A noted psychologist charts a long and not always happy life spent in service to positivity.
Seligman (Psychology/Univ. of Pennsylvania; Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, 2011, etc.) opens this memoir on a modest note of conflict: the year is 1996, and he has just won, by a large margin, the presidency of his professional guild, the American Psychological Association. The establishment didn’t want him and refused to seat him in a council meeting, and he was ticked off enough that his young daughter suggested that he should “stop being such a grouch.” It was an apposite idea, one that fit well with some of the work that Seligman had conducted on the path to developing a “positive psychology”—i.e., as the philosopher Robert Nozick put it, an emphasis on “the traits that are the springboards of positive experience,” the creativity, discipline, and good humor that keep people well-adjusted and happy in the world. Given that psychology has traditionally concentrated on solving the problems of aberrant behavior and thinking, the idea of an evidence-based positive psychology was not met with universal acclamation—and neither, as Seligman writes candidly, was his involvement with the military and intelligence communities and the corporate world, a latter example being an attitudinal inventory to predict the success of insurance salespeople (“among the regular force, the optimists outsold the pessimists”). The purely memoir-ish aspects of the book (“by age twelve, I was brainy. Teachers liked me”) are the least compelling, but the brass-tacks account of how positive psychology came into being, and Seligman’s openness in discussing some of its problems, is a rewarding read for those who incline to his view that “getting what is good in life entails a lot more than just eliminating what is bad.”
Mildly controversial at points, mildly dismissive of such things as “the overselling of neuroscience” at others, but altogether of interest to students of the mind.