Feature

Helping people find more meaning in their lives, cope better with stress and improve their relationships should be a worldwide goal for mental health professionals and government leaders alike, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD. In fact, Seligman believes that by 2051, 51 percent of the world could be "flourishing."

"The world is turning from a victimology, apology-oriented view of human nature ... to aspirations about well-being and about flourishing," he said in a talk at APA's 2011 Annual Convention. "It's in our hands not only to witness this, but to take part in making this happen."

Achieving "Flourish 51," Seligman's new initiative, will require more than psychotherapy's one-on-one sessions in building resiliency, optimism and problem-solving, he said. Schools, government organizations and corporations need to boost well-being by tapping emerging technology and social media.

Seligman's own research indicates that such far-reaching education is possible. Through his Penn Resiliency Program, Seligman has taught elementary and middle-school teachers in Australia, China, England and many other countries ways they can help their students navigate tough social situations and overcome other everyday challenges.

"In 21 replications, when the teachers learn [these skills] and how to teach them to kids, it significantly lowers depression, anxiety and bad conduct" among those children, said Seligman.

In a similar school-based intervention, Seligman found that group lessons in positive psychology may stick with children over time. In one as-yet-unpublished study, eight classes of middle-school students read "Lord of the Flies" and other novels for a literature course. They were then randomly assigned to two groups: one group took 80-minute classes on kindness and other topics that related to the books and was asked to do three kind deeds in their communities while the other was given no positive psychology training. Two years later, Seligman, along with colleagues Jane Gillham, PhD, Karen Reivich, PhD, and others, looked at how the students who took a year of literature courses infused with positive psychology compared with peers who had literature alone and found a significant difference in their school performance.

"The kids who had the positive psychology literature courses were rated by their teacher as having higher social skills. Their zest for learning is higher and their grades are better," he said.

Seligman's work to build psychological resilience among soldiers in the U.S. Army offers further evidence that a large organization can foster well-being, he said. Using a strategy similar to his teacher-training program, the University of Pennsylvania under Seligman's direction is training the Army's 4,500 drill sergeants how to instruct soldiers in managing the stressors of combat and military life, build resilience and avoid worst-scenario thinking. Early data on the program show that soldiers who get the training from their sergeants experience less catastrophic thinking and exhibit better coping skills, said Seligman.

The use of pro-social video games is another possible way to boost well-being across a large swath of the population, he said. He has recently talked with gaming experts interested in collaborating with him to develop such games.

He is also working with experts from Facebook and Google to look at ways that their data could aid his global well-being efforts.

Social media technology could allow him and other researchers to give a real-time assessment of the world's well-being almost instantly. "We can do this is by combing search terms, blogs, Facebook and Twitter" for words and phrases that relate to well-being, said Seligman. Such a search when the Chilean miners were rescued last year showed that the well-being lexicon went up in Chile, but not in Argentina, said Seligman.

"We are validating the possibility that we can do much better than public polling," he said.


For more on Seligman's work with the U.S. Army, see Strong in mind and body.