It’s hard to approach an entire field of study in a blog post, and positive psychology is no exception. I hope that over time and multiple posts I can clarify why I find some of its assumptions so disturbing, even though I no doubt attempt to put many of their recommendations into practice myself. It’s practically unavoidable since positive psychology has become so pervasive in our culture in recent years.
However, one thing that happens with any kind of popularizing movement for complex theories is that the ideas get oversimplified, often even dumbed down, denuded of any kind of subtlety that might make them useful. In fact, in the hands of popularizers, such theories often become tools for brow-beating non-adherents and take on cult-like tones.
Martin Seligman, credited with being the founder of positive psychology and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, started publishing about optimism in the early 1990s. It seems that he grew tired of treating depression and wanted instead to prevent it. In 2002, he published Authentic Happiness, which became a bestseller and rallying cry for the growing minions of positive psychology followers. He still maintains a website with that title that claims “almost 1,975,000 users from around the world.”
Nonetheless, a recent New York Times article now quotes Seligman as saying he regrets this title and is ameliorating his stance on happiness somewhat. I could be completely cynical about this development. For one thing, Seligman has titled his new book Flourish, which seems just as potentially brow-beating as “authentic happiness.” For another, he has a new acronym that seems designed for the over-simplifying satisfaction of the minions. PERMA stands for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Some of this has clearly been developed in response to critics of positive psychology who noted that people don’t always behave in ways to achieve happiness and that happiness isn’t the only good.
One of the things about positive psychology that has always bothered me is that it seems to abandon the ill and the poor. It has been much celebrated for moving away from the treatment of pathological conditions to an embrace of higher fulfillment. This is all well and good for neurotic upper-middle-class and well-off people (of which I am admittedly one, too), but it turns its back on a whole host of people who really need help. That Seligman chose to focus his practice on those with the best health insurance and the flushest wallets doesn’t strike me as an accident. Maybe he himself was just depressed by the deeply mentally ill, which is entirely understandable. Many in the general medical field have done just the same, and we have a proliferation of “health care” that is about Botox and cosmetic surgery. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with this; on another, I thought the goal of medicine was to relieve suffering.
So I’m glad that Seligman is re-incorporating some other values along with “positive emotion.” Scientists must always move forward and respond to legitimate criticism of and gaps in their work, and it’s to his credit that he is doing so. But I also can’t help but notice that Seligman is changing his tune at a time when the economy is dreadful and fewer people are likely to accept the panacea that techniques to achieve simple happiness are the be all and end all. More of us are face to face with people who didn’t deserve to lose their jobs and their homes and whose optimism couldn’t protect them. In a down economy, it’s less likely that your positive emotions will be enough to get you what you want.
At least Seligman is in touch with the reality of this economy. He is at least adapting his marketing plan accordingly. Let’s hope it’s a more substantive reconsideration than just that.