Feature

Excellent character, positive experience and optimal human functioning are the next frontiers of psychology, according to Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, former APA president and renowned professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In today's era of peace and prosperity, "people are free to turn their attention to what makes life meaningful." In the past, he said, psychologists have been too prone to study only how to repair disordered feelings and behavior rather than how to build human strength.

Statistics for the past several decades reveal a curious trend, said Seligman, speaking at an event offered by the Smithsonian Institution on Aug. 3, prior to APA's 2000 Annual Convention in Washington, D.C. While objective conditions improved in the nation after World War II, he noted, levels of subjective depression, suicide, illicit drug use and other negative phenomena have been on the upswing. He identified three influential ideas that seem to underlie this trend: extreme individualism, self-esteem that doesn't have to be earned and victimology as a totally disabling condition.

Optimism is a key concept in Seligman's work. It is a quality that can be cultivated, and studies show its effectiveness in "immunizing" young people against depression, especially when training is given to children under 12.

As he wrote in the January issue of the American Psychologist, "Raising children...is about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find their niches in which they can best live out these strengths."

He named the qualities hope, wisdom, creativity, future-mindedness, courage and perseverance as aspects of such flourishing.

Currently the editor of Prevention & Treatment, APA's first online-only journal, Seligman, a self-described "born pessimist," looks optimistically toward the future, joining with colleagues to find approaches for the strengthening of individuals and communities. With Ed Diener, PhD, of the University of Illinois, he will lead a summit conference on positive psychology in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13­15.