A few years ago, I vividly recall sitting at the back of the room at a graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort of the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) Program. Looking around the room, I watched the excitement and anticipation of the students as their founder, the great Martin Seligman, dramatically strutted to the front of the room to speak to the class. As he got up to the podium, he began with a toast. “Raise your glasses, everyone,” he said with a booming bass voice and a big triumphant smile on his face. As the students eagerly raised their glasses, Seligman confidently declared: “Let’s give a toast to the dorsal raphe nucleus!”. Confused, the students awkwardly clinked their glasses, on the edge of their seat to hear more, as Marty continued to take the students through a detailed description of the dorsal raphe nucleus and how the passivity associated with this circuit can be overcome by learning control through activation of the medial prefrontal cortex. After this technical description, Seligman's face lit up as he concluded with excitement that he recently realized that this is actually the "hope circuit"!
Somehow this fond memory of my time working with Martin Seligman at the Positive Psychology Center seemed appropriate to introduce my review of his just-released Autobiography, The Hope Circuit. Full disclaimer: I worked with Martin Seligman on the science of imagination from 2015-2017, and he asked me whether I’d write a review of his book. I was honored that he made such a request, and said yes not only because of the honor, but also because I had read (and commented on) prior drafts of the book and thought it was an interesting book very worthy of a review.
Nevertheless, I can assure you that I will try to give as objective, even-handed, and authentic a review as possible. There are three main reasons why you might be interested in The Hope Circuit:
- You are interested in the history of the field of psychology through the lens of one prominent psychologist,
- You are interested in the personality of one prominent psychologist,
- You are interested in Martin Seligman’s response to his critics and the criticisms of positive psychology.
Following this organization, let’s dive in.
The History of Psychology (Through the Lens of One Prominent Psychologist)
One level on which this book is fascinating is that it describes a unique perspective on the history of psychology, especially as it intersects with the author’s contributions to the field. It’s impossible to deny that Marty has made some quite substantial contributions to the field.
I found the overall arc of the book from learned helplessness to learned hope particularly fascinating. Marty and his original collaborator on the learned helplessness experiments, Steve Maier (who turned his attention to neuroscience after graduate school) realized that their original theory of learned helplessness was actually backwards (see "Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience"). The passivity and the feeling of lack of control experienced in their learned helplessness experiments was actually the default response, an automatic, unlearned reaction to prolonged adversity, and what must actually be learned is hope-- the perception that one can control and harness the unpredictability in one's environment. I found Marty's optimism about the possibility of these insights informing the treatment of depression really inspiring.
You can read about Marty's many other contributions throughout this book, including his work on learned optimism, positive psychology, resiliency training for the military, the cataloguing and measurement of character strengths, and the various offshoots of positive psychology: positive education, positive health, and positive psychotherapy.
Have no doubt, Marty has been busy! Of course, he didn't do this work alone, and he gives ample and flowery descriptions of those who have helped him throughout his long career, including (but by no means exclusively): Lyn Abrahmson, Alejandro Adler, Lauren Alloy, Roy Baumeister, Aaron Beck, General Rhonda Cornum, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Angela Duckworth, Johannes Eichstaedt, Barbara Fredrickson, Geelong Grammar School, Jim Hovey, Suzanne Johnson, Darwin LaBarthe, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Acacia Parks, James Pawelski, Chris Peterson, Richard Pine, Jack Rachman, Peter Railton, Tayyab Rashid, Karen Reivich, Judith Rodin, Paul Rozin, Carl Sagan, Stephen Schueller, Peter Schulman, Andrew Schwartz, Arthur Schwartz, Barry Schwartz, Carly Seligman, Daryl Seligman, Jenny Seligman, Mandy Seligman, Nikki Seligman, Chandra Sripada, Sir John Templeton, Jack Templeton, Lyle Ungar, George Vaillant, Joe Wolpe, and David Yaden.
