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 Does Suffering Trump Happiness?
By Martin E. P. Seligman

I am often asked two disturbing and profound questions about the place of happiness in a troubled world.

  • In a world of war and hate and famine, how can I advocate that psychology investigate happiness? Suffering has first call on our sympathy, on our dollars, and on our brainpower. Only when these nightmares are stilled should we turn our attention to happiness.
  • What does Positive Psychology have to say that will help a single mother who wakes up in poverty every day, suicidally depressed with no hope for her future?

My answers to both these questions are of one piece.

Was Maslow wrong?

Maslow convinced many psychologists that there exists a hierarchy of needs. Only when the biological needs, the safety needs, and the self-esteem needs are slaked, can a person "self-actualize." I am skeptical about this claim because it belies my experience with troubled people.

Much of my life's work has been about severe depression and lack of hope. Indeed my other APA presidential initiative was about ethnic conflict and ethnic murder. If you believe that the Rwandese Tutsi, deprived of all safety by the Hutu genocide, were only concerned about avoiding machete chops, you entertain only a caricature of ethnic violence. The Tutsi were and are enormously concerned with justice, with fairness, with dignity, and with courage. If you believe that severely depressed people care only for lightening their suffering, you don't know depression. Depressed people care greatly for not burdening others, for personal integrity, for political justice, and for finding meaning.

Positive Psychology is not a luxury

Positive Psychology is not a luxury whose benefits will accrue only to the rich, to the secure, and to the untroubled. Positive Psychology seeks to understand and build three kinds of happy lives: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. Some, but not many, aspects of these lives are perhaps more easily partaken by those not in pain: the taste of caviar or a day of skiing, for example.

But most of Positive Psychology is for all of us, troubled or untroubled, privileged or in privation, suffering or carefree. The pleasures of a good conversation, the strength of gratitude, the benefits of kindness or wisdom or spirituality or humility, the search for meaning and the antidote to "fidgeting until we die" are the birthrights of us all.

Another arrow in the quiver

Positive Psychology is not remotely intended as a replacement for psychology-as-usual. Clinical psychology and biological psychiatry have amply demonstrated that they can make the lives of suffering people less unhappy. Fourteen of the major mental illnesses are relievable today and two are curable; none were treatable fifty years ago. This work must and surely will go on. The severely depressed, single mother is one of its many beneficiaries. But she is also concerned with integrity, meaning, kindness, and being a good parent and citizen.

We overcome our suffering not only by healing damage and repairing what is broken within ourselves. More commonly we overcome troubles by doing end-runs around them, by deploying our highest strengths as buffers against the setbacks of life. And these domains-buffering, strength, pleasure, and meaning--long neglected by psychology-as-usual, are the subject matter of Positive Psychology.

So Positive Psychology seeks not to replace, but to add another arrow into the quiver of clinical psychology, biological psychiatry, psychiatric social work, marriage and family counseling, and coaching. In the last five years, Positive Psychology has discovered interventions that build more happiness by nurturing the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life.

Next step - training

The next step of its mission will be to train qualified individuals to deliver these interventions to troubled and untroubled people, to the deprived as well as the privileged. Outcome research has documented well that Psychology can make people less unhappy. We will create Coaching in Positive Psychology. Its task will be to document that Psychology can not only make people less unhappy, but also make people more happy.


To learn more about our coaching plans in Positive Psychology, please visit http://www.authentichappinesscoaching.com.


© Copyright 2003 Martin E. P. Seligman. All rights reserved.

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