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Wise Counsel Interview Transcript: An Interview with John Drimmer Psy.D. on Positive Psychology

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

This transcript comes from our first ever Wise Counsel podcast, which occurred on February 12, 2007, with Dr. John Drimmer.

Historically, psychology and psychotherapy have focused on understanding and fixing negative states of being, such as mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Little energy was ever devoted towards helping people understand how to avoid such negative states in the first place, or, for that matter, how to enhance one's normal life experience so as to become a happier, more fulfilled person.

Recently, a new movement within psychology has turned it sights towards understanding the positive aspects of human experience; those behaviors and beliefs that help people to thrive through adverse circumstances and to live life to their fullest capacities
In this podcast, Dr. Drimmer, Psy.D., describes how learning how to cultivate happiness and optimism can dramatically impact your life for the better.

Dr. Drimmer has distinguished himself as one of the new leaders of the field of Positive Psychology. A born and bred New Yorker, he's been teaching at UCLA's Medical School and has founded the Positive Psychology Center of California. He comes to this work with a really unusual background. Dr. John Drimmer spent three decades making film and television programs. All that time he's been an avid student of the human drama. He was a producer for 60 Minutes, helped found The History Channel and executive produced programs for The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and The Learning Channel. He's also written Hollywood movies including Iceman. He also is a winner of the DuPont-Columbia Award.

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Dr. David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by CenterSite LLC, covering topics on mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host. On today's show, we'll be talking about positive psychology with my guest, Dr. John Drimmer, who has distinguished himself as one of the new leaders of the field of positive psychology. He's been teaching at UCLA's Medical School and has founded the Positive Psychology Center of California. He comes to this work with a really unusual background. Dr. John Drimmer spent three decades making film and television programs in Hollywood. All that time, he's been a close student of the human drama and human psychology. His shows are seen far and wide. He was a producer for "60 Minutes", helped found the History Channel, and executive-produced hundreds of programs for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the Learning Channel, and A & E. He's also written Hollywood movies including "Ice Man", which was produced by Universal. He's a winner of the DuPont Columbia award and the Genesis award, the Aurora award, and the National Telly award. In addition to all this, he's writing a book about how adults find meaning in their lives. Now let's go to the interview.

Doctor John Drimmer, welcome to the podcast!


John Drimmer: Hi there, Dr. Dave.

David: You are my first guest on Wise Counsel, and I'm so happy to have you here. You've got a really unique life story, and so I wonder if you would share that with our listeners here. How did you become interested in positive psychology, which is our focus today?

John: Well, I was always interested in psychology, but there always to me seemed to be something missing. I started life as a documentary filmmaker, and by the time I was in my twenties, I was a producer at "60 Minutes", and at PBS, and I was making films, Dave, about remarkable people. About people facing extraordinary challenges. Most of them were not rich, not famous, but completely remarkable. And time and again, I saw that what enabled them to succeed was when they were able to tap into deep currents in themselves: currents of strength, of resilience, of connection to others, and of the larger purpose that they were living for.

And psychology didn't know how to bottle this, and wasn't really very concerned with this, nourishing it, stimulating it, growing it in people. And the larger questions of happiness and hope weren't really dealt with directly by psychology. And I was convinced that these questions were deeply important.

Now, it turns out, I wasn't alone, although initially I didn't know it, and I found that there was a small cadre of some of the world's best psychologists working in this area, and they were calling it positive psychology. And they understood exactly what I understood, and they cared about the same things I cared about.

David: That must have been really exciting for you to discover that you weren't alone in this disappointment that you had with traditional psychology and its pre-occupation with psychopathology. It must have been very exciting for you to discover that there were other people on the same track who are interested in human strengths and the positive side of human nature.

John: Enormous. Psychology without an emphasis on the fulfillment on our deep, human desire to grow and flourish is limited. So, I've thrown myself into this work. I founded the Positive Psychology Center of California last year, and have established a bulkhead for positive psych here in California, where it's largely unknown.

David: OK, you really have thrown yourself into it by starting a center. Well, tell us a bit more about what positive psychology is, because, as you've indicated, it's a field that's broader than just the center that you've started. So how big a movement is this, and how is it defined?

