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Positive Psychology-- Throwing out the Baby With The Bathwater

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This article is one of three articles regarding the Army "Spiritual Fitness" Test.

The first is by Jason Leopold, Army's "Spiritual Fitness" Test Comes Under Fire.

The second is Martin Seligman's Response to Truthout's Jason Leopold's Report on Army "Spiritual Fitness" Test -- a response by Martin Seligman, who emailed me, requesting that I publish it. He also emailed it to Jason Leopold and posted it to a positive psychology listserve I've been a member of for approximately ten years (some of my work with positive psychology appears on my website

The third is my commentary Positive Psychology-- Throwing out the Baby With The Bathwater and the embedded video of the segment of the Keith Olbermann show which reported on this story.

In an article focusing on the military's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, Jason Leopold reports how an assessment portion of the program asks questions about soldiers' "spirituality," stating that the program "is under fire by civil rights groups and hundreds of active-duty soldiers. They say it unconstitutionally requires enlistees to believe in God or a "higher power" in order to be deemed "spiritually fit" to serve in the Army."

The article is highly critical of both Martin Seligman who was involved in the development and planning of the program.

Keith Olbermann reported on the story, citing the original work of truthout.

The video gives a good overview of the story, as told by Jason Leopold. Jason's Truthout article, which goes into more depth though in framing positive psychology in a negative way, primarily citing several positive psychology critics. This is why I am writing this article. After over 25 years in the field of positive psychology, I have a different view than Leopold, Barbra Ehrenreich and Chris Hedges.

First, here is what Jason wrote about positive psychology and Martin Seligman, who is a leader in the field and generally credited with being one of the primary founders of the field.

(Image: US Army)

"Dr. Happy"

CSF is based entirely on the work of Dr. Martin Seligman, a member of the Defense Health Board, a federal advisory committee to the secretary of defense, and chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, who the Army calls "Dr. Happy."

Seligman, who once told a colleague that psychologists can rise to the level of a "rock star" and "have fame and money," is the author of "Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment." The Penn Resiliency Program, upon which the Army's CSF is based, "teaches cognitive-behavioral and social problem-solving skills and is based in part on cognitive-behavioral theories of depression by Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis" and Seligman.

Despite his "happy" reputation, in some circles, Seligman is best known for developing the theory of "Learned Helplessness" at the University of Pennsylvania more than four decades ago. As psychologist and torture expert Dr. Jeffrey Kaye noted in a report published in Truthout last year, Seligman and psychologist Dr. Steven Maier developed the concept of Learned Helplessness after they "exposed dogs to a situation where they were faced with inescapable electrical shocks."

"Within a short period of time, the dogs could not be induced to escape the situation, even when provided with a previously taught escape route," Kaye wrote. "Drs. Seligman and Maier theorized that the dogs had 'learned' their condition was helpless. The experimental model was extended to a human model for the induction of clinical depression and other psychological conditions."

Seligman's work in this area influenced psychologists under contract to the CIA and Defense Department, who applied the theory to "war on terror" detainees in custody of the US government, according to a report published in 2009 by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In May of 2002, the timeframe in which the CIA began to use brutal torture techniques against several high-value detainees, Seligman gave a three-hour lecture at the Navy's Survival Evasion Resistance Escape school in San Diego. Audience members included the two psychologists - Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell - who have been called the architects of the Bush administration's torture program.

Five months earlier, Seligman hosted a meeting at his house that was attended by Mitchell, along with the CIA's then-Director of Behavioral Science Research, Kirk Hubbard, and at least one "Israeli intelligence person." Seligman claims he was totally unaware his theory on Learned Helplessness was being used against detainees after 9/11 and denied ever engaging in discussions about the torture program with Mitchell, Jessen, or any other Bush administration official.

"Learned Optimism"

Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association (APA), began consulting with General Casey in September 2008 about applying the research he and his colleagues have conducted over the past decade to the benefits of his theories on "Learned Optimism" to all of the Army's active-duty soldiers. Seligman then met with Cornum in December 2008 to discuss creating the foundation for CSF as a way to decrease PTSD.

"Psychology has given us this whole language of pathology, so that a soldier in tears after seeing someone killed thinks, 'Something's wrong with me; I have post-traumatic stress,' or PTSD," Seligman said in August 2009. "The idea here is to give people a new vocabulary, to speak in terms of resilience. Most people who experience trauma don't end up with PTSD; many experience post-traumatic growth."

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Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind.  Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives  one person at a time was too slow, he founded which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big)  to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project. 

Rob Kall Wikipedia Page

Over 200 podcasts are archived for downloading here, or can be accessed from iTunes. Rob is also (more...)

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Can merge with promotion of a particular way of th... by Al Rodbell on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:09:46 PM
I have Huntingtons Disease. I have my own philoso... by Donnie McLeod on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 7:42:36 PM
New army recruit: Will it keep me from wantonly ki... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:21:14 AM
Yes.And the "make you feel better about yourself" ... by Lou Mains on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 9:07:15 AM
Seligman is a psychopath, who needs to locked up s... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:20:44 PM
approaching that of Dr. Seligman, but it seems to ... by John Sanchez Jr. on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 10:32:18 AM
Armies, war and conflict are only possible because... by R. A. Landbeck on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 12:23:02 PM
As someone who has been working in the field of ps... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 1:22:20 PM
OEN is not a scientific journal. My goal was not t... by Rob Kall on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:08:57 PM
1. What accusations did I make? If I improperly la... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 5:48:42 PM
The US is still very much in Iraq. It has reduced... by Richard Pietrasz on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:16:08 PM
of Wayne Dyer, who work with both the head and the... by Daniel Geery on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:23:58 PM
This from undergrad days in mid 50s. Maslow had ca... by Sherwin Steffin on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 6:36:50 PM
and focused on exemplary folks rather than those w... by Daniel Geery on Sunday, Jan 9, 2011 at 11:37:42 AM
Examining individual items in the purported 5-item... by phidipidese on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:00:48 PM
was recently featured on a video clip using his pu... by John Sanchez Jr. on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 5:08:11 PM
Positive psychology (PP) is not a baby. It is OK ... by Richard Pietrasz on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:24:04 PM
..............(I'm unable to put a Dr. in front of... by Robert P. Philipps on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 8:43:49 PM