I found his descriptions of his connections with Aaron Beck, Mandy Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and Peter Schulman particularly touching, and his fond feelings for them seem very genuine. Also, it’s clear he does appreciate the many people who have helped him in his life. As he recounts, at his 60th birthday party, he made the following statement to an audience of his closest friends and colleagues:
“What I learned today, from Bob Olcott and Kathleen Hall Jamie- son and George Vaillant and Ed Diener and Ray Fowler and Barry Schwartz and Mike Csikszentmihalyi and Lester Luborsky and Chris Peterson—but mostly from Mandy—is that my life is not an autobiography but a biography. The story of how I have been helped through the world by friendship, colleagueship, generosity, and love.”
One particular turning point in his career occurred around the age of 30 when he was a newly tenured professor at Penn, and still doing work on animal experimental psychology. Aaron Beck (father of cognitive behavioral therapy), who had served as a mentor to Marty, helping him receive a professorship at Penn, warned Marty that if he continued on this research path and didn't do more applied work, he would "waste [his] life". Then, a dream a few nights later helped cement his decision to change trajectory in his career:
I was stirred but not yet shaken. Tim was telling me to take up new methods and to do a better job with external validity by turning my work to deal directly with real people and real problems. But it took a numinous dream a few nights later to shake my foundations: I somehow found myself in the New York Guggenheim Museum. I was slowly plodding up its famous curving ramp. There were rooms to to the right every few paces, and in the rooms people were playing with cards. They seemed to be tarot cards.
I asked, “Why is everyone playing with cards?”
Whereupon the roof of the museum opened, and God appeared— only his head and not his body. In case you are wondering, God is very old, he is male, he has a white, well-tended, curly beard, and he has a booming bass voice. He said, unforgettably, “Seligman, at least you are starting to ask the right questions.
It's clear that Marty received a lot of support throughout his journey. In this regard, and on many other levels, Marty is a phenomenon. I have worked with multiple giants in my career, but I have never seen anything like what I saw working with Marty. He had a constant stream of people wanting to be in his orbit, and people wanting to give him money for his research. It was truly fascinating to behold, and this phenomenon is very evident in his autobiography.
Unfortunately, I fear that he tends to show much less admiration for those who are not within his orbit. This is evident in the book-- not only through what he does discuss, but more through what he omits. Reading Marty's recounting of the history of psychology, it sometimes reads as though the field of psychology consisted of two main phases: everything that came before Marty and everything that came after Marty. Of course he can't be faulted for not including everything in an autobiography, but there are certainly places where he could have given a more comprehensive review.
In particular, I was disappointed not to see a more accurate description of the history of personality and humanistic psychology (which were deeply intertwined with each other in the 50s and 60s), positive psychotherapy, positive education, and prospective psychology. The only personality psychologist Marty mentions in the entire book is Gordon Allport. However, he does not paint Allport in the best light. Marty mentions that Allport replaced “character” with “personality” because he believed that the field should be value-free. According to Marty, this was a “big mistake,” and the field of positive psychology should study “positive traits”.
The odd thing is that Allport, and many other personality psychologists of his generation, would have certainly agreed with that statement. The personality psychologists of Allport’s day were deeply interested in studying the “whole person” (both the positive and the negative), and they had a tremendous influence on the emerging humanistic psychology of the day. In fact, Allport himself is the one who introduced the phrase “humanistic psychology” to the study of personality all way back in the 1930s. As humanistic development psychologist Charlotte Bühler notes,
“One of the most generally agreed upon aspects of humanistic psychology is that we strive to find access to the study and understanding of the person as a whole…. As [Gordon] Allport… puts it, we have many ‘selves’ in ourselves, and their integration is a tremendous task.”
Other personality psychologists at the time, including George Kelly, Gardner Murphy, and Henry Murray were also contributing tremendously to our understanding of the positive side of human nature, investigating a taxonomy of human needs, the construction of the self, meaning, intentionality, responsibility, values, openness, embracing the unknown, and identification with the cosmos. Naturally, these personality psychologists became allies of humanistic psychology when it became a formal discipline in the early 1960s, significantly contributing to the idea of the “healthy personality.” As Canadian humanistic psychologist Sidney Jourard put it, “healthy personality is a way for [people] to act, guided by intelligence and respect for life, so that [their] needs are satisfied and [they] will grow in awareness, competence, and capacity for love."
