After brooding for years about human aberrance and anxiety, American psychologists are being prodded into a happiness revolt. Led by a former president of the American Psychological Association, the insurgent group has called for psychologists to forsake their obsession with pathology and zero in on optimism, play and virtue instead, making a scholarly about-face into the study of human strengths and positive emotions.
"The hope is that it will change psychology," said Lisa Aspinwall, 34, a University of Maryland professor who recently received $50,000 as one of the first winners of the John Marks Templeton Positive Psychology Prize. "You could be a developmental psychologist asking questions about how children acquire optimism. You could be doing fascinating work in neuroscience about positive mood and how it relates to problem solving. The hope is that it will cut across all areas of the field."
Blending clinical research and brain science with rhetoric that sometimes sounds like a giddy concoction of Ben Franklin aphorisms and New Age affirmations, the trend in "positive psychology," as it's called, has opened channels of research on topics that could be a compilation of the eternal verities - wisdom, courage, optimism, perseverance, hope, joy, integrity, altruism, civility and tolerance.
At the University of California at Los Angeles, psychologists studying stress in first-year law students have reported that optimists enjoy heartier immune systems at midsemester than pessimists.
At Cornell University, researchers have linked positive mood not only to heightened creativity and greater mental agility, but also to increases in brain dopamine levels and other physiological effects that improve cognition.
At Maryland, Aspinwall has found that optimists look harder for negative information than pessimists so they can improve decision-making - a challenging reversal to a common conception that optimists suffer from a kind of Pollyanna syndrome.
Enthusiasts point to applications ranging from depression-fighting techniques to character building. But the main emphasis seems to be evangelical. Proponents are busily spreading the word.
"When I started out there was virtually no research on the positive side of things," said Alice Isen, a Cornell psychologist who was a pioneer of studies of "positive affect" more than 20 years ago. "There was work on aggression and conflict and all kinds of problems, but nothing that looked at antecedents to beneficent feelings or behaviors.
"It seemed to me that the positive stuff had to be maintained somehow, and if we didn't understand what supports people to be helpful and caring and cooperative, those things could just as easily disappear."
Although a handful of researchers such as Isen have been at work for several decades, the trend gathered momentum in 1998 when a University of Pennsylvania depression expert became president of the APA.
As psychologist Martin Seligman tells it, shortly after taking over the presidency he had an epiphany while weeding his garden one day with his 5-year-old daughter, Nicki.
As the girl went about happily singing and tossing his shredded weeds into the air, Seligman lost his temper, and then the girl made a startling appeal.
"Daddy, do you remember before my 5th birthday?" Seligman recalls his daughter asking. "From the time I was 3 to the time I was 5, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned 5, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I've ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch."
Today, Seligman insists that his exchange changed his life and spurred his desire to lead a revolution in psychology.
"I had spent 50 years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last 10 years being a nimbus cloud in a household full of sunshine," Seligman tells audiences today.
"Any good fortune I had was probably not due to my grumpiness, but in spite of it. In that moment, I resolved to change."
Attacking medical models
Seligman has used his position as APA president to attack the medical model of psychology for its narrow interests in mental illness, which became its all-encompassing mission after World War II. Previous efforts to develop a fundamental mission for nurturing genius and broadening the human spirit suddenly fizzled, he says, for economic reasons.
For example, after World War II, the newly created Veterans Administration and National Institutes of Health provided funding to treat mental illness and for studies of pathology, but nothing for the other kinds of research. Leading academics lost interest in applied research and sought to make psychology a true scientific discipline like physics or chemistry.
"Between the rat lab and the analyst's couch, there seemed to be no place for normal, productive, thoughtful persons to stand so that psychology might learn something from them. Enter 'positive psychology' with Martin Seligman leading the charge," said Daniel Robinson, an authority on the history of psychology at Georgetown University.
Until recently, psychologists studying attitudes such as optimism and hope have seen their work misrepresented and sometimes misunderstood by skeptics. For one, they are faulted for not practicing value-free science - critics say they have prejudged the psychological importance of the attitudes and behaviors they study.
Critics also have confused the work with popular sentiments of positive-thinking advocates such as Norman Vincent Peale or certain New Age practitioners who, Aspinwall said, promote "the idea that you can have anything you want in life by just thinking positively."
For some, confronting the prejudices of contrarians has been a motivating factor in their work.
Aspinwall, for instance, first encountered the bias of skeptics as a graduate student at UCLA.
In the early 1980s, researchers there had discovered that people with terminal cancer reported feeling more optimistic and more in control over their lives after their illnesses than before - research that pointed to the benefits of a cognitive strategy called "positive illusions."
In her research, Aspinwall discovered that HIV patients who were optimists showed fewer symptoms, took better care of themselves and generally coped better than other AIDS patients.
Although it seemed like good news, she said, the general response from other psychologists was: "This is not psychologically meaningful. This is denial."
For the past decade at Maryland, Aspinwall has addressed their objections with a series of experiments that challenge the traditional notion that optimists maintain a positive outlook simply by avoiding bad news.
To bring research to light, Seligman has recently initiated a strategic plan that he began as APA president, when he made promotion of "positive psychology" a top priority.
Two psychology journals, the American Psychologist and the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, have devoted special issues related to the topic, and the association's widely read journal, the Monitor, has published numerous stories about the research. Seligman has started the Positive Psychology Network, which draws on talents from young scientists such as Aspinwall and pioneers such as Isen.
"I'm trying to build a scientific infrastructure," Seligman said. "Forty years ago, there were humanistic psychologists talking about these ideas, but it was anti-scientific. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn't produce a cumulative body of scientific evidence. We want to change that."
Money from philanthropists and private benefactors is flowing in to support the effort, Seligman says, noting as an example the $200,000 in prizes - including the largest monetary prize in psychology - being awarded by the Templeton Foundation.
The movement remains something of an American phenomenon. Researchers guess that its popularity here may rise from the country's historic cultural values.
"Most of the evidence is generated by Americans because it resonates with American optimism and the vision that people can become what they want," said Shelley Taylor, a research pioneer in the field at UCLA.
"When I present our work in Britain, it meets with considerably more skepticism than in the U.S. It could be that it just doesn't resonate with their culture."