Key Points:

It's enough to make you want to overdose on Prozac. If I hear one more person, ever, refer to the glass being half bloody full, I swear I will empty the said vessel over their head.

For some reason, middle managers seem to be the worst offenders. Yet analogies about optimism endure and they endure for a reason. We all want to be happy. Well, most of us, anyway. And in business, happy workers are not only desirable, they are essential to future success. As we all know, a happy worker is a more productive worker - or in other words, a more profitable one.

But how on earth do you make people happy at work? Many businesses seem to think it has a lot to do with perks but, according to a renowned American psychologist, it could be a lot simpler - and cheaper - than that.

Professor Martin Seligman is no half-baked academic looking to flog a book. Although based at the University of Pennsylvania, the father of seven travels frequently - usually with his younger children, who are home schooled, in tow.

He is currently visiting Geelong Grammar School in Australia, where he is working with staff and pupils to develop qualities like resilience and, next week, he will visit New Zealand as a guest of the Government's Leadership Development Centre and the Foresight Institute.

In Auckland, he will hold a private seminar for Fletcher Building executives and will give a public lecture, called Positive Psychology and Happiness at Work, followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. He will also give a public seminar in Wellington.

According to his Wikipedia entry, he is one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century (yes, there is a notation to back up this claim), well known for his work on "learned helplessness" and, more recently, for his research into what is known as positive psychology.

That might sound like an oxymoron and, around a decade ago, Seligman would have agreed with you. As then-president of the American Psychological Association, he concluded that psychologists had done a pretty good job of cornering the market in suffering. What they hadn't done so well was figure out how to make life worth living.

"It became my mission then to complement psychology as usual - the psychology of the disabling conditions of life - with a new psychology of how to build the enabling conditions of life."

The recipe for happiness is simple, he believes, and involves three different ingredients: positive emotion, engagement and meaning. One way of achieving these is to carry out practical exercises which ensure they become part of your life.

Much of his latest research is carried out through his website,, which invites the public to take part in particular exercises and give feedback on what works and what doesn't.

From the Buddha to present-day pop psychology, there have been between 100 to 200 suggestions of what makes people lastingly happier, he notes. "Most of these are just boosterism. What I try to do is extract the active ingredients and run random-assignment placebo-controlled tests on the different exercises and find which ones work and how long they work for."

As it turns, there are about 18 of them. The exercises may seem somewhat obvious and commonsensical, yet what is surprising is how often they are overlooked in people's lives.

In a Time magazine cover story two years ago, Seligman explained that the single most effective way to turbocharge your joy is to make a "gratitude visit". That means writing a thank-you note to someone to whom you owe a debt of gratitude and then visiting that person to read him or her the letter of appreciation.

Apparently, people who do this just once are measurably happier and less depressed a month later. But the effect is gone by three months.

Less powerful but more lasting is an exercise he calls "three blessings" - taking time each day to write down a trio of things that went well and why. "People are less depressed and happier three months later and six months later," Seligman told Time.

His strongest recommendation for lasting happiness is to figure out your strengths and find new ways to deploy them. Interestingly, he has discovered that cerebral virtues such as curiosity and love of learning are less strongly tied to happiness than interpersonal virtues like kindness, gratitude and capacity for love.

But how can all of this boost profits?

Seligman is the first to admit he is no expert in business coaching. While his techniques have been used by some large corporates, such as Metropolitan Life, he admits his usual collaborators are in the educational and mental health sectors.

However, his simple philosophy is that what works at home and at school should also work at work.

"My view is that if the business is growing, then exactly the kind of interventions that we find increase meaning, engagement and positive emotion, can quite easily be transferred to corporate life. When I talk about the 18 different exercises that work, my message is that these are things you can do virtually for free in corporate life."

And if your business isn't growing?

"My general view is that within either a life, or raising children, or a corporation, or a nation, when you're in trouble, that trouble is generally about negative emotions. When you're in trouble, you want to be the master of sadness or anger. The negative emotions, that's about performance management traditionally in business, whereas if your concern in your own life, or with your children, or at school, is growth, then I think that's when the positive emotions and engagement and meaning really matter."

Certainly, the Foresight Institute, a human resources consulting firm which has been applying his techniques in New Zealand for almost 15 years, could not agree more.