John: It's large and growing. How it's defined -- I'll give you the four-word definition, and then I'll sort of unfold it a little bit. The four-word definition is: What's right with people. Positive Psychology is about helping us with fully and joyfully and not-happy-ology. It's about how do we grow from life's challenges, whatever our circumstances.

One really useful catchphrase that was developed by Marty Seligman, the professor at Penn who was primarily the founder of Positive Psychology, is that conventional psychology is concerned with taking people from minus 10, a state of upset, distress, to neutral. That's a success. Getting people to neutral.

David: OK.

John: And contemporary psychology largely left out that whole unknown frontier that lies beyond neutral: to take people from neutral to plus-ten.

David: Yes.

John: Another very important thing about this movement is there's a large emphasis in our work on research. On not just going off willy-nilly, the way everybody in the self-help section of the bookstore, the way every self-styled guru does. Anybody who says, "I've figured it out and I'm going to tell you how to do it".

David: Right.

John: There's a very large and growing base of scientific research we're doing into this work.

David: OK. Yes, I know that Marty Seligman certainly is a name I recognize from my own graduate-school days in psychology, and I know that he did very important research on learned helplessness and then later on optimism. I know that he has a very strong commitment to making psychology as research-based as possible.

John: Exactly. And you just hit on something in what you said. He spent 20 years studying learned hopelessness, studying really the root cause of depression. In a way, what he's doing now is a counter, a correction, to the whole first part of his professional life.

David: Interesting.

John: Not that that doesn't matter. Of course it matters. It's very, very important that we understand how to help people who are in difficult situations. It's just - it isn't all there is.

David: I gather that you mentioned that it is a growing movement, and I'm aware that he was able to gather prize money for the best research in positive psychology. I believe there was a 100,000 dollar prize for several years to be awarded to top researchers to move this field ahead - to get it planted and to move it ahead.

John: Yeah, that's exactly right. The Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia. So the field is growing at an enormous pace now. If you went to Harvard University, the largest undergraduate course, I believe, ever offered is a course in positive psychology, and they have 832 at last count, if I remember right.

David: Fascinating.

John: Yeah, one out of every five undergraduates takes the class. And yet, if you came from many, many universities around the country, you wouldn't find one single class in it.

David: Well, that's the case now. Maybe that's going to change. So is positive psychology - would you say it's new, or is it an old idea that's been rediscovered, in some way?

John: It's not new. Buddha in a way was the first positive psychologist, but it has been rediscovered and reformulated. Let me just give you a little three minute - I hope it's only three minutes - through Bill and Ted's incredible adventure through the history of happiness.

David: Right.


John: So, Aristotle, more than 2000 years ago, he was asking himself what happiness was about, and he concluded that most of the things we think we really want - fame, wealth, prestige, power, beautiful house - are really just about making us happier. So Aristotle was one of the first people we know who said that when he liked at all life, happiness seems to be the ultimate goal of our lives; the kind of root desire that lies kind of nested in all those other things we spend our lives chasing after. And then you move forward, let's roll forward another 1500 years or so, and we now have the establishment of the world's major religions. And they're very concerned with happiness, but in their world, happiness is something that's mostly dispensed by God. And happiness can only be won if we follow some sort of ethical code. And the trouble is, quite often the reward only comes when you're gone. Right? That's when you really attain happiness.

And then you move forward another 500 years, and then we get to the founding of our country, the United States, and Thomas Jefferson. And he believed happiness was so important that he enshrined it into the founding document of the United States. It says we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And for him, democracy was going to be the way to help people get happiness. But still people weren't really as happy as they wanted to be. And then you have the Industrial Revolution. This is really the big one, because if you'd told anybody in 1840, let's say, that you and I and everybody listening to us would be living in a world in which we enjoy.... You know, unemployment is at 6% and people own homes, and education's free, and we get in planes and we take flights to the sun, and we have central heating. They would have said, "My god, people are going to be so happy!"

David: Yeah.

John: And yet they would have been wrong, Dave. Because what we know now from research is that in the 21st century, we're less happy than our grandparents' generation. There's more depression and there's more suicide, and this is something we yearn for. I believe that if we want to see the improvement of society and individuals, we have to really take this very seriously.

