Positive Psychology Talk by Martin Seligman at Tsinghua University

Here at Tsinghua University, the Second Annual Chinese International Conference on Positive Psychology has just begun. The first speaker was Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and former president of the American Psychological Association (the main professional group of American psychologists). Seligman is more responsible for the Positive Psychology movement than anyone else. Here are some things I liked and disliked about his talk.


1. Countries, such as England, have started to measure well-being in big frequent surveys (e.g., 2000 people every month) and some politicians, such as David Cameron, have vowed to increase well-being as measured by these surveys. This is a vast improvement over trying to increase how much money people make. The more common and popular and publicized this assessment becomes — this went unsaid — the more powerful psychologists will become, at the expense of economists. Seligman showed a measure of well-being for several European countries. Denmark was highest, Portugal lowest. His next slide showed the overall result of the same survey for China: 11.83%. However, by then I had forgotten the numerical scores on the preceding graph so I couldn’t say where this score put China.

2. Work by Angela Duckworth, another Penn professor, shows that “GRIT” (which means something like perseverance) is a much better predictor of school success than IQ. This work was mentioned in only one slide so I can’t elaborate. I had already heard about this work from Paul Tough in a talk about his new book.

3. Teaching school children something about positive psychology (it was unclear what) raised their grades a bit.


1. Three years ago, Seligman got $125 million from the US Army to reduce suicides, depression, etc. (At the birth of the positive psychology movement, Seligman proclaimed that psychologists spent too much time studying suicide, depression, etc.) I don’t mind the grant. What bothered me was a slide used to illustrate the results of an experiment. I couldn’t understand it. The experiment seems to have had two groups. The results from each group appeared to be on different graphs (making comparison difficult, of course).

2. Why does a measure of well-being not include health? This wasn’t explained.

3. Seligman said that a person’s level of happiness was “genetically determined” and therefore was difficult or impossible to change. (He put his own happiness in “the bottom 50%”.) Good grief. I’ve blogged several times about how the fact that something is “genetically-determined” doesn’t mean it cannot be profoundly changed by the environment. Quite a misunderstanding by an APA president and Penn professor.

4. He mentioned a few studies that showed optimism (or lack of it) was a risk factor for heart disease after you adjust for the traditional risk factors (smoking, exercise, etc.). There is a whole school of “social epidemiology” that has shown the importance of stuff like where you are in the social hierarchy for heart disease. It’s at least 30 years old. Seligman appeared unaware of this. If you’re going to talk about heart disease epidemiology and claim to find new risk factors, at least know the basics.

5. Seligman said that China had “a good safety net.” People in China save a large fraction of their income at least partly because they are afraid of catastrophic medical costs. Poor people in China, when they get seriously sick, come to Beijing or Shanghai for treatment, perhaps because they don’t trust their local doctor (or the local doctor’s treatment failed). In Beijing or Shanghai, they are forced to pay enormous sums (e.g., half their life’s savings) for treatment. That’s the opposite of a good safety net.

6. Given the attention and resources and age of the Positive Psychology movement, the talk seemed short on new ways to make people better off. There was an experiment with school children where the main point appeared to be their grades improved a bit. A measure of how they treat each other also improved a bit. (Marilyn Watson, the wife of a Berkeley psychology professor, was doing a study about getting school kids to treat each other better long before the Positive Psychology movement.) There was an experiment with the U.S. Army I couldn’t understand. That’s it, in a 90-minute talk. At the beginning of his talk Seligman said he was going to tell us things “your grandmother didn’t know.” I can’t say he did that.



7 Replies to “Positive Psychology Talk by Martin Seligman at Tsinghua University”

  1. Having read a lot of Seligman, I know he talks about the Lykken finding that 50% of “the pleasant life” is heritable and 50% is environment/choices….

    “The first drawback is that it turns out the pleasant life, your experience of positive emotion, is heritable, about 50 percent heritable, and, in fact, not very modifiable.”

    He must have forgotten to mention that part, but I think it’s a core part of his ideas.

    Seth: There it is again. The idea that “heritable” implies “not modifiable”. It was everyday conversation among Berkeley psych profs 30 years ago that the genes/environment dichotomy was pure nonsense. Sometimes the point was put like this: Is the area of a rectangle determined by its height or its width?

  2. Thank you for sharing this information, but I am confused by some of your critiques.

    under dislike #1: you give the $125 million dollar grant as a prior, then give a hazy remark about one slide being confusing. Is this really about the results of the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness initiative? If so, the results are organized here: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/newsletter.aspx?id=1552. If not, perhaps you could clarify.

    dislike #3: I think what you are referring to is what Positive Psych calls a “setpoint”. PP’s happiness formula is h = s + c + v, or happiness = setpoint + conditions + voluntary actions. Seligman never claims that genes determine happiness, rather he says there is a setpoint that can be managed through meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, or psychopharmaceutical drugs like prozac. I don’t think it’s fair to over-generalize Seligman’s supposed over-generalization, given the scope of his research.

