The notion of a positive psychology movement popped into Martin Seligman’s head soon after his election as president of the American Psychological Association. He was weeding the garden with his five-year old daughter, Nikki. He seemed to be in a tearing hurry and was rapidly beginning to lose patience while his daughter merrily kept throwing weeds into the air and dancing around. Finally, he yelled at her.
She walked away, only to return and say, “Daddy, I want to talk to you. Do you remember before my fifth birthday?” she asked. “From the time I was three to the time I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. When I turned five, I decided not to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”
That was a turning point for her father, nothing less than a full-blown epiphany. He had learned something about his daughter, something about raising children, something about himself, and a great deal about his profession. Raising Nikki was not about correcting whining, he writes in his classic treatise on positive psychology. She did that herself. Rather, he realised that raising Nikki was about taking that marvellous skill which he called “seeing into the soul,” amplifying it, nurturing it, helping her to lead her life around it to buffer against her weaknesses and the storms of life.
Raising children, he realised, was more than fixing what was wrong with them. It was about identifying and nurturing their strongest qualities, what they own and are best at, and helping them find niches in which they can best live out these positive qualities.
In retrospect, Seligman admits that his daughter had “hit the nail right on the head” with her comment as far as his own life was concerned. “I was a grouch. I had spent 50 years mostly enduring wet weather in my soul, and the last 10 years being a nimbus cloud in a household of sunshine.”
Any good fortune he had was probably not due to his grouchiness, but in spite of it.” In that moment, he resolved to change. He went on to develop therapeutic initiatives that focused on positive rather than negative aspects. The rationale seemed simple enough: If one only focused on the problem, one might not see the solution. The goal was to nurture the very qualities that enabled individuals and groups not just to survive and limp along but to flourish and flower.