David: Now, does research actually show that people were happier in the past than they are now?

John: Yes, it absolutely does, at least for the amount of time we have. We have research going back around 80 years or so. And in real dollars, our incomes have increased about 2.5 times. So one of the things that's happening here, and I think one of the reasons this is really coming of age now, is I think it's becoming clear to people that money is not the solution.

I mean, if you talked to my parents, I think they would have believed that money would have solved it. But now we have so many people who are educated, and so many people who are firmly in the middle class, and still there's a sense of yearning for more than what we have.

David: Yes and I--

John: And that's about--

David: I've read some of that research literature about positive psychology in which they have actually studied the relationship between money and happiness internationally and...

John: Yeah, yeah.

David: And they find that there's very little correlation, except at the low end. I mean once people have a roof over their head and food in their bellies and clothing, once those things are taken care of, there's very little, if any, increase in happiness as income goes up.

John: Exactly, it's extraordinary.

David: And yet, we seem to have trouble really taking that in. We continue to believe somehow that money is what can make it all great.

John: Exactly. It's so profoundly counter-intuitive...that is very hard to absorb. I could give you an even more extraordinary sub-example. I'll do it, but one's wheels still spin. That example is that they interviewed the 50 richest people in the United States, and they found that their level of happiness is just incrementally, by the tiniest, tiniest little sliver, greater than people of modest means.

David: Amazing. Extraordinary. And then, of course, too, there are these studies of people who have won the lottery and often it's the ruin of their life, rather than making it.

John: Yeah. Or the larger point of the studies is that one usually returns to the original level of happiness. In some of those stories, the people just don't know how to manage their lives and everything goes to hell in a hand basket, doesn't it?

David: Yeah.

John: Would you like me to tell you some more about research support for Positive Psychology?

David: Definitely.

John: OK. I'm just going to give you some three or four of the foundational research insights that under gird this work I'm doing and all the other people in the field are doing.

Number one: negative emotions can be harmful to your health, and they might even shorten your lifespan. We already know that a negative person can ruin a workplace, but negative emotions can destroy relationships, families, and careers. That seems like common sense. But in contrast, recent discoveries tell us that positive emotions are an essential daily requirement for survival. Not only do they improve your physical and mental health, but they can also provide a buffer against physical and mental illness.

David: Yes.

John: So the people who are reasonably happy are healthier, they're more successful, in work and school and sports, and they have better relationships with other people. This doesn't mean people go around with a smile on their face all the time. We're going to talk about in a moment, what a kind of a larger, more mature definition of happiness is.

We have done multiple research projects in which we ran happiness-increase experiments. And they are published in peer-reviewed journals. They've empirically demonstrated that we can train people to be happier in various training programs in from two to 10 weeks. Then the next question is how sustainable are those gains?

David: Yes.

John: The answer is somewhat, but of course we have to match the practice with the person, so it's something that really works for them and they want to keep doing it. But we can train people; we can light this candle inside of people.

There's also a neuroscience component to it, which is that we've been studying the effects on neuropathies, on cognitive function, and we're finding that we're actually producing measurable changes in the way human biology works because of these experiments and training procedures that people are taking part in.

David: Now, I think on another occasion I heard you say something about the three pillars of positive psychology. What are those three pillars?

John: OK. When we talk about happiness, let's talk about what it is. Because "happiness", in English, is a word that feels a little shallow. So one way to think of it is to think of happiness or let's call it the well lived life, as a temple that is held up by three pillars. Pillar one is what we call the pleasant life that means having a life that has pleasures and joys in it. Pleasures that are sometimes what are called hedonic pleasures, which means simple pleasures like having a wonderful meal, having a warm loving relationship with someone who touches your back, having a dog like Simon who is sitting at my feet who I can rub my hand through his fur. Those are part of the pleasant life and those are a very important part of happiness. Pillar two, we call this the engaged life, and this means being able to utilize your strengths, what you naturally care about and are good at, in a way that is productive. That is very, very important, and it's one of the essentials of living a well life.

