A Short History of Positive Psychology (And My Very Brief Time In The Field)

Here is in an excerpt from my latest book, the WSJ bestseller, Selling Boldly. This clip from Chapter 3 briefly explores the field of positive psychology and it’s powerful impact on sales success. Selling Boldly is currently available at a deeply reduced price of $12.09 on Amazon.

The American Psychological Association was founded more than 125 years ago, and for at least 100 of those years, it has been focused completely and entirely on mental illness. Its seminal publication is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Want to read all the possible ways people can be damaged? Read the DSM. Want to study what makes people crazy? Become a psychologist.

I know, because I was supposed to be a clinical psychologist. I majored in pre-med psychology in college (to this day, I’ve never attended a formal business class), and then changed focus to clinical psychology. I attended a five-year graduate program that awards PsyD degrees, which stands for Doctor of Psychology, and emphasizes clinical (talking, not medicine prescribing) work.

I survived only one year in graduate school. In fact, I knew that it was not for me after about three weeks. At that point, at the age of 21 and just weeks into this new five-year program—I went straight to grad school after college (and was one of the youngest people at this grad school)—I started my first business, which was, I thought, totally unrelated to psychology.

Why didn’t this cutting-edge clinical psychology graduate school work for me?

Everything revolved around mental illness.

Classes focused—in their entirety—on depression, anxiety, and more profound psychotic illnesses like schizophrenia. We talked about chronic illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, head injuries, and memory loss, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Most of the other students, who were a good bit older than me, seemed enthralled with this study of what damages us. Many of them worked hard on diagnosing themselves. There were open discussions about which disorders applied to which students.

I worked hard at being positive, because even then, as a relative child, I knew that an optimistic outlook was one of the great keys to a good and happy life. But I found it basically impossible within the walls of this graduate school and with the people in it. The terrible weight of the daily analysis of neurosis and psychosis, combined with the prospect of dealing with it all daily, in a room, with one client after another, launched me out of there.

Around the same time, the great psychologist Martin Seligman–whose work I studied while attending university and this graduate school—was starting his world-altering work on optimism and positive psychology.

In 1967, Seligman conducted famous experiments on learned helplessness in behavioral psychology. In this work, dogs that were shocked on a regular schedule would try to escape the shocks, but dogs that received shocks irregularly, randomly, would simply lie down and stop trying to avoid them. This was what Seligman called learned helplessness.

As you can see, even the widely accepted father of positive psychology focused much of his life working on psychological illness.

In the preface to his important book Learned Optimism, Seligman writes that he thought he was working on pessimism in writing the book. “I was accustomed to focusing on what was wrong with individuals and then on how to fix it. Looking closely at what was already right and how to make it even better did not enter my mind.”

He wrote:

“The skills of becoming happy turn out to be almost entirely different from the skills of not becoming sad, not being anxious, or not being angry. Psychology has told us a great deal about pathology, about suffering, about victims and how to acquire the skills to combat sadness and anxiety. But discovering the skills of becoming happier had been relegated to amusement parks, Hollywood, and beer commercials. Science had played no role.”

And so, with the first publication of Seligman’s Learned Optimism in 1990, the foundation for the new field of positive psychology was laid.

I want to draw a key correlation between Seligman’s take on optimism and my approach to growing sales.

Most sales improvement programs—like most psychology approaches—focus on fixing what is wrong. They focus on how you’re screwing it up and either stopping that or doing it less.

I think that’s incorrect.

I think you’re doing it quite right.

That is why you have so many happy customers who have been with you for years. I know because I’ve talked to thousands of these customers, in great detail, about what you’re doing right. (See Chapter 18 for details on how to do these customer interviews.)

I think your customers love you because you’re doing a lot of things right.

I think if you were screwing it up, you wouldn’t have customers that have been buying from you for 10 or 20 years.

You’re not doing it wrong.

You’re doing it quite right. You’re great at what you do.

Here is the key, then: In this book, I simply ask you to do more of it.

Help more customers more, in the great ways that you help them. Tell your existing customers about what else they can buy from you because they don’t know.

Bring your amazing value to prospects who are not currently buying from you.

Help more people more.

You’re not doing it wrong.

You’re doing it great.

I’m asking you to do it great some more!

If you’ve been waiting for the right to purchase Selling Boldly for yourself and your colleagues, do it now on Amazon. The price has never been lower, anywhere!

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About Alex

My clients add 10 to 20% annually to their sales -- every year -- by taking simple action repeatedly and systematically. My clients are manufacturers, distributors and service companies in mature industries like lumber, pipes and valves, chemicals, and steel. If you would like to add 10-20% to your sales quickly and easily, call me directly at 847-459-6322.