In the last decade of the twentieth century, the Positive Psychology movement got underway, thanks largely to the work of Martin Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman made his original academic reputation studying “learned helplessness,” a standard feature of psychological depression. As his studies unfolded, however, he pretty much reversed his orientation as he realized that his ostensibly helpless patients could learn to take control of their lives and rather quickly overcome their depression. Thus Seligman turned from the study of “learned helplessness” to the study of “learned optimism.” Though Seligman himself claims to be mildly pessimistic by temperament, he titled his next two books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.
In Authentic Happiness, for example, Seligman called attention to the negative implications of traditional theories of human nature — what he called the “rotten-to-the-core” theories, which includes the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin and the Freudian notions of id, ego, and superego:
I cannot say this too strongly: In spite of the widespread acceptance of the rotten-to-the-core dogma in the religious and secular world, there is not a shred of evidence that strength and virtue are derived from negative motivation. (p. xi)
Seligman also referred to Abraham Lincoln’s use of the “better angels” metaphor at the end of his first inaugural address:
The closing words of the first inaugural address of America’s greatest presidential orator are not, we can be certain, chosen casually. These words exhibit several rock-bottom assumptions held by most educated minds of mid-nineteenth-century America:
- That there is a human “nature”
- That action proceeds from character
- That character comes in two forms, both equally fundamental–bad character, and good or virtuous
(“angelic”) character (p. 125)
Positive psychology focuses on positive emotions, positive personality traits and virtues, and positive institutions
such as democracy, strong families, and free inquiry, that support the virtues, which in turn support the positive emotions. The positive emotions of confidence, hope, and trust, for example, serve us best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult (p. xi).
As more and more scholars have chimed in, the Positive Psychology movement has provided not only strong and reliable support for the field of leadership studies, but also hope for the long-term health of global democracy.
In general, the cloud of doom and gloom in the era of Darwin, Marx, and Freud gave way to an era of relative metaphorical sunshine in which human beings are recognized as capable of learning to influence, if not absolutely control, their own destiny. The implications of this intellectual revolution are especially germane to the study of leadership and followership behaviors. As we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, that optimism about human nature is being seriously tested by backward-facing political movements in nations around the world, but the research conducted within the Positive Psychology Movement continues to hold out realistic and significant hope for humanity.