What made this event even more amazing was that
Seligman was talking about his upcoming book and it was his first open lecture.
Put differently, I had the opportunity and privilege of assisting a world
premiere of some sorts where this great psychologist was presenting new ideas and sharing his reflections with the world.
Two things immediately impressed me here before I even
got to the content and details of his talk: One, that he is still a tireless
researcher wishing not only to gift humanity more knowledge and insight by
bringing about the potential for greater happiness, but also that he himself
was surprisingly open and down-to-earth about it all. There was an unmistaken
modesty and a sly sense of humor that you do not see that often with
successful intellectuals. It speaks volumes for his endeavors since this is
exactly how you would want and imagine the founder of positive psychology to
I must add here, and better now than later, that I am
not a great fan of positive psychology and if it had not been Seligman, I most
likely would not have followed the lecture. But I am so glad that I did because
although it did not change my mind on the methodology, I learned a lot in the
process and gained much more admiration and respect for, not to mention a
better understanding of this field. Like any movement, it has undergone changes,
adjustments, and modifications, yet its current approach is much closer to and
much more aligned with what I believe in and practice.
The lecture was about the importance of agency, not
merely in the sense of locus of control but also the influence and power one
has in relation to oneself and with the outside world. Agency is composed of
the triad of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For agency to occur, all
three aspects need to be involved and active, which then determines whether we
are progressing or stagnating when it comes to issues in our lives and in the
What causes human progress was the question that
Seligman asked, and he gave us a brief but fascinating overview of human
history in about half an hour, not a simple or negligible feat at all. Yet the
initial answer to the question of the perceived cause of progress was that it
depends. It depends on what field or discipline we are talking about as each discipline
has its own lens through which they define, observe as well as measure and
Hence, there are some who see ecology as a potential
cause. Nature would be considered as the determining cause of human agency. Proponents
of this discipline would then see global warming in our past lending itself to the
practice of agriculture. There are also studies claiming that climate could
have been responsible for the decline of the Roman empire, and of course,
ecology plays a very significant role in today’s reality, society as well as
Then there are those who see economy as the driving
force for human progress. It was the acquisition and distribution of money and
wealth that eventually led to and caused the Industrial Revolution. We could
pinpoint the move from barter trade to the profit-oriented economy that led and
brought us to this precise point in our history, for better and for worse.
Others do not see the economy as a determinant cause but
rather focus on society itself; the human organization and class warfare are
the points of focus in fields like sociology. Accordingly, these social
movements and forces shape our perspective, worldview, and politics at any
given period, and we are seeing and witnessing many of these shifts and changes
occurring in our current world.
Moreover, history often tends to focus on these social
forces of the past that determine outcomes in the present and beyond. Unlike
biographers who single out extraordinary decisions and actions taken by unique
and great leaders, the historian does not focus on individual or single events
but sees them as an expression and articulation of fighting for freedom. They often embody a struggle for recognition, equality, and justice, and they are happening
and reproduced time and time again in human history.
Yet the approach that Seligman has taken is regarding
the psychological state of agency. Although all these causes are valid and
important, they are still remote causes. They all must have been propelled by the
belief that one can change the world. Without that belief, we would have been
stagnant and not been able to make progress in our history.
We must keep in mind that there are always two
opposing forces at play here: we can either progress or stagnate. The choice is
within the individual that becomes part of the whole and could lead towards
social and political change on a global scale. Agency is essentially a mental
state that is propelled and driven by the belief that one can make a positive
difference in the world.
In other words, agency causes progress but a lack of
it results in stagnation and that is the veritable source of these ups and
downs in history. It might explain to an extent how the French Revolution, a
liberating and idealistic movement, could possibly give way to the tyranny and
bloodshed that followed afterward.
But let us re-examine the different
stages of history with agency in mind, agency being a combination of the three
factors of efficacy, optimism, and imagination. For progress to occur and to be
effective, all three need to be at play and in motion.
