Insights from Two Major Thinkers

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 17, Issue No. 2a
June 1, 2018

By Dan Coughlin

Over the past three months I’ve read the autobiographies of two of the most influential thinkers of the past 100 years. They are The Hope Circuit: A Psycholgist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism by Martin Seligman and The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work by Joseph Campbell, edited by Phil Cousineau.

There is one primary difference between these two great thinkers.

Marty Seligman, which is the name he goes by, focuses on a conscious approach to living.

Joe Campbell, which is the name he went by, focused on an unconscious approach to living.

Insights from Martin Seligman

Marty Seligman is most famous for helping to create Positive Psychology. Here is a small sampling of the ideas I learned from this book.

What is your Tessitura?

(Page 129) Seligman wrote, “’Tessitura’ is a term for a singer’s most comfortable vocal range – the range in which she will make her most beautiful music…Tessitura is the place where you find your true voice, where you have a long and healthy career. The quest for my tessitura in psychology was a search in three dimensions: style, tempo, and content.”

Another way he describes his tessitura is in telling a story about his father. He said his father always said he would become an Albert Einstein. Instead Seligman says he was more like Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear physicist who was the director of the Los Alamos Center, which hosted the team that designed the first nuclear weapons. Rather than being a solitary genius like Einstein, Seligman guided a movement that has affected millions of people in a positive way.

I had never heard of the word “tessitura” before reading this book, but I do appreciate it very much. What is your tessitura? Where do you have your true voice, the place where you can make your most beautiful music, where you can make your most positive impact on the world?

That question caused me to grapple with my own work. What is my tessitura? After much thought, I think it’s when I’m teaching ideas, advising individuals, and facilitating conversations. There’s nothing unique in those things because lots of people have those strengths, but that’s where I make my music come to life.

What about you? What is your range where you make your most beautiful music? Write your answers down over and over until you can see your tessitura.

Defining Positive Psychology

In January 1999 Marty Seligman and about a dozen colleagues sat together and crafted the early structure of Positive Psychology, which focuses on “health and sanity and those things humans choose to pursue when they are not suffering or oppressed” (Page 229), with “three pillars: positive experience, positive traits, and positive institutions.” (Page 237)

What a noble undertaking. Marty Seligman is 75 years old as I write this. He has been a scientist studying how the mind works for approximately 50 years. For the first 25 years, roughly, he studied the negative effects of the mind (helplessness, anxiety, fear, pessimism, anger) and how psychology could help the afflicted, and then he spent the next 25 years studying how psychological approaches could help people enjoy the positive effects of the mind (joy, optimism, excitement, resilience, hopefulness). While our natural default position may be to give up in the face of extreme challenges, we can actually talk ourselves into taking a positive, optimistic, and hopeful approach to the challenges we’re facing.

Defining Well-Being: PERMA

On page 261 Seligman describes the five elements of well-being as PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishment

Many people, myself included, wonder from time to time as to whether or not what they are doing is being successful or not. Busy days turn into busy months and years and decades. Are we succeeding in life or failing?

I think PERMA is a great measuring device. Answer these questions:

Are you experiencing positive emotions today of hopefulness, excitement, joy, enthusiasm, resilience, and optimism?

Are you fully engaged in something or someone you really care about?

Are you working to strengthen important relationships in your life?

What is your purpose in life? Why do you do whatever you do every day?

Have you achieved important outcomes for yourself and other people?

Notice that none of your answers have to be about income or title or authority or the size of your house or the amount of money in your bank account. You, and I, can experience well-being without any specific labels.

Positive Emotions Do Not Equal the Absence of Negative Emotions

Seligman repeatedly says that positive emotions are not merely the absence of negative emotions. Just because you are not depressed or angry or afraid doesn’t mean you are automatically hopeful and optimistic and resilient and experiencing joy in life.

In order to experience positive emotions, we need to consciously work at how we are thinking.

The Way We Talk to Ourselves is the Crucial Factor

All of Marty Seligman’s thinking exercises involve conscious thinking where the person is actively involved in the thought process.

For example, we can choose what memory we want to focus on. We can focus on a memory that causes us to feel angry and hopeless (i.e. I could focus on when my dad was dying of Dementia with Lewy Bodies in 2009) or a memory that causes us to feel excitement, joy, and optimism (i.e. I could focus on when I went to a college football game with my dad in 2005). That conscious choice can change our outlook on life.

