Do you want just to be sane or do you want to be happy? Martin Seligman is a clinical psychologist researching what it takes to be happy. He is interviewed here.
I’m not going to give away a placebo, but let me just say a couple of things about it. It turns out we’ve already found out that several of the things that have been proposed — from the Buddha to Tony Robbins — don’t work. We’ve got them up there on the website, people do them, and we find that there’s no lasting change in either lowering depression or raising the level of happiness. But they’re plausible; they’re things that you or I would think would work, but because some of your viewers are now going to jump to authentichappiness.org and get into the placebo I don’t want to give away what the placebos are. The interesting thing is that some of these things actually lastingly make people happier, and others don’t. The aim of science is to find out what the active ingredients are.
I spent the first 30 years of my career working on misery. The first thing I worked on was learned helplessness. I found helpless dogs, helpless rats, and helpless people, and I began to ask, almost 40 years ago now, how do you break it up? What’s the neuroscience of it? What drugs work? While working on helplessness there was a finding I was always brushing under the rug, which was that with people and with animals, when we gave them uncontrollable events, only five out of eight became helpless. About a third of them we couldn’t make helpless. And about a tenth of them were helpless to begin with and we didn’t have to do anything.
About 25 years ago I began to ask the question, who never gets helpless? That is, who resists collapsing? And the reverse question is, who becomes helpless at the drop of a hat? I got interested in optimism because I found out that the people who didn’t become helpless were people who when they encountered events in which nothing they did mattered, thought about those events as being temporary, controllable, local, and not their fault; whereas people who collapsed in a heap immediately upon becoming helpless were people who saw the bad event as being permanent, uncontrollable, pervasive, and their fault. 25 years ago I started working on optimism versus pessimism, and I found that optimistic people got depressed at half the rate of pessimistic people, that optimistic people succeeded better in all professions that we measured except one, that optimistic people had better, feistier, immune systems, and probably lived longer than pessimistic people. We also created interventions that reliably changed pessimists into optimists.