To be fair, Marty does acknowledge that he had originally misrepresented humanistic psychologists by lumping them with “crystal healing” and “aromatherapy”, and apologizes “for this unwarranted slight”. He also acknowledges that Abraham Maslow coined the term "positive psychology." But he then takes a few digs at Maslow, saying that “Abraham Maslow came too early,” and recounting a tale from one of Maslow’s research assistants, he writes: “Abe would have been happier with something that never happened—a return phone call from Fred Skinner.” Marty concludes that section with the following:
“In point of fact, spotty scholar that I am, I had not read much Maslow, and so his writings played little role in my own thinking. Had I invoked Maslow, however appropriately, it would have been window dressing. Positive psychology arose directly from my take on the shortcomings of mainstream clinical and experimental science.”
Regardless of what else you may think of this paragraph, at the very least I think it’s safe to say that throughout the course of the history of psychology there have been quite a few mainstream clinicians who very much emphasized the positive aspects of personality, including Carl Jung, Karen Horney, Viktor Frankl, and Carl Rogers. Unfortunately, none of these groundbreaking psychologists are mentioned in the book.
What about positive education? Marty has made important contributions, but the field of positive education predates his involvement. According to Marty, after hearing a speech from Anthony Seldon about the importance of things such as well-being, joy, meaning, fulfillment, and engagement in education, he decided that Anthony “had defined a new kind of education, and I thought its name must be ‘positive education.’” Then he goes on to describe the history of the field, which in his retelling originates entirely from his work on pessimism in the 90s. What about John Dewey? What about the positive youth development movement? What about E. Paul Torrance? What about the Montessori movement? I could go on.
Finally, there is “prospective psychology.” In the book, Marty describes how he “promoted prospection to the front and center of psychological science.” In the traditional view, according to Marty, if you want to know what you will do in the future, you need to know, in principle, four things:
- Your history
- Your genetic makeup
- Your present stimuli
- Your present drives and motives
“Psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and most of cognitive psychology accept this. But I do not,” he writes. “Here is the great blind spot that has gnawed at me for fifty years: it leaves out human agency and its very fulcrum, a mind that metabolizes the past and present to create the future and then chooses among possible futures” (italics in the original).
Marty then discusses what he sees as the history of prospective psychology, grounded in his learning that the default brain network is related to thinking about the future, and his conversations and collaborations with Roy Baumeister, Peter Railton, and Chandra Sripada. “What if memory is not a file drawer of films and photographs but a changing collection of possibilities most relevant to the future?” he writes. “Perhaps the fallibility of memory is not a bug but an essential feature. Errors of memory, shifting and shuffling bits of our old memories, might enable us to draw different lessons from the past, lessons that are necessary for a better future.”
This is indeed a cool idea! Unfortunately, Marty neglects to mention the many seminal psychologists who paved the way for this line of thinking, including Daniel Schacter and Randy Buckner. In the abstract of their 2007 paper “Remembering the past to imagine the future: the prospective brain”, Schacter and Buckner wrote the following:
“A rapidly growing number of recent studies show that imagining the future depends on much of the same neural machinery that is needed for remembering the past. These findings have led to the concept of the prospective brain; an idea that a crucial function of the brain is to use stored information to imagine, simulate and predict possible future events. We suggest that processes such as memory can be productively re-conceptualized in light of this idea.”
This is not to mention the work of E. Paul Torrance on the importance of falling in love with a future image of yourself, Charles Snyder and Shane Lopez's work on the psychology of hope (in 2016 Lopez tragically passed away at the young age of 46 after spending his career studying how to instill more hope in young people), Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s seminal work over the course of 35 years on the importance of future goal setting, and George Ainslie's work on how we regulate present action through bargaining between our present and future selves (see "Breakdown of Will"). The idea that people are fundamentally oriented toward their future is also the basic premise of cybernetics, which was brought into psychology in 1960 by George Miller, Eugene Galanter, and Karl Pribram in their influential book: “Plans and the Structure of Behavior" (plans are literally images of the future).
Even if many of these individuals didn’t personally influence Marty’s ideas, I still think they are worthy of being acknowledged, and a full recounting of the history of psychology is remiss without their mention. Once again, none of this should take anything away from Marty’s important contributions to these topics.
