or those of us prone to anxiety, doubtfulness, or even on occasion, negativity,
Dr. Martin Seligman has one word for you: Pleistocene.

“We have brains that are always on the lookout for danger and that want to ruminate about everything that went badly today,” says the Fox Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “These are the same brains that survived the ice age.”

The only problem is that the rate of disaster we faced in the Pleistocene age is much higher than the one we face today. “And yet,” contends Seligman, “we have the same brains.”

To work around this bit of evolutionary handiwork, Seligman founded a new field eight years ago called Positive Psychology to demonstrate that it is possible to be happier, i.e. to feel more satisfied, to feel more engaged with life and to find more meaning, regardless of personal circumstances. Seligman has developed a series of questionnaires and mental exercises to re-educate our attention towards things like gratitude and forgiveness. “We want people to think about things that are going well,” he says.

Professor Seligman became closely involved with the Foundation as a result of a speech he gave in 1997 about optimism. Sir John Templeton, who was in the audience, rose and asked how the Foundation could help promote positive psychology. That encounter led to the creation of the Positive Psychology Prize. From 1998-2000, four awards were given, ranging from $20,000 to $100,000, and divided between prizes and grants to support research in the field of positive psychology.

Seligman’s role as the founding father of the positive psychology movement came after a 30-year career spent studying negative emotions and mental weakness. At the time, human strengths and virtues were discounted. After being exposed to the work of psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and others who argued that positive emotion are instrumental in making human beings think better and achieve important aims, Seligman’s entire professional orientation shifted.

In 1998, in his capacity as president of the American Psychological Association, he wrote a column in the organization’s magazine that was a clarion call for the field of positive psychology. “How has it happened that the social sciences view the human strengths and virtues—altruism, courage, honesty, duty, joy, health, responsibility and good cheer—as derivative, defensive or downright illusions, while weakness and negative motivations—anxiety, lust, selfishness, paranoia, anger, disorder and sadness—are viewed as authentic?”

With the backing of a Templeton grant, Seligman has been busy launching initiatives around the world. A quick glance at upcoming Positive Psychology events, shows and conferences planned in Switzerland, Hong Kong, Portugal and South Africa.

But Martin Seligman does not see the positive psychology work he’s involved with as being limited to the academic world. And neither do others. He’s been sought out by medical directors at major insurance companies and foreign politicians interested in applying his work on happiness to their worlds. “There are applications for the positive psychology exercises we’ve developed for Fortune 500 companies. If you have any disease—heart disease, diabetes—and you are also unhappy, it multiplies what your health care is going to cost. These exercises we’ve developed can be given to employees as a step toward decreasing their physically unhealthy states. This small investment the Templeton Foundation has made in positive psychology research could be a huge success story in the corporate world,” says Seligman.

Click here for Studying “GRIT’
Click here for a list of Historically Happy People
Click here for
The current scope of Seligman’s Templeton-funded research