The President’s Address by Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman leans on podium

The President’s Address by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.

When I was elected president of our Association, I was both humbled and challenged by what I saw as an opportunity to enlarge the scope of our discipline's work. For I believed then, and do still hold, that there are two areas in which psychology of the late 20th century has not played a large enough role in making the lives of people better.

One area that cries out for psychology's attention is the 20th century's shameful legacy of ethnic conflict. (Even as I write this piece, the world community is struggling with the plight of some half-million refugees from Kosovo.)

The second area cries out for what I call "positive psychology," that is, a reoriented science that emphasizes the understanding and building of the most positive qualities of an individual: optimism, courage, work ethic, future-mindedness, interpersonal skill, the capacity for pleasure and insight, and social responsibility. It's my belief that since the end of World War II, psychology has moved too far away from its original roots, which were to make the lives of all people more fulfilling and productive, and too much toward the important, but not all-important, area of curing mental illness.

With these two areas of need in mind—relieving ethnic conflict and making life more fulfilling—I created two presidential initiatives during my time in office, as described below.

Ethnopolitical Conflict

Certainly the goal of a more peaceful 21st century is as complex and as urgent as ever. To help psychology build an infrastructure that would allow future psychologists to play a role in preventing ethnic conflict and violence, I teamed with Canadian Psychological Association President Peter Suedfeld and created a joint APA/CPA Task Force on Ethnopolitical Warfare.

Dr. Suedfeld and I believe that with the death of fascism and the winding down of communism, the warfare the world faces in the next century will be ethnic in its roots and hatreds. In contemporary ethnopolitical conflicts, as in Kosovo right now, civilian populations are the primary targets of terror. The destruction of whole communities and the ongoing problems of refugees and human rights abuse amplify the problems.

What can psychology do? I submit to you that we can train today's young psychologists who have the courage and the humanity for such work to better understand, predict, and even prevent such tragedies. When the worst does occur, we can train psychologists to help pick up the pieces by helping people and communities heal and learn to live and trust together again.

The first step in creating a scholarly understanding of ethnic conflict was taken at an APA/CPA conference on the subject at the University of Ulster in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in June.

The meeting, chaired by Dan Chirot of the University of Washington, brought together 30 of the world's most distinguished specialists not just from psychology but from many disciplines, for example, from the fields of history, ethnic conflicts, human rights, and conflict resolution. Among the questions discussed were the following: What do we know about the roots of ethnopolitical violence? Why do some potentially violent situations result in violence while others do not? How does a society resolve group conflict relatively peacefully, as in the case of a South Africa, while others are solved with mass murder or forced migration?

Clearly, these are difficult questions, and the answers need to come from many disciplines. But to set the stage, three universities are taking the lead in creating a pioneering postdoctoral fellowship program combining both scholarship and field work in the scientist-practitioner model to study ethnopolitical conflict. The first entering class is that of June 1999. Classes will take place on three campuses—​at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. The Mellon Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and private donors have already pledged over $2 million to this initiative.

A New Science of Human Strengths

Entering a new millennium, we face a historical choice. Standing alone on the pinnacle of economic and political leadership, the United States can continue to increase its material wealth while ignoring the human needs of our people and of the people on the rest of the planet. Such a course is likely to lead to increasing selfishness, alienation between the more and the less fortunate, and eventually to chaos and despair.

At this juncture, psychology can play an enormously important role. We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive. We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society.

Ideally, psychology should be able to help document what kind of families result in the healthiest children, what work environments support the greatest satisfaction among workers, and what policies result in the strongest civic commitment.

Yet we have scant knowledge of what makes life worth living. For although psychology has come to understand quite a bit about how people survive and endure under conditions of adversity, we know very little about how normal people flourish under more benign conditions.

This is because since World War II, psychology has become a science largely about healing. It concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. Such almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the flourishing individual and the thriving community. True, our emphasis on assessing and healing damage has been important and had its important victories. By my count, we now understand and can effectively treat at least 14 mental disorders that we could not treat 50 years ago. But these victories have come at a considerable cost. When we became solely a healing profession, we forgot our larger mission: that of making the lives of all people better.

The President’s Address from The APA 1998 Annual Report, appeared in the August 1999 American Psychologist.


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