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Positive psychology founder Martin Seligman visits University of Toronto

The American psychologist was on campus to receive the inaugural Tang Prize for his impact on the field

martin seligman

L-R, Susanne Ferber, Martin Seligman and Fay Tang. Photo: Ewan McLelland.

Feeling depressed or pessimistic? Here’s a tip from psychologist Martin Seligman: write down three good things that happened for you at the end of every day. His research has shown that those who do are likely to be less depressed six months later.

Seligman – considered the founder of positive psychology, a popular way of working towards a more fulfilled life – visited the University of Toronto last week to receive the inaugural Tang Prize for Achievements in Psychology. He also delivered an address entitled “Positive Psychology: The Cutting Edge,” emphasizing the scientific evidence that shows that positive thinking can lead to a satisfying life.

Seligman, who is the director of the Penn Positive Psychology Centre and the Zellerback Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, founded positive psychology to discover how people can be happier, and explore whether our notions of well-being could be measured and molded. He uses a system he created called PERMA – positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment – to articulate an account of a good life, which can be found detailed in one of his books, 2011’s Flourish. The PERMA system inspired British Prime Minister David Cameron to survey the well-being of the UK population as one way to shed light on the nation’s public policies. The survey is ongoing and even more important to decision-making for businesses and policymakers during times of economic instability. Seligman’s years of research on depression, optimism, pessimism and learned helplessness is chronicled in over 250 scholarly publications and more than 20 books so far.

The Tang Prize was created by psychologist Fay Tang of the Tang Foundation and is administered by the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology. The $100,000 prize recognizes an individual for their great impact on the field of psychology and raises awareness of the contributions psychologists make to society’s well-being. When it came to choosing the first person for the prize, it was clear who it would go to, said Susanne Ferber, chair of the department.

“Martin has shown creativity and rigour in his approach. He has left an indelible mark on the field by creating a field.” Seligman was equally as enthusiastic for the award and Tang Foundation.

“I think the award is a great boost and legitimization of the whole science of well-being,” he said. “I feel very grateful to the vision of the foundation for creating the award, and personally of course, it’s a lovely thing to have bestowed on me. But the important thing is it legitimizes a field in a crucial time in its history.”