The Personality of One Prominent Psychologist
When Marty decided to run for the president of the American Psychological Association in the 90s, he was told by insiders that it simply wasn’t possible, since candidates were already lined up in advance, and the order of succession was already designated. This only fired Marty up more to win, and win he did, winning “the election with almost 10,000 votes, three times as many as my nearest opponent.” Conceding defeat, psychologist Dick Suinn labeled Marty a “force of nature”.
This is an accurate description of Marty, as can be seen throughout the book. Indeed, besides learning more about the history of psychology, The Hope Circuit is also a fascinating look into the character structure of one of psychology’s most influential psychologists.
One thing that is fascinating to read about is his transition from a smiling happy child before the age of three to a pessimistic and unsmiling teenager, to a depressive junior faculty member, to the most prominent researcher on optimism and happiness.
By Marty’s own admission, he has a history of being “grumpy” and “self-absorbed”, and there is a thread throughout the book that shows the contrast because his intellectual prowess and his social intelligence. For instance, in the sections on his childhood, youth, and “miseducation,” we learn many times that he was very brainy:
“By age twelve, I was brainy.”
“At eighteen, I was still brainy.”
“Peter told me my IQ was 185.”
“I had been doing very well academically. An A was a rare grade at my school, and I was getting lots of them…”
"I raced the Quiz Kids, often winning..."
However, we also learn that he “was not doing well socially” in school. Then later on, this theme comes up again when he describes his early career. While he writes that he “strove to be an intellectual,”
“I tried to do all of this in a hurry. I wanted to finish things, and I was brash. I took shortcuts. Wrapped up in my own thoughts, I didn’t listen well, drifting inward almost immediately to play mentally with how what I was hearing fitted the issues I had been pondering. People thought that I was riding roughshod over them, but I think this was a side effect of such self-absorption. I was puzzled about why they didn’t much like me.”
Another theme that runs through the book is his ambition:
"I was ambitious and hungry. I wanted Mrs. Albert to know my name."
“I was ambitious, and I knew what I was ambitious for… my ambition was to be like Wittgenstein, surrounded by devoted students and followers.”
This is a great example of how a concrete goal of the future can help make it a reality. As Marty writes toward the end of the book, this lifelong dream of being surrounded by devoted students and followers “actually came to pass and has very much taken the edge off any hunger for prizes.”
Marty also writes about his strong intellectual ambitions, and his big disappointment senior year when he found out he wasn't valedictorian, despite already being accepted into Princeton University:
"Graduation was a glum affair for me. Dan was valedictorian of our class-- although fifty years later, my friend Doug North, valedictorian of 1958 and the new headmaster, sent me an official transcript stating that I had actually graduated first in the class. I did not receive the various academic prizes that I felt I had earned. Instead they were distributed to the boys whose facilities were most likely to support the Academy financially in future years. I felt more a failure than a triumphant graduate sallying forth to conquer new worlds. I was going to Princeton, and that should have been cause for celebration, but so were four of my classmates, and I was, after all, a Harvard reject."
Another aspect of his ambition relates to his desire to be part of the upper "social strata". Throughout his childhood, we see statements such as: "I was still very much lower caste, although I didn't know exactly which variety of low", and here is his description of his high school graduation party:
"Beth and Irene hosted a lifeless party for me in the backyard with tables set up around our sour cherry tree. My cousins, aunts, and uncles were all there, but I was a zombie going through the motions. I did not belong to their underclass world any longer."
Another clear motivation for him throughout his career was his drive “not to be boring.” As Marty recounts, his undergraduate philosophy advisor Peter Madison’s parting advice in 1964 to him was the following: “There are two reasons people go into psychology. One is not to be wrong. The second is not to be boring. I hope you choose the second.” Marty really resonated with this advice, and vowed to never be boring. I think it’s fair to say Marty is far from boring.
Another theme is his own characterization of himself— which I think is quite accurate—as having a “‘start-up’ mentality and broad ‘entrepreneurial’ bent.” Very few psychologists throughout the course of the history of the field have collaborated (or even been as motivated to collaborate) with so many powerful and influential people, initiated so many large-scale projects, and secured so much funding for these projects. It truly is incredible.
Marty’s utilitarian morality is also evident throughout the book, not only in his cost-benefit analysis of the ethics of shocking dogs for his graduate research, but also upon reflecting on his decision to divorce his first wife and leave his kids behind:
“I will always feel guilty about my decision to leave my kids, but without that brash move, Mandy, my next five wonderful kids and positive psychology would not have happened.”
