premises, Seligman compiled research evidence and became convinced there are five elements of well-being, summarized by the acronym: PERMA.
On a side note, it was the program committee of the Michigan Psychological Association who invited Seligman to speak at an MPA conference in 1996, two years before he was elected APA President. Seligman, to the surprise of the committee, agreed to speak at the MPA conference to announce his decision to run for APA President. I had the privilege of picking Seligman up at the airport, and the next evening have a gathering of MPA members at my house to meet Dr. Seligman, who I now called Marty.
Before taking Marty to his hotel, I took Marty to my local delicatessen for dinner. Back then, Marty was a serious fellow, and we were soon embroiled in a discussion on the topic of sexuality. I had worked in a child psychiatric hospital for many years and treated many adolescent males brought in for inpatient treatment because of a history of sexual perversions - a label not used now. As we waited for our dinner in the crowded deli, Marty shared some of his experiences treating this sample of youngsters and stressed the importance of classical and operant conditioning models of etiology and the benefits of cognitive therapy. I had found the work of psychoanalyst Robert Stoller, M.D. most helpful in treating these trouble youngsters. Stoller had written the book, "Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred," emphasizing the role of unconscious learning. The part of our dinner I will never forget is this: Marty said in so many words that my views were not up with the current research and then he gently raised his voice and said, "Let's take masturbation for an example." I noticed several restaurant patrons turn their heads our way, and then I said to Marty, "Maybe we should discuss masturbation another time. You're leaving town tomorrow, and I'm a regular customer at this deli."
We both smiled.
(To comment on this column, contact Steve Ceresnie at email@example.com