The third part is what I often think of as the largest and most of use, and that is meaning, which means finding a larger purpose for your life; something that you are living for the sake of, something that is going to be here after you are gone. Think of it as a tree that you are going to plant that is going to be left after you are not here to provide other people with nourishment, shade, sustenance.

OK, so three pillars. You don't need all of them all the time in the same measure. So, for instance, you can think of somebody like Mother Teresa, working in the streets of Calcutta - probably not a lot of pleasure, probably a great deal of sense of purpose, and a lot of sense of engagement. So, did she live a well-lived life? Most of us would say yes, she probably would have.

But then let's think of the reverse. Let's think of somebody who's just living in a world of pleasure, somebody who's engaging all of her or his sensual desires all the time. Is that a well-lived life? Well, certainly pleasurable for awhile, but my hunch is, and the people I've known like that, have told me that it all gets old and runs down, and they say, What am I living for?

The proportion shifts during a life, but they're very important. One of the things positive psychology does is it looks at an individual's life and it says, "OK, how can we grow your ability to enrich your experience in these three different areas?"

David: OK. So let's see if we can bring this into the consulting room. The person who comes for psychotherapy or for counseling -- what would a Positive Psychologist do that would be different, say, than some other kind of therapist or counselor?

John: I'll start by telling you what she or he wouldn't do, OK?

David: OK.

John: What we wouldn't do is, we wouldn't spend an enormous amount of time talking about your past. Of course, a great deal of therapy is done, still, in this day and age, is what's called psychodynamic therapy, which is very focused on your past, because the understanding is that your past shapes your present. And while that's true, and it's important to understand from a positive psychologist's perspective--although I shouldn't speak for everybody--from my perspective, it's important to understand because it enables you to bring compassion and insight to your own life and how you got there.

We would look very much at the here and now, and how you want to shape the future. So we would look at these three different areas: At the pleasure in your life, at the engagement in your life, and the meaning in your life, and look to see how we could enlarge them. And there are specific techniques we work with, and I'm happy to discuss those, or me to discuss them, with the caveat that if someone comes in and is, let's say, depressed, part of my job, or anyone's job who wants to help that person, is to be there for them, to hear it, to listen to it, to find out what the triggers are that are keeping the depression in place, and to correct those; not just to move past it, to talk about, "How can we expand your pleasure and engage you in a meaning?"

However, what I've found with a lot of patients who are in distress is that to help them grow their well-being helps move them out of their depression. Much like the way the technique for people who are trying to float ships that have sunk to the bottom of the ground, like somebody who's depressed, is they sink these great big heavy duty rubber balloons underneath the ship and they pump them full of air and the ship rises to the surface.

David: Mm-hmm. So I think the foundation of positive psychology is hope.

John: So in other words, hope and other positive emotions would be like the air in the balloon that..

David: Absolutely.

John: ...makes it lighter and brings the boat to the surface; brings person back to life so to speak.

David: That's right. You want them bobbing up above the water.

John: Yes. So I've seen positive psychology redirect a suicidal graduate student into a life of purpose and I've seen it help a man who was stuck in a job that he felt was consuming his life, 18 hours a day, crushing him. I've been able to use this approach to help people like that become a beacon for change in the organization he worked in.

It's very interesting. It was couples. I've seen it transform the impact they have on each other. Many, many very good couples - people who've been together for quite a while - have a tendency to share their problems with each other and not to share their strengths, or victories, or the small, little moments that light up a life. There's a wonderful, wonderful exercise that there's a lot of research on called either The Three Good Things or The Three Blessings Exercise that I've used with couples and with individuals. I've used in teaching the med students at UCLA. It has a special way for the couple. And the exercise is as follows: You ask people at the end of each day to reflect back on their day and write down three blessings or good things that happened to them during the day that weren't necessarily planned. And they could be very small little things, but something that made them feel good, and made their lives sparkle.

And we find that after about 20 to 26 days of doing this, people get hooked on doing it. It just feels so good and makes life feel, in some small but significant way, better. And the application with couples is that often couples, as they're lying down in bed at the end of the day, trade them with each other. It's a wonderful way to end the day.

David: Sure, sounds like it.