We start with the hunters-gatherers-fishers. They had
limited agency. They may have had specific but not general efficacy. They
depended in many ways on nature and circumstance for their survival. But they
did have imagination as is evidenced by astounding cave paintings. There was
also a sense of optimism as they would bury the dead, denoting and
demonstrating a kind of belief in an afterlife.
Then the age of agriculture entered the scene about
14,000 years ago. Here we can see more efficacy, particularly over plants and
animals. There was also optimism at hand since they needed to plant seeds and
wait around for them to grow and take shape. Yet their imagination was limited
because of the gods and idols they depended on to have rich and fruitful
harvests and to whom they would attribute their success or lack thereof. At the
same time, they also showed the beginnings of architecture, and with it, the
first signs of human initiative.
Then came the Bronze Age around 5000 years ago. Here
we have the written word. As an exemplar, we can hold up and analyze Homer’s Illiad.
Achilles did not have much efficacy, nor did he have belief as his actions were
reflected and determined by what gods would tell him to do. He was neither
future-minded nor imaginative, whereas we can see a clear difference here
between the Illiad and the Odyssey, with the latter revealing, in
Seligman’s words, a “huge blossoming of agency” in comparison.
The Greco-Roman period gave us Western civilization
with the Socrates/Plato duo. Not only did they, alongside their distinguished
cohort, set the basis and groundwork of philosophy, psychology, religion,
politics, and various other disciplines, but they also demonstrated belief in
mind and soul. This also gave humanity the means and manners of attaining harmony
and justice and the keys to improving and expanding oneself and the
understanding of oneself.
It may have seemed that we were set on a clear path of
steady progress, but it all came to a standstill and to a period of stagnation,
if not regression thereafter. Judaism and Christianity take hold of humanity
and take away, limit, or manipulate and control human agency. In fact, according
to Augustine, there was no human endeavor to speak of as it all depended on God’s grace.
We see this reflected in the Old Testament, which is
overall non-agentic. Abraham just follows God’s command. There is not a lot of
choice, agency, or efficacy as he merely complies and follows orders, the same
way, followers were ordered to blindly obey the Ten Commandments. It would be
Kierkegaard who much later would add existential depth and dimensions to
Abraham’s struggle, but in the end, Abraham’s actions were limited and not
undertaken by his own volition. The New Testament had somewhat more agency,
but that was quashed by Augustine.
This led us to the Renaissance in which we returned
not only to the height of the Greco-Roman period again, but it was rapidly promoted,
expanded, and elaborated through the invention of the printing press. There was
even breakthrough in Christianity since humans had been endowed with agency and
willpower, courtesy of free will.
It was in 1524 that Erasmus wrote about the freedom of
the will and the power to move oneself as well as others in the process.
Reformation, on the other hand, was not about human agency but rather the
bondage of the will as exemplified by Luther and Calvin. Although they
encouraged personal readings of the Bible, they were anti-agentic in nature
because they believed that grace was laid down by God and was not and could not
be swayed or influenced by human actions and endeavors.
Yet this was challenged by the Industrial Revolution
and its subsequent period of the Age of Progress, which started in the
beginning of the nineteenth century and continues to this very day and onward.
Agency has been up and down, but it seems that people are taking control and
power again and starting to become more conscious and aware of not only their
power but also the potential possibilities inherent in it.
When we feel helpless at any period for that matter,
we become passive and stagnant, but it is the belief in agency that causes and
brings forth innovation and resilience. We have seen how important and vital agency
is and has been throughout history, and we would want to continue to build on
that positive momentum.
Whether a person has and shows efficacy is often
reflected in the choice of words. This method of inquiry has been used by
Seligman to evaluate the level of agency across time and history. This would
come down to the choice of words that either reflect choice, such as choose
and select or that demonstrate duty and obligation, such as must
or have to. In comparison, Seligman notes that the Old Testament has
many fewer efficacy words as compared to the New Testament, which gives and
offers individuals more choice and freedom.
