These are among the key questions researcher and professor, Martin Seligman, tackles in his inspiring and insightful new memoir, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism. Seligman founded the revolutionary field of positive psychology in 1998 when he was president of the American Psychological Association.
I’ve been following Seligman’s work on optimism, happiness, and strength-building since the mid-eighties. This book filled in gaps and connected many dots in tracing how Seligman’s thinking and psychology research evolved. He’s at the center of a major shift from focusing on what’s wrong to strengthening and building on what’s right.
Seligman first made his mark with pioneering research on learned helplessness. He writes,
I and many of the practitioners and scientists in positive psychology came right out of work on misery and suffering. I devoted thirty-five years of my life to undoing depression and helplessness. I found that merely getting rid of the bad stuff was not enough, and so I advocated working on what makes life worth living as well…it is the presence of positive emotion, engagement, good relations, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA)…getting what is good in life entails a lot more than just eliminating what is bad.
Seligman’s work is grounded in rigorous academic research. He’s one of the most cited psychologists of our time. However, his books are highly engaging, very readable, and practical. This book is a unique blend of personal memoir and history of positive psychology’s evolution. Here, Seligman’s own life is an open book. When Seligman began his career in the 1960s he was “always negative” and focused on “helplessness, hopelessness, trauma, fear, and depression” and was “anxious and grumpy a lot.” Today he reports “I am no longer negative. I am actually quite positive. I now ask questions about what is best in life: positive emotion, meaning, human progress, virtue, and the long future of flourishing. My critical antennae are still up, but I pay much less attention to their tantrums.”
There are powerful lessons we can draw from The Hope Circuit for leadership development and coaching. It’s not the absence of weaknesses that define highly effective leaders. It’s the presence of a few overshadowing strengths that elevate and set positive perceptions — and responses — to powerful leaders. Development plans aimed at reducing what’s wrong or closing gaps are much less energizing and effective than leveraging what’s right.
Current personal and leadership development approaches are badly broken and ineffective. Seligman could have been writing about leadership development when he observed, “the tongue’s default mode is to swish around the mouth until it finds a cavity and then to worry the defective tooth. The tongue does not look for a perfect tooth and then savor its flawlessness. The tongue is there not to celebrate what is right but to detect what is wrong and hidden. The default mode of your mind is to swish around your life until it discovers a problem that just might explode into real trouble. It then hones in and plans how to avoid it.”
If you’re interested in how to build optimism, leverage strengths, or apply positive psychology — and reading an interesting memoir about a pioneering thinker — I highly recommend The Hope Circuit.