Rebel group of psychologists launches a happiness revolt

Focus of new studies shifts from pathology to positive emotions

June 13, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

After brooding for years about human aberrance and anxiety, American psychologists are being prodded into a happiness revolt. Led by a former president of the American Psychological Association, the insurgent group has called for psychologists to forsake their obsession with pathology and zero in on optimism, play and virtue instead, making a scholarly about-face into the study of human strengths and positive emotions.

"The hope is that it will change psychology," said Lisa Aspinwall, 34, a University of Maryland professor who recently received $50,000 as one of the first winners of the John Marks Templeton Positive Psychology Prize. "You could be a developmental psychologist asking questions about how children acquire optimism. You could be doing fascinating work in neuroscience about positive mood and how it relates to problem solving. The hope is that it will cut across all areas of the field."

Blending clinical research and brain science with rhetoric that sometimes sounds like a giddy concoction of Ben Franklin aphorisms and New Age affirmations, the trend in "positive psychology," as it's called, has opened channels of research on topics that could be a compilation of the eternal verities - wisdom, courage, optimism, perseverance, hope, joy, integrity, altruism, civility and tolerance.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, psychologists studying stress in first-year law students have reported that optimists enjoy heartier immune systems at midsemester than pessimists.

At Cornell University, researchers have linked positive mood not only to heightened creativity and greater mental agility, but also to increases in brain dopamine levels and other physiological effects that improve cognition.

At Maryland, Aspinwall has found that optimists look harder for negative information than pessimists so they can improve decision-making - a challenging reversal to a common conception that optimists suffer from a kind of Pollyanna syndrome.

Enthusiasts point to applications ranging from depression-fighting techniques to character building. But the main emphasis seems to be evangelical. Proponents are busily spreading the word.

"When I started out there was virtually no research on the positive side of things," said Alice Isen, a Cornell psychologist who was a pioneer of studies of "positive affect" more than 20 years ago. "There was work on aggression and conflict and all kinds of problems, but nothing that looked at antecedents to beneficent feelings or behaviors.

"It seemed to me that the positive stuff had to be maintained somehow, and if we didn't understand what supports people to be helpful and caring and cooperative, those things could just as easily disappear."

Although a handful of researchers such as Isen have been at work for several decades, the trend gathered momentum in 1998 when a University of Pennsylvania depression expert became president of the APA.

As psychologist Martin Seligman tells it, shortly after taking over the presidency he had an epiphany while weeding his garden one day with his 5-year-old daughter, Nicki.

As the girl went about happily singing and tossing his shredded weeds into the air, Seligman lost his temper, and then the girl made a startling appeal.

"Daddy, do you remember before my 5th birthday?" Seligman recalls his daughter asking. "From the time I was 3 to the time I was 5, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned 5, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."

Today, Seligman insists that his exchange changed his life and spurred his desire to lead a revolution in psychology.

"I had spent 50 years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last 10 years being a nimbus cloud in a household full of sunshine," Seligman tells audiences today.

"Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grumpiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change."

Attacking medical models

Seligman has used his position as APA president to attack the medical model of psychology for its narrow interests in mental illness, which became its all-encompassing mission after World War II. Previous efforts to develop a fundamental mission for nurturing genius and broadening the human spirit suddenly fizzled, he says, for economic reasons.

For example, after World War II, the newly created Veterans Administration and National Institutes of Health provided funding to treat mental illness and for studies of pathology, but nothing for the other kinds of research. Leading academics lost interest in applied research and sought to make psychology a true scientific discipline like physics or chemistry.

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