John: And I knew a woman who was in a group I led who did it with her son until he became a teenager, at which point he told her, "Ma, leave me alone." [laughter]

David: OK. What are some of the other techniques? For example, you mentioned the suicidal graduate student, and you mentioned the guy in the corporate environment who was very depressed, who ended up really contributing to the corporation. What sorts of approaches were used in those two examples?

John: Well, let me talk to you about engagement, because, in a way, I have not mentioned what may be the fulcrum, or the most important part, of positive psychology.

David: OK.

John: And here it is: Most of us are almost entirely unaware of what's really strong and important and essential about us. What's really viable about us and what we really have to offer in this world? Our culture is so interested in our weaknesses; you know we all operate kind of from the idea that if we correct our weaknesses we will become strong and powerful and effective and it really does not work that way. The way it works is that if you increase and expand the way you use your strengths that is when life really begins to blossom and burst into Technicolor. One of the things Chris Peterson and Marty Sullingmen did about fifteen years ago, they went around and they researchers go around the world, and they looked at many, many, cultures around the world to see what the universal human strengths were that show up in different people at different levels. They found that they broke down into six large areas. The six areas being wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance, and transcendence that is the spiritual one. They'd write down other smaller ones inside the larger categories. Chris Peterson and Marty Feldman developed a test that is online that anyone can take, and will help them clarify what their strengths are, what their core strengths are. Although another way I love doing this is simply asking your six best friends to reflect them back to you.

And then the technique we use is to ask people to find a new and larger ways to use those strengths. So that's a very important one. Another very important one is asking people to reflect on what their deeper purpose in their life is, what really matters to them, what the larger purpose is that they want to serve. And this is among the most interesting work I think anybody can do with another person, because at this level we're sharing what's most precious.

And I've got to say quickly that if people are listening and saying, "Gee, I'm not sure I know the answer to that," that's fine. That's sort of as it usually is, and especially men, if you'll forgive me, fellow men of the world, aren't oriented to thinking about this. But it's a wonderful, important calling to offer to people.

And then, once they've connected with that, and often it's sort of like a lantern that isn't so bright, but once they've connected with it, then what we begin to do is we begin to think about, "Oh, how can I create this in my life? How can I create ways to live this in my life? How can I create ways to live this in my life? Another hallmark of what makes people really feel good is creating different kinds of goals for people. Goals that are far away, a big goal, a goal on the horizon, and goals that are proximal, that come nearer, that closer that are more doable, and can be done in two months or a year. One of the things positive psychologists have determined is that, that is an essential for people to feel like they are living well is that they are working on both of those levels and have those different kinds of benchmarks.

David: OK, now you have developed the positive center of California. What is it that you hope to accomplish through your center?

John: Well, yeah it is called the positive psychology center in California, and we have the four major initiatives, the way I see it at this moment--and I'm sure it's going to change--but one is to provide individuals with positive psychotherapy, which is psychotherapy built around the kinds of things we've been talking about.

And then two is we're starting to offer growth groups to help people with career change, and with couples issues, and with parenting, and with other things people are concerned about. We're doing organizational consulting. Positive consulting has a large application in organizations, and I don't just mean corporations. And then the fourth, and this is very, very important to me, is we're creating positive change networks.

What do I mean? What I mean is that positive psychology, unlike most other forms of clinical psychotherapy, has very large applicability to the outside world. And it unifies and cuts across the boundaries that normally separate people who are trying to cure and educate and mobilize and inspire. So we're just now in the planning stages for a colloquium we're going to hold later in the summer, in which we're going to bring together leaders from education and health care and the corporate world and faith-based groups and youth services to talk together about how we're all already starting to use these principles of "back to where I started", helping people connect to these deep channels of strength and purpose and hope, and how we can work together, because if we do, we're going to create a better, stronger world for us all. And that's ultimately the goal, because happiness or well-being isn't something that happens to us alone separate from our relationship to the world around us, partly the world we live in and our relationship to it.

David: What if one or more of our listeners wanted to find a practitioner of the positive psychology approach somewhere near where they live. How would they go about that?

John: Well, that's a good question. I think what they should do is, they could contact me and I would then post to a professional listserv we have that has a lot of people - it's the primary positive psychology professional listserv. Honest, I can't think of anything better. There is no unified listing at this point that I know of. So our website is

David: Is that website up now?