According to the institute's director, Jamie Ford, more than 1000 studies using Seligman's methodology prove beyond doubt the link between optimism and superior performance in many aspects of life, including academic achievement, sales productivity, resilience to adversity, the strength of the immune system and even cancer survival rates.

Ford is not exactly the first person to note that what might be holding New Zealand back is our innate pessimism.

"That affects not just how we feel, but how we perform - whether we win sporting trophies, whether we improve our economic condition or watch it slide."

Fortunately, Seligman is used to working with grumps and he finds it hard to believe we can be any more dour than the Scots.

"I spend quite a lot of time working on these things in places like the UK, and you Kiwis may grumble a lot but you don't grumble as much as the Scots. And these are quite effective techniques within Scotland."

But given the serious economic issues facing the world right now, isn't it a little fatuous to suggest we should be talking ourselves out of the supersized funk we seem to have sunk into in recent months? Or is it true, as real estate agents like to contend, that we Kiwis - and the media in particular - excel at creating self-fulfilling prophecies?

When pessimism is realistic, says Seligman, it is doing its job. When it's unrealistic, a technique known as "learned optimism" can help. The technique basically trains people to recognise catastrophic thoughts and marshall efforts against them.

The main way in which pessimism works is people stop trying, he says. Therefore, pessimism undermines innovation.

"What pessimism does is promote helplessness and what optimism does is it gets people trying harder even in the face of adversity. When it's overcomeable, optimism matters."

Scotland, as it happens, is a very good example of this, he says.

"The Scottish view is this 'cannae do' attitude, which is endemic in Scotland and part of the reason that Scots do so well when they emigrate. So I think there's a lot to be said for having a dour view but bringing it into line with reality and using optimism and positive psychology when and where it's appropriate."

Sound familiar? It almost certainly will to those who traipse along to his public lecture in Auckland.

Seligman intends opening the talk by giving his audience five good reasons why they should leave immediately.

"I'll try to go through the best arguments I can about why we shouldn't waste our time on happiness. And then I'll go through the arguments about why we should. I think there's a lot to be said about 'no happiness, please, we're from New Zealand'. But I think on balance the evidence is that happy people get depressed less, they're more productive in work, and they live longer."

His message to Fletcher Building executives will be much the same.

"There is something new under the sun, there is the science of positive psychology. There are exercises that reliably show people how they can have more positive emotion, more engagement and more meaning. And there's good evidence within the corporate literature that people who have more engagement and more meaning on the job do better. QED: that if you do these exercises in your corporation that should produce more meaning, more engagement and more positive emotion and, therefore, a better bottom line."

However, there is, of course, a little twist in Seligman's tale when it comes to that bottom line.

While happy workers might make more money, more money is not necessarily going to make anyone happy, he concedes.

It is astonishing that during the past 50 years - and this is true of dour countries like New Zealand as well as cheery ones like Australia and the United States - every economic statistic is better and yet there is 10 times as much depression.

"People by and large are not any happier. The great question is what is going on here?"

One of the possibilities is that we have squandered our wealth on material objects, all of which are like French vanilla ice cream - "really great, but by the seventh taste is just cardboard."

We may also, he contends, have squandered a fair bit of our moolah on anti-depressants that won't, in fact, cure our depression.

The recent Hull University study, which caused headlines around the world this year by claiming that popular pills such as Prozac (now known as Fluox) appear to work for only the most severely clinically depressed patients, was old news to Seligman.

Around 10 years ago, he recalls, he edited the journal that first published the results on which the FDA approval of modern anti-depressants was based. His own view is that the effects of anti-depressant drugs as a placebo are "mild to moderate".

"The anti-depressants, when you take all the studies into account, produce about 65 per cent relief, versus about 50 per cent relief in placebos. So these things are mildly useful but certainly not the answer to the epidemic of depression."

According to Wikipedia, he is a very talented bridge player. What it does not mention, however, is that contrary to what you might think, he is a self-confessed pessimist.

"I'm a born pessimist and I think only pessimists can do serious work on optimism," he chortles.

Maybe there is some hope for us grumpy journalists yet.

Tickets for the Auckland seminar on April 22 are available through Ticketek.