Optimism is determined by analyzing to what degree our
outlook is influenced by the past or the future. If we keep looking back to the
past or feel that we are constrained and limited by our past, then we tend to
feel less optimistic about our future, and vice versa. This is also why people
who are not satisfied with the status quo actively seek and ask for change as
they want to uproot stagnant structures. In fact, they are often referred to as
progressive as opposed to reactionary.
When it comes to imagination, we would be positing our
thoughts of the possible versus the impossible. Whenever you think that
something is out of reach, you are limiting and restraining your imagination.
The Renaissance man par excellence Leonardo Da Vinci was not bound by the
reality and conditions of his times as his imagination flew and soared past and
beyond those constraints. What DaVinci believed in ended up becoming a tangible
reality in later times.
Yet we are often bound by our own negative and
limiting beliefs. Most of those beliefs are bound by false information and are
fueled by doubt and fear. While Seligman was talking about how we have
progressed and improved in most areas of our existence, I was reminded of the
excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why
Things are Better than You Think by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling.
Evolutionary speaking, we are programmed and hard-wired to focus on the
negative, but this view and perspective are often not based on facts and do not
This pertains to various parts and aspects of our
existence, and here are a few examples of the overall improvements we tend to
either disregard or not be fully aware of: Literacy has increased from 10% in
1800 to 86% in 2016. Women can vote in 193 countries - with the exception of
two countries where they are still not allowed to vote: the two countries are
Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. There are many other examples, such as poverty,
war, sickness, and disease that we tend to have false impressions and limited
knowledge about, which, in turn, makes us feel less hopeful and less positive and powerful
about the future.
The problem is that our belief in human progress is
often undermined and sabotaged by media and politics. Yet we need to be aware
that things are not as bad as they may seem at first sight. In Seligman’s
words, what we need most - and most desperately - is a politics of optimism.
This is something that we can practice and train ourselves for. Instead of
engaging in deduction or induction, we should use abduction, which means to
leap to the best possible explanation.
Especially in our current times and climate, be it of political
and social nature or even weather-wise - we must overcome present barriers in
terms of racial warfare, climate catastrophe, nuclear war or the current threat
and restrictions posed by the existence and reality of Covid-19. Our
helplessness in the face of adversity is the default reaction to bad events,
but we must and certainly can override this.
For this, efficacy is required. We must act and try
harder and be more persistent, resilient, and innovative. We should also ensure
that we are healthier in body and mind. These negative events that we are
facing and confronting, we ought to see them as temporary and not permanent,
local, and not global or general, as well as controllable instead of outside of
our locus of control. When it comes to COVID, we may feel that we are out of
control, but that is when we need to be more responsive to and proactive in
safety measures and protocols - until we have a vaccine that promises and
guarantees us safety and security.
This is important and vital for our overall health and
wellbeing. Those who are positive in their outlook, that is those who have
efficiency, optimism, and imagination,
are also much healthier than those who are not. They have stronger immune
systems with fewer infections, their bodies heal faster, and they have less
inflammation. In fact, they also live longer by an average of eight years!
In terms of productivity, they have not only better
social relationships, tend to be more creative and resilient, they also get
depressed less than those who do not believe or practice positive psychology.
With all this in mind, it seems mindboggling why anyone would not embrace this
And I very much support these ideas, but my
disagreement is not in the goals, principles, and aspirations but in the method
itself. For instance, it is difficult to overcome trauma that is deeply
ingrained. For that, it is best to use depth psychology to get to the root of
the problem, but that is beyond the scope here and needs to be discussed in another
What is important to note and looks most promising to
me is the multi-dimensional expansion of positive psychology to what Seligman refers
to as PERMA, where positive emotion is only the tip of the iceberg followed by
engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. As a whole, this new
approach falls more in line with my interest in and shows similarities to Existential
To say that Seligman’s ideas are inspiring would be the least. We can see here how important and relevant his ideas are and I am most excited to read his next book TomorrowMind whenever it comes out. I hope you are inspired as well.