John: That website is being put up. [laughs] We'll have something up by the time this is on, I promise.

David: OK. [laughs]

John: It's turned into a big job to get it up, you know.

David: Yeah.

John: I think you said you were interested in talking about my theory of change.

David: Right.

John: I've thought a lot about this. I think we move in the direction of what we most deeply nurture and ask questions about. I think the single-most important thing human beings can do to seed or craft our connection to a universe of infinite capacity for positive growth is to connect with what I call our "positive change core." That's my theory of change is that you need to help somebody connect to their positive change core. Each of those ties are rich store of untapped and inspiring accounts of the positive, the things that have happened to us that we are not evaluating or paying attention to or are aware of. When we link the energy of this core directly to what we want to create to the changes we want to embody to the dreams we want to realize, things you never thought possible, immobilized.

David: Let me see if I can summarize what you've been saying and you can tell me if I'm on track or clarify it. I'm really intrigued by this last point that you make. It sounds like each of us has an inner core that really wants to grow and has the potential to grow. Also I hear you saying that we each have strengths that we tend to ignore, and that in positive psychology you would nurture those strengths, call attention to those strengths, and help a person to identify and develop those strengths. And rather than focusing on a "fix-it" mentality, to focus on what's broken and what's not working, you would rather focus on those strengths.

And also I heard you talk about the importance of purpose, of finding one's deeper purpose. And it sounded like the goal setting, both short-term and long-term goals, might help a person to move toward that sense of purpose.

John: Enormous. You just said it really well! My hat's off to you!

David: It helps to be able to sit back and listen and integrate and not have to be the person that's saying it.

John: Yes, Hope is the magic element. Change; there is no positive change without hope. That's part of what we're creating, is hope and a way to start it rolling, and gets it going, and brings it into the world so that one's life continues growing.

David: You know, a lot of this almost sounds like.... I don't know how to say this, but there's a kind of spiritual quality. I mean, it seems to have a lot of the elements that would come through the great religious and spiritual traditions of the past. But somehow it coalesces it in a non-religious way.

John: Absolutely. I entirely agree with you. It is spirit at its best.

David: Yes. Actually, you mentioned that you had a story about faith and belief and so on that you want to call us with.

John: Yeah, this is a story that comes from a much deeper place, really. In one of the Indiana Jones movies, Indy is poised right at the end of the film, it's kind of built to a desperate moment, and he's standing at the edge of the chasm, and then on the other side of the chasm is the Holy Grail, which he's got to get to. It represents the source of all human value, and the treasure we seek most. And we've got to get to it.

But there's no way across, and the bad guys are after him, and his dad, who's played by Sean Connery, is right next to him, and Sean Connery doesn't know what to do, and Indiana Jones doesn't know what to do, and he pulls out this old, parched, yellowed, scraggly piece of parchment, and he looks at it, and there's a picture of a guy walking across the chasm, but there's no bridge there. And he turns to Sean Connery and says This must be a leap of faith. And he steps out over the chasm and as he does a slat on the rope bridge appears, as he takes another step another slat appears. To me this is a story about how what we look for, we find. We want to look.

David: And also a story about courage, that we have to have the courage to take those steps even when we can not see quite how we are going to make it to the other side.

John: That is exactly right. The only thing I would add is that part of courage is being afraid and that is fine and moving forward anyway.

David: Wonderful, wonderful. Well John, I want to thank you so much for being our guest today.

John: You're welcome, it has been really, really fun and I encourage people to email me or contact me through the website.

David: Did you want to give your email address?

John: Yeah. My email address is

David: OK. Well, once again, Doctor Johnny, thanks so much for being our guest here on Wise Counsel.

John: Terrific, Dave. Good luck with the show.


David: I hope you enjoyed this interview with my guest, Dr. John Drimmer. If you're interested in additional information about positive psychology, an Internet search will turn up lots of information. In particular, I would recommend you explore Dr. Martin Seligman's site at There you will find not only numerous articles and links to other positive psychology sites, but also a variety of questionnaires which will allow you to assess your own core strengths. You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to "Wise Counsel."