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The Father of Positive Psychology Isn’t Stupid

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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.

6 responses »

  1. I’ve been working on writing about this Positivity B.S. (excuse my frustration) for the past year or so. I had a friendship end for a period of time while I was sick because the friend was so high on positivity that my illness was just too much of a downer. And really, I couldn’t be that sick all the time, right? That doesn’t really happen, right? I must not be positive enough. Ugh. We are slowly re-patching our friendship; thankfully, we’ve come a long way.

    Needless to say, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading and related to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright-Sided”:

    In her chapter “Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer,” Barbara Ehrenreich investigates cancer culture from the perspective of a dry-humor cancer survivor herself: “[R]ather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost. First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings or anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted” (Ehrenreich, 41). Ehrenreich has stated in interviews that this adds a second kind of illness on top of the initial one; it adds on top of the burden of cancer (or any illness) the burden of trying to look and “be” happy when you’re sick. She said our country has suffered a “deficit of empathy” from Positive Thinking. I have to agree.

    But I find it interesting that Seligman is changing his tune around the time of a bad economy. I always felt like “The Secret” and that whole realm had a pseudo sleazy pyramid scheme quality to it. Or like buying into Time-Shares for life happiness. It felt overly marketed. And just like with any “product” of course Seligman has to change his spin slightly to meet the needs of his consumers.

    Ehrenreich actually discusses in her chapter “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness” how she approaches Seligman for an interview. He is ever elusive during the interview, and of course, her chapter’s critique of Seligman, she really tears into him. I can’t help but wonder if he read the chapter. Perhaps it was too “negative” for him though. Ehrenreich quotes Seligman as saying, “I have noticed over thirty years of psychology department faculty meetings–conducted in a cheerless, gray, and windowless room full of unrepentant grouches–that the ambient mood is on the chilly side of zero” (153).

    I have to wonder if the man just needed a damn vacation. LOL.

    And side note, I hate to say, but if he didn’t want to treat depression–like really truly treat it–talking with his patients–being there for them— then the dude picked the wrong career. I mean seriously. Did he really think stamping out his patients’ feelings with happy thoughts would “prevent” depression? Or did he just lose his empathy or burn out?

    • I’ve been a Barbara Ehrenreich fan for a long time, and Bright-Sided has been high on my recommended list for a while. I think that especially anyone who experiences chronic illness (and cancer has become a chronic illness) can’t buy into too much positive psychology without a whole lot of denial. Years ago, I read a book called Good Days, Bad Days by Kathy Charmaz that was about chronic illness and its patterns. Even just the title says a lot–we are going to have our ups and downs, and there is no way that a ceaseless cheerfulness is real for us at all. You might also like David Rackoff’s collection of essays, Half Empty.

      I do think that Seligman has probably taken into account criticism of his work. If not Ehrenreich’s, then that of other psychologists. One of the most frustrating things is that all this positive thinking stuff is presented to the public as though the results of research are unequivocal. But as Ehrenreich points out, that’s far from true, and there are numerous studies that show different results. (Future posts!)

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Gen. You might also be interested in a scholarly paper I wrote about Oprah’s (and other media’s) treatment of the so-called Dying Professor, Randy Pausch, and other cancer patients. It’s kind of hard to get to, as you have to download the ebook from this page:, and then scroll down through the book to my essay near the end. But it’s one of the main places where my reaction to positive psychology started to become more defined. There’s a longer version of this paper published in a (paper) book, so let me know if you want a copy of that.

  2. Hi LIsa, Thanks for this insight and view. I want to say that positive approach is not all good, and not all bad. I want to say this goes back to way before our era, and as English lit or historians, etc will know it was called melancholy etc in prior Victorian age and probably long before. Depression is not good, and it also reflects an affluent society, I think. Some era and people could not afford any thinking or down time, as they had to work like hell and get the crops in or scramble to go to the factory or whatever.

    Just a question. Do you agree we all have a choice in the morning when we get up to think on good things or to not? To try to help others or not? To focus inward or outward?

    If yes, maybe there is some good in the positive spin guys, although it is not the total answer, and we should sure try to dig deeper. I think the climate and weather, and who you choose to be with everyday sure plays a part. Thanks for sharing and hope this might be of some “routine not well-thought or deep” help.

    • Hey, Harold. I’m not saying at all that there’s no benefit to some positivity. It’s not my goal in life to be sour or bitter or mean or nasty. In fact, after my recent hospitalization, I was required to go see my general practitioner for a follow-up, and he was amused to read to me from my hospital report that I was “a pleasant 50-year-old woman.” I laughed and told him that in neuro intensive care it doesn’t take much to seem pleasant. If you can know a nurse’s name and make a joke or two about the food, then you are golden. There are other people who are out of their minds with hospital psychosis, who have to be tied down because they are flailing and pulling out catheters, and who are moaning or screaming in pain and confusion. My being relatively pleasant in that situation was not a matter of me being better, but of me being less sick.

