Mental health expert Martin Seligman says it’s time one moved on to “psychological immunisation” centred on the concept of wellbeing

Martin Seligman is a mental health expert and author of a number of books, including “The Optimistic Child and Authentic Happiness”. Seligman, who at the time of this radio interview is working in Adelaide, South Australia, where he is teaching an entire state, the art of well being, says, “There is increasingly good reason to believe that when young people have positive emotions, engagement, good relationships and meaning, their mental and physical wellbeing increases. So we wonder can we measure the wellbeing of every young person in South Australia and by teaching them skills of positive wellbeing immunise them against depression, anxiety and other physical and mental disorders?”

He goes on to say that there is evidence that if you go to schools and teach the teachers the skills of wellbeing (teachers who are teaching children between the ages of 10 to 18) then there is less anxiety and depression in those children as they grow up. “Therefore, it leads us to wonder that if we can teach wellbeing at this level and if we can help an entire state to improve its well being thereby?” asks Seligman. He introduces the term “psychological immunisation” to mean helping build mental resilience. The present century has moved beyond physical immunisations and is in need of psychological immunisations.

Seligman says there are four pillars of wellbeing. “The first is positive emotions, and there are tools such as every night before you go to sleep write down three things that went well today and why they went well. The second tool is to work on the engagement of young people in the schools and with their friends, and that is the point where you help people see what their highest strengths are and help them to use them to meet the challenges that come their way. The third is their relationship skills, learning how to respond to your friends and people you love when they tell you something good, and finally the skills of meaning — skills of belonging to and serving something which you think is better and has a larger purpose.”

Seligman clarifies that positive thinking is really only a small part of wellbeing. “We are actually interested in more. What the kids are doing in the world, the improvement of relationships, more volunteering, better citizenship... some of the tools involve how you think and the others involve what you do.”

Seligman says you cannot just measure the wellbeing of a society with the so-called smiley faces. He has coined an acronym: PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement (using one’s highest strengths to perform the tasks one has to), Relationships (your response to the loved ones), Meaning (belonging to and serving something bigger than one’s self), and Achievement (determination is known to count for more than IQ). Seligman advocates measuring wellbeing against a dashboard of the above factors. He says you have to not just measure how they are feeling but what they are doing. Then it gives us a subjective and objective picture.

There are many instances when positive emotions may be a bridge too far. “Positive psychology is not remotely intended to replace therapy or pharmacology. So when depressed, anxious or in panic or post-traumatic stress disorder, I am all for therapies that will work. Positive psychology is another in the arrow in the quiver of public policy and psychology through which we can raise wellbeing above zero.”

“Positive thinking is the notion that if you think good thoughts things will work out well. Optimism is the feeling of thinking things will be well and be hopeful. Hope and optimism may help to protect wellbeing. Being in the lowest quartile of hopelessness is like smoking two and a half packets of cigarettes every day. Positive psychology is much more,” says Seligman and gives one a quick fix for lows or mild depressions (for those of any age) — go out and help another person.

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Narratives for clearingsFebruary 28, 2013