US guru who can teach us the 'good life'

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The Independent Online

As the guru of positive thinking, Professor Martin E P Seligman is one of the most influential psychologists of his generation.

The 63-year-old academic, a Princeton graduate with more than 40 years' experience in academic research, now works in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite his distinguished academic career, the psychologist admits that being a plump, Jewish 13-year-old made him an outsider at his elite school. His solution was to become a good listener because he thought it would make him more popular with girls.

"What a brilliant stroke! I'll bet no other guy ever listened to them ruminate about their insecurities, nightmares and bleakest fantasies," he recalls.

Professor Seligman is now one of the chief architects of modern treatments for depression, and his work has helped to found modern "cognitive" or talking therapies.

As a psychology graduate, he worked in animal-behaviour laboratories, where he became fascinated by dogs' passivity in putting up with electric shocks despite the fact they could actually avoid the pain. He realised that some humans also "learn" to be helpless. This idea transformed the field of behavioural psychology and therapy by suggesting that depressed people can be treated by challenging their negative beliefs.

One of Professor Seligman's theories is that "eudaemonia" - or the good life - is central to wellbeing.

"The good life consists of the roots that lead to flow," he says. "It consists of first knowing what your signature strengths are and then recrafting your life to use them more - recrafting your work, your romance, your friendships, and your parenting to deploy the things you're best at."

THE LESSONS

The happiness classes will be based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which operates on the principle that self-aware children with good social skills will be confident and naturally inclined to adopt a positive and optimistic outlook.

The lessons are largely based on group discussions and role-playing to help pupils learn more about themselves and others. The children will also be taught negotiation and decision-making skills, as well as relaxation techniques.

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