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A Driving Force Throughout Human History, Agency Plays Key Role in Positive Psychology

December 11, 2020

When cultures, religions and epochs have the belief that they can make a positive difference in the world, that’s when progress, creativity and innovation occur, Martin Seligman, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Evolution of Psychotherapy attendees in a keynote presented on Friday.

Conversely, when people have the belief, due to their religion, culture or environment, that they can’t make a positive difference in the world, that’s when stagnation has occurred in history.

Seligman went on to define the concept of agency and explained its role in positive psychology during his session. Agency, he said, is one’s belief that he or she can change the world for the better. It has three components:

  • Efficacy, the belief that one is capable of making a difference
  • Optimism, the belief that the efficacy you have now will hold in the future
  • Prospection and imagination, the range of scenarios and situations that one’s agency holds over

Seligman noted agency’s role in human evolution, starting 11,000 years ago with the development of agriculture, which was a momentous change because it represented mankind doing things not only for the here and now (i.e., the work of hunter-gatherers), but also the future. Farmers planted seeds in the spring, stayed around until the fall to reap the harvest, and then stored crops over the winter to get to the next spring. The process was a display of efficacy, optimism and imagination, Seligman said.

In modern times, Seligman and his colleagues found through their research that when animals and humans were confronted with events they couldn’t control, they fell apart, showing signs of depression and anxiety. However, when they believed they had agency, they fought depression and anxiety.

People who are anti-helplessness and have high efficacy are persistent, resilient, try harder, are healthier (living 8-9 years longer), and are innovative and creative, Seligman said. Learned optimism amplifies efficacy into the future, he said. Further, optimistic people believe that bad events are temporary, isolated and controllable, whereas good events are permanent, pervasive (“this event will help me in future situations as well”) and personal (“I brought this about”).

Seligman then tied his presentation together by explaining that positive psychology says that the target of positive psychotherapy is living well through what non-suffering individuals strive to achieve, also known as PERMA:

  • Pleasant emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships that are positive and supporting
  • Meaning and purpose
  • Accomplishment for its own sake

One of the major goals of psychotherapy is to not only help clients rid themselves of their troubles, but achieve a state of well-being, he said. The tools of fighting depression, anger and schizophrenia differ from those that build PERMA, he added.

In his parting thoughts, Seligman said in looking at human progress, if we can overcome current societal challenges, then an Age of Agency awaits.

“I believe psychotherapy and psychology is moving just from the relief of suffering to the building of PERMA,” Seligman said. “The relief of suffering doesn’t guarantee well-being. The skills of PERMA are completely different from the skills of getting rid of depression, anxiety and anger. What we will be doing as educators, psychotherapists and teachers is teaching our clients and students more efficacy, more optimism. We’ll be teaching imagination.”

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