The Good Life: Should This Man Be Smiling?

Martin Seligman was a grouch. Then he invented “the science of happiness”

Are you happy, Marty?

The Marty in question is Martin E.P. Seligman, who, in this winter week in question, might just be the best-known psychologist in America, if you don’t count Dr. Phil. Arriving back home in Wynnewood after a long holiday in the Bahamas, Seligman was greeted by a Time magazine cover story devoted to the movement he started seven years ago — Positive Psychology, the putative science of happiness. Virtually before he’d unpacked, he was whisked off to New York, where he was interviewed by Charlie Rose for a television show that would spread the word on Positive Psych deeper into America’s far-flung middle-to-high-brow, PBS-watching, news-magazine-reading population.

Rose had fixed those baggy droopy lizardy eyes on Seligman and posed the question. Here’s a guy who’s got degrees from Prince-ton and Penn. He’s been funded through 40 years of psychological work that ranged from giving nasty shocks to laboratory dogs to listening to pampered matrons who felt sad and empty. He’s the 62-year-old tenured owner of an endowed professor’s chair and the directorship of a well-funded research center at Penn. He’s written a raft of books, including a couple of best-sellers. With all that to his credit, he still needs one last crucial credential. If Dr. Seligman is going to claim that he’s discovered the keys to a happy life, he’s going to have to serve as his own poster child.

So, are you happy, Marty?

“Wow, that’s a good steak! One of the best I’ve ever had.” Tonight, Marty Seligman is tucked into the corner of the front room of Barclay Prime, folded behind a low, round table, and, at the moment, looking quite pleased with everything. It’s a few days after the Charlie Rose Show appearance. (Of course he told Charlie he was happy, though Seligman thought the show was “kind of inane. His usual show I find intellectually interesting. This was at the Oprah level.”)

The professor is dressed casually, sweater over a t-shirt and cargo pants. It could be a small problem at this new restaurant, which is working hard to be a sleek and posh ­expense-account joint. The gorgeous hostess probably doesn’t recognize him from TV. He is a squat man with an unassuming look. If you were casting an actor to play him, Paul Giamatti would be a decent choice, but Wallace Shawn might be better. Still, there is something about Seligman’s presence, his low, bag-of-gravel voice (not to mention the authentic winter tan), that says, “He must be somebody.”

“We don’t have a reservation,” Seligman declares in a Kissinger-like basso, “but we’d like a quiet table.”

And so we are seated without a reservation at a quiet table. Seligman orders a cocktail of shrimp that arrive nearly the size of footballs. He’s asked for the brand-name boutique-farm rib-eye steak and narrowed his wine pick to pinot noirs from Oregon and taken the sommelier’s suggestion and is perfectly content with the results. Ah, this is the happy life indeed.