    The rest of your critiques seem to essentially say ‘he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.’ Again, I don’t think it is fair to base such judgments on a 90 minute lecture. If I, for instance, read one of your blog posts about vitamin d3 that does not mention dosage, and relate it to my experience saying ‘well I’ve been doing 1000 UI every night and my sleep hasn’t improved’, I would be doing myself a great disservice by not looking at your other blog posts before reaching reaching a conclusion

    Seth: Thank you for your comments, especially the link to the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Initiative. The appearance of a bizarre and incomprehensible graph in a talk by an extremely prominent psychology professor is what stunned me. Believe me, I would rather have the military spend $125 million on a perfectly plausible psychology-related program than on 5 tanks. It strikes me as a good investment. “Seligman never claims that genes determine happiness” — in his talk, he said that because happiness was so genetically determined, it was hard to change it. Maybe there’s a first time for everything? Yes, my comment about China’s “good safety net” is a comment about his ignorance. I doubt that somewhere else he shows that he actually knows that China doesn’t have a good safety net. If anywhere in his writing Seligman showed that he understood heart disease epidemiology basics, I believe he would not have said what he said. My last criticism — where are the treatments that help people? — is not a comment about ignorance. It is a comment about lack of results.

  3. He must have misspoke or you must have misunderstood him. The premise of positive psychology is that happiness is *not* determined by either genetics or circumstances and can be profoundly changed by individual effort.

    Seth: He really said this. I didn’t misunderstand him. Because it was so hard to change happiness, he said, positive psychology should also study other things, presumably easier to change. Maybe positive psychology started with that premise (“happiness is *not* determined…”) but it turned out to be wrong. There were lots of things in his talk that it would be nice if they were true but evidence was not presented that came anywhere close to showing they were true.

  4. “It is hard to change happiness”

    If that is a given, is the implication:

    a) You need to put some actual work in to improve your happiness,


    b) Don’t bother, it would take actual work.

    If a), it would be great to have specific things to try out and evaluate in your n=1 laboratory, but I thought Seligman had done quite a bit of this in his popular books.

    However, I don’t think you are wrong in being disappointed at shortcomings in clear communication, useful and new content, and statements contrary to your own knowledge about China.

    Seth: The audience was psychology professors who do research about happiness and related stuff. The implication was: do research on other aspects of well-being, they will probably be easier to change. This is a perfectly reasonable conclusion. Not because happiness is “mostly genetic” but because in fact it has been hard to change in research studies. (Leaving aside my work with morning faces, which found big effects on happiness.)

  5. From what I understand, David Lykken (and collaborators) at the University of Minnesota showed that identical twins raised apart are far more similar in their happiness levels than are fraternal twins raised apart. Doesn’t this fact argue in favor of a strong heritable (and not very modifiable) component for happiness?

    Seth: These are findings about predictability. The more heritable a trait, the more you can predict a child’s value on the trait from his parents’ values on that trait. How much you can modify anything depends above all on how well you understand it (e.g., how much you can control your weight depends on how well you understand how weight is controlled). Just because something is highly heritable doesn’t mean it is hard to understand. I doubt there is any correlation.

  6. I believe that Seligman also advocates that you can’t change your weight, which is contradicted by your Shangrila Diet research. While I don’t have the book now, I believe it was covered in ” What You Can Change and What You Can’t.” I no longer have the book so I can’t fact check my memory.

  7. “I believe that Seligman also advocates that you can’t change your weight, which is contradicted by your Shangrila Diet research. While I don’t have the book now, I believe it was covered in ” What You Can Change and What You Can’t.” I no longer have the book so I can’t fact check my memory.”

    This is the book:


    It was an interesting investigation into what is changeable and what is not changeable based on the literature.

    here is some guy’s summary:

    The results are sobering: from the range of most frequent psychological afflictions, only a few will reliably be relieved by treatment. You can – with appropriate help from a responsible mental health professional – do something about

    – panic attacks

    – specific phobias (snakes, spiders, flying, etc.)

    – sexual dysfunctions.

    With other problems, such as depression and addiction, “moderate relief” is the best psychiatrists have to offer, often (when psychoactive medication is used) at a considerable price.

    Beyond that,

    – enjoy your sexual orientation,

    – enjoy your weight (dieting will improve it upwards, in the long run),

    – stop blaming unsatisfactory results of your adult life on your childhood and your parents – it won’t do you any good, and there is much less of a causal relationship anyway.

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