Another example is writing a letter of gratitude to another person. This act can shift your emotions from anger to appreciation and gratitude. That simple conscious act of telling another person all the things you appreciate about him or her can take you out of a state of helplessness into a state of joy and excitement for the future.

Another example is reinterpreting how we view a past situation. We could think the driver who cut us off on the highway was selfish and arrogant and represented all that is wrong in a group of people, or we could reinterpret the person as trying his hardest to get home to his pregnant wife who had gone into labor and to get her safely to the hospital in time. One takes us into a negative realm of rage and the other sends us into a positive realm of inspiration in the nobility of humans. The choice is ours to make: to look for the worst or the best in other people.

Insights from Joseph Campbell

Joe Campbell passed away in 1987 at the age of 83. In 1949 at 45 years old he wrote his first book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It was based on about 25 years of studying mythology from different eras going back thousands of years and from different parts of the world. He became best known for what he called the world’s one great myth, the monomyth, known as the hero’s journey. Here are some of the insights I learned from his book, The Hero’s Journey.

The Definition of a Myth

Throughout the book Campbell defines a myth as a metaphor transparent to transcendence.

That’s a tricky little phrase to think about. It took me a while to figure out what he meant by that.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

Transparent means “easily seen through or readily understood.”

Transcendence means “extending beyond the limits of ordinary experience, or being beyond comprehension.”

Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. A myth is a metaphor. It’s not a story about something that really happened. It’s also not a lie. It’s a metaphor that clearly leads us into ideas that are beyond the limits of ordinary experience, even beyond are comprehension.

Another definition of mythology is on Page 135 where he wrote, “A mythology is an organization of symbolic narratives and images that are metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time.”

Campbell wrote (On page 176): “I was hoping when I was writing to give people the key to the realm of the muses, which is where myth is.” He pointed out that this is where our imaginations live, in the realm of the muses.

The Definition of the Collective Unconscious

Joe Campbell spent a lot of time studying the work of Carl Jung. Jung taught that there are three parts to our psyche: consciousness (what we are aware of), personal unconscious (personal memories that we have forgotten or repressed), and the collective unconscious (beliefs and ideas that are a part of every person, or most every person, and that show up in the form of archetypal impulses within us that drive us to certain behaviors).

Campbell spent his life studying myths and archetypes, and he came to the realization that all the myths were really the same metaphor, what he called the monomyth. He described this common myth that influences all of us in an unconscious way The Hero’s Journey. In other words, all of us are called within the unconscious part of our minds to be within this metaphor that is transparent to transcendence. Within the unconscious part of our minds we are all on the Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey consists of a call to adventure to some meaningful purpose followed by many tests and trials that ultimately lead us to learn something meaningful, which we can bring back to other people as something of value for them.

The Definition of Bliss

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote is, “Follow your bliss.” On page 214, he wrote, “By bliss I mean the deep sense of being in it, and doing what the push is out of your own existence – it may not be fun, but it’s your bliss and there’s bliss behind pain, too.”

What is that aspect of life that you can throw yourself into with complete abandonment? What is your bliss? Mine is working with people to help them achieve whatever they want to achieve. From my perspective, that includes family members, people I meet in voluntary efforts or in community projects, and clients I interact with in my work.

The Definition of a Hero

On page 64, Campbell wrote, “A hero is the personification of a culture’s mythology.”

I define culture as what a group of people believe is so important that it drives their behaviors. Therefore, a hero to that group is the person who personifies the beliefs they feel are tremendously important. Martin Luther King, Jr. personifies righteousness and justice and fairness for all people. He has become a hero in our culture.

Think about the people you consider to be heroes. Now think about what they do. Do they personify what you consider to be important? Didn’t they go on a journey to become the person who could personify what you consider to be important? Do you see that unconsciously The Hero’s Journey stirred within them by a call to adventure filled with difficult challenges and the person went on the journey and came back with real value for other people?


Notice that Marty Seligman and Joe Campbell helped people to live positive, fulfilling lives in two different ways. Seligman’s approach was derived from earlier thinkers like Tim Beck and was based on individuals consciously taking control of their thoughts, and Campbell’s approach was derived from Carl Jung and was based on individuals listening to the collective unconscious within them that drives them on to meaningful lives.

Republishing Articles

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