Whatever you feel may feel about this, it is undeniable how proud he is of his relationship with Mandy, and his work in positive psychology. His more tender side is on full display in a chapter called “Mandy,” which begins with the following:
“Mandy McCarthy Seligman is the love of my life. She is the mother of our four children. After thirty years, when I wake up by her side, I am still thrilled to see her. She turned my personal life around and then was the muse who turned me sunward toward positive psychology.”
I must admit, I found this entire chapter the most touching one in the entire book. It’s obvious that Mandy, who is brilliant in her own right, deeply influenced Marty to have a change of heart. Mandy met Marty in graduate school, and he was her advisor until he expressed his feelings for her.
Another strong influence on Marty’s disposition (and his decision to galvanize the field of positive psychology) was his daughter Nikki. According to Marty’s often repeated origin story, one day in the garden his young daughter remarked, “Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday I was a whiner… Well, on my birthday, I decided that I was going to stop whining, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.” Marty decided “If Nikki could change, so could I. I decided to change.”
Whether or not he changed his personality, he surely changed his research focus to something much more upbeat. With the motivation to come up with a “transformational” agenda as president of the American Psychological Association, Marty decided to call for a new field that focuses on the science of the good life, and the rigorous study of things that make life worth living. It should not be understated how much influence this decision really did have, and the attention and funding this gave to the science of well-being.
Martin Seligman’s Response to His Critics
Finally, this book may appeal to those who are interested in how Martin Seligman responds to some criticisms of him and his work. In a chapter entitled “Positivity and Its Critics”, Marty recounts many of the accomplishments in positive psychology:
“A search for ‘positive psychology’ brings up more than 1 million results on Google”
“My free Authentic Happiness site (www.authentichappiness.org) has registered almost 5 million people”
“Many hundreds of college courses teach positive psychology”
“Almost every major newspaper and magazine in English has featured positive psychology”
“Thousands of researchers and practitioners call themselves ‘positive psychologists’”
“There are a thousand of refereed journal articles on positive psychology and more than two hundred books, several of them bestsellers, translated into many languages”
“My books alone have been translated into almost fifty [languages]”
“The topic has garnered at least $200 million in grants and contracts”
“There are more than twenty national and regional positive psychology organizations and a several-thousand-member International Positive Psychology Association”
“Time magazine did a cover story”
In this chapter, Marty also attempts to respond to his critics. He divides his responses between the “strong criticisms” (those that are testable and will eventually prove right or wrong”) and the “weak criticisms” (those that are personal attacks or straw men). I won’t go into all of his responses, but I will discuss a few.
Within the category of “strong criticisms,” Marty responds to the criticism that positive psychology tells us nothing new or surprising. He counters this criticism by listing some of the more surprising findings in the field. I agree with him that some of the findings he mentions, such as “specific exercises increase happiness and decrease depression six months later, while other plausible exercises are mere placebos” more than justify a field of positive psychology. Also, I too cringe when some people dismiss the entire field of positive psychology, which consists of hundreds of researchers studying a large number of topics relating to well-being, as “nothing surprising.”
Another strong criticism is that “the humanistic psychology movement said it all forty years ago.” I won’t repeat my thoughts on this matter, but I will add that I felt as though his criticism of this straw man was itself a straw man. I don’t believe many humanistic psychologists are actually saying that humanistic psychology said it all, but instead I think they are rightfully pointing out the many instances in which the tremendous psychologists who were part of the humanistic movement in the 50s and 60s argued for many of the same things Marty argued for his in his presidential speech and subsequent writings about positive psychology.
This rift is unfortunate and unnecessary, and there is a real opportunity for a happy marriage between humanistic psychology and positive psychology. There are so many rich testable theories coming from the founders of humanistic psychology, including Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, that can once and for all be tested using modern rigorous methods of analysis that were not available in their day. I, for one, am trying to take a lot of the ideas from the humanistic psychologists and test them empirically, and I know others in the field such as Kennon Sheldon, Richard Ryan, and Edward Deci, are also attempting to do the same.