      What I think is that in our society, the positivity movement has become oppressive and dictatorial. I doubt very sincerely that during eras when people could not afford any thinking or down time that they decreed to themselves that they had to be cheerful either. In fact, if you read any Puritan literature, they really did believe that life was a “vale of tears,” and they looked forward to death because they thought it would take them away from painful life to idyllic heaven. It’s true that psychology per se was invented by Freud, and so we didn’t have names like “depression” before the twentieth century. And it’s also true that there have always been movements for “positive thinking” and movements for “realism” throughout time. But in recent years, the positivity movement has really become cult-like in its insistence that it is the only way. I have had people tell me that if I had the right attitude, my diabetes would go away! One of these people ran a health food store, and I consider such people dangerous.

      There have actually been studies done that demonstrate that a lot of the practices of positive psychology (at least as popularized) actually make slightly depressed people more depressed. The academic alternative to today’s positive psychology is not gloom and doom, but something called acceptance and commitment therapy. It starts with the basic premise that you have to be able to accept bad feelings to do anything deeply effective about them. Shooing them away is not effective long term. (

      Some of this, of course, simply has to do with personality variations. If cheerful affirmations work for a certain person in a certain situation, then fine. But they are not the only approach. For me, in terms of exercising, I want encouragement, someone saying over again, “You can do it.” But in more complicated situations, I have to own my fear and anger and sadness before I can move from that spot. And I don’t want somebody trying to force me into a cheery mode. As I explain in my “About” section, for me it’s about experiencing a full range of appropriate emotions across the spectrum. To me that’s a full and rich life.

      I think that most of us have choices when we get up in the morning. But I also think the range of those choices is influenced by many things outside ourselves. Perhaps I am sensitive about this because I know how much, for instance, the level of my blood glucose affects my mood. Even though I work hard to keep my blood sugars stable, it’s not always predictable. And I have no choice about that biochemical aspect of my mood. I’m also well aware that there are a lot of other people who have less in the way of choice than I have–people who live in unpleasant environments, who have more major biochemical issues, who have troublesome family members, or who don’t have the same educational or other resources with which to deal with life’s challenges. I’m not going to tell all those people that they should be cheerful all the time or that that would solve their problems.

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Got shunted here from your FB post. Interesting and thoughtful take. I’m not too surprised that people have told you that your diabetes would go away, and I agree that such people are dangerous when running a health food store. As you point out, popularizing something often (always?) leads to it being simplified and dumbed down. I’m not sure it’s fair to place that at Seligman’s feet, however. No one blames Darwin (or Alfred Russel Wallace) for all the troglodytes who get natural selection and evolution wrong. That’s an extreme example, I know.

    I ran across Seligman after reading a popular book about “happiness” by one of his grad students (Haight?). That was a good read so looked into Seligman and read and liked his What You Can Change and What You Can’t (I think that was the title; I no longer have the copy). Seems like that was a good place to draw a baseline and then see where I could go. After reading that a few years passed and I went on to Authentic Happiness but haven’t gotten much into that book. It sits on the night stand, beckoning, but never gets an invite. I think I needed a pencil to do a quiz at the beginning and did not want to get out of bed.

    Likewise, I’m not sure it it completely fair to say that pos psych has left behind ill and poor folks. From what I do remember about Seligman’s take on why he did this, it was partially to simply study people that are not ill and see what differences can be discerned. That should at least lead to better treatments across the board, but I agree if all it results in is a lot of shouting for everyone to change their attitude, then that’s not really science-based at all.

    Reading Seligman has made a small difference for me. I have tried to look for more positive things in my life and have taken steps to actualize them (e.g., I’ve started volunteering at the Humane Society). Having those things has lessened the sting of having a less-than-satisfying career. In some ways, pos psych it reminds me of 12-step stuff (which did in fact help me, especially as I was doing it alongside talk therapy). It might be very much like you say regarding pos psych — 12 step groups won’t cure everyone that does the program, and what about them?

    It’s interesting to read history (as I do) and run across accounts of the affluent with their “neurasthenia” of the late 19th century, and think about my own immigrant grandfathers who may have had the same kinds of depression and dealt with it by drinking and in the case of one, spousal and probably child abuse.

    • Hi, Mark, Thanks for your reflections. This is a work in progress, of course, and it’s hard to unpack in short posts. But I don’t object to people seeking to make positive changes–I do that all the time. I object to the superficial understanding of this process being used to brow-beat those unwilling or unable to tow the cheery line.There are a million different nuances, and I hope you will help me make distinctions throughout my exploratory journey.


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