In the “Weak Criticisms” section, Marty correctly counters the notion that positive psychology is only for WEIRD people (those who are Western, educated, industrial, rich, and from democratic societies). There is indeed a growing interest on the cross-cultural determinants of well-being, and there is some really good research on this topic.
Marty also makes a good point about the importance of money, and keenly counters the notion that “making more money is the solution to achieving more well-being.” As he rightly notes, beyond a certain income, your life satisfaction will increase more if you spend your extra money on growth purchases, such as spending time with friends and family or cultivating your hobby and passions.
With that said, one criticism I don’t believe Marty adequately addresses is the criticism that positive psychology ignores suffering and misery. While he argues that this is a “straw man,” noting that much of his work came directly out of his work on misery and suffering, and he argues that positive psychology “complements, but does not displace, working to rid the world of what cripples life,” I believe that a complete science of well-being cannot ever be divorced from the inclusion of those who are in extreme poverty (much of the world) or those who are languishing with mental illness or experiencing real, uncontrollable discrimination and abuse in their daily lives. There is a very clear focus in The Hope Circuit on the importance of agency and there's an entire section at the end where Marty emphasizes that overall, the world is doing much better than it used to be. He's right, but at the same time, we also can't deny that there is still a heck of a lot of work to be done. For many people on this planet, there is real helplessness, not just learned helplessness, who desperately need real hope, not just psychological hope.
Indeed, this is why Maslow included physical safety and security as basic needs that allow one to flourish, and why the focus of the founding humanistic psychologists was pointedly not on happiness or well-being, but being and becoming a whole person. There needs to be a real, healthy integration of the negative and positive. We've seen what happens when we look at well-being divorced from the negative, as in the case of happy, well-adjusted people who are content because they reached their personal goal of happiness but ignore the real plight of those around them who are not as fortunate. In my view, this is a real criticism that Marty dismisses too quickly in his book. See Ruth Whippman's excellent article "Where were we while the Pyramid was Collapsing? At a Yoga Class" for a critique that I believe we need to be discussing openly and honestly as a field if we want to have a science of well-being that helps all people flourish.
Martin Seligman’s Legacy
Now, let’s get to the real meat and potatoes. Something that is clear in the Hope Circuit is that Marty cares very much about is his legacy (well, who doesn’t, really?). In the last section of the book, he offers his honest, and refreshingly humble reflection on his role in the field and the effect his work will have on future generations. He genuinely comes across here as someone who deeply wishes that his work has enough impact to inspire future generations to carry the mantle.
I don’t think Marty needs to worry about this. Despite my criticisms above regarding his omissions, it is still undeniable that Martin Seligman has left an important legacy, and has inspired many researchers, coaches, therapists, educators, and military personnel to carry on the torch far into the future.
How does Marty understand the genesis of his success? In the last chapter, Marty mentions how positive psychology was a “calling” for him. Indeed, the idea of being "called by the future" is a common theme throughout the book, as he notes that "some people are actually called into the future, by the future itself or by God. Dreams and visions are mediums of the call." Marty reflects,
“Why me? Why not Al Bandura, Richard Lazarus, Julian Rotter, Mike Csikszentmihalyi, or Ed Diener? All of these scientists were farther along, fruitfully investigating the positive side of life..."
Trying to make sense of how he ended up where he is today, reflecting on the dreams and other experiences he had along the way that made him feel like he was being called, he notes that on his good days, he attributes his successes to being a "natural":
"I like to think I was a 'natural.' In bridge... among the high experts a few are naturals; the cards just fly off their hands, and they cannot always explain what they did. But their plays are consistently right. Peter Madison early spotted this in me, and I recognized it—in this case being a natural was about having good ideas in psychology. From my APA presidency on, I became a natural inspirer, and I acquired charisma... I do not intend to invoke a higher power in my life course. But I do not intend to deny it. The words, nevertheless, were put into my mouth."
Marty indeed was a natural card player. But it's also clear from his autobiography that he was constantly dealt a very lucky hand. Perhaps Marty's greatest talent of them all was his extraordinary ability to capitalize on the myriad opportunities that came his way. Whatever the the precise mix of factors, there's little doubt that this synergy ended up producing one the most complex, ambitious, productive, impactful, and definitely not boring, psychologists of all time.