Monday, January 08, 2007

Positive Psychology and Beyond

I've never been shy about stating my opinion on positive psychology (see below for a more detailed rejection), the exercise in repression that Martin Seligman (of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania) has been promoting for quite a while now. Well, it's caught on and is being taught at universities all around the country.

The New York Times Magazine ran an article about it this weekend:

Positive psychology brings the same attention to positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, well-being) that clinical psychology has always paid to the negative ones (depression, anger, resentment). Psychoanalysis once promised to turn acute human misery into ordinary suffering; positive psychology promises to take mild human pleasure and turn it into a profound state of well-being. “Under certain circumstances, people — they’re not desperate or in misery — they start to wonder what’s the best thing life can offer,” says Martin Seligman, one of the field’s founders, who heads the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Thus positive psychology is not only about maximizing personal happiness but also about embracing civic engagement and spiritual connectedness, hope and charity. “Aristotle taught us virtue isn’t virtue unless you choose it,” Seligman says.

Sitting in Kashdan’s classroom, you might wonder whether psychology had abandoned its proper territory or found a new one, and if a new one, whether it owed more to science or to Sunday school. Perhaps that was because the class reflected the discipline’s own tension between simplicity and complexity, “good tough science,” as Seligman calls it, and airier talk of values. With its emphasis on the self in the world, positive psychology is already an ethics seminar. Which is fitting, given that it has its roots in a Socratic dialogue of sorts. Seligman likes to tell the story of how his daughter Nikki, when she was 5, accused him of being a grouch. She reminded him that he had criticized her for being whiny and that she had worked hard to stop whining. If she could stop being whiny, he could stop being grumpy. He realized, he says, that she was right, that he was “a pessimist and depressive and someone of high critical intelligence” and that he needed to change. Seligman, who at 54 had just been elected president of the American Psychological Association and was renowned for his hard science — most of his research had been in depression — decided to put his considerable talents into finding out “what made life worth living.”

Though positive psychology is only beginning to be used as an educational tool in classrooms and secondary schools, in the nine years since Seligman’s epiphany it has taken a firm hold in academia. The field’s steering committee includes a number of psychologists and psychiatrists who have done highly regarded clinical work: Ed Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose specialty is “subjective well-being”; Christopher Peterson at the University of Michigan, who has made a study of admired character traits around the world; George Vaillant, who has long headed a Harvard project tracking success and failure among the college’s graduates; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University, who has spent years studying “optimal functioning,” or the state of being intensely absorbed in a task, what he calls “flow.” Seligman’s book, “Authentic Happiness,” published in 2002, lays out the field’s fundamental principles and has been translated into nearly 20 languages. Last year’s annual positive-psychology summit in Washington attracted hundreds of academics working in the field or interested in doing so, as well as a children’s programming director, who was working to imbue her cartoons with positive psychology messages, and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who studies the relationship between economics and perceptions of happiness. In addition there were a lot of “life coaches,” independent consultants who hire themselves out to help clients achieve their life goals.

It's a pretty informative article, so check out the rest of it. There is a little bit of a critical look at PS in the article, but not in the terms on which PS will ultimately fail -- it's near-total rejection of "archaeological" psychology, the depth-work that retrieves and releases early traumas that have resulted in unhealthy behavior.

Which is not to say that PS doesn't have a place, because I think it does. My friend at Zaadz, Durwin Foster, posted an attempt at making PS part of an integral approach. Here is the beginning of his post:

Why positive psychotherapy? A few initial thoughts...

  • Positive psychotherapy has emerged relatively recently within the psychotherapy world, although it certainly has resonance with earlier threads such as humanistic and transpersonal approaches.
  • We might think about why? why is positive psychotherapy emerging with such vigor?
  • Well – often new approaches emerge as some sort of reaction to imbalances in a given field; for example, Rogers pioneered person-centred therapy in part as a reaction to what? Well, therapist-centred therapy: where the therapist was expert and applied their knowledge to the largely passive patient
  • Positive psychotherapy implies that psychotherapy has been, well, too focused on the negative!
  • In AQAL terms, what are we talking about here then? States of consciousness (or affect, if we take it more narrowly). But staying broadly with states of consciousness: one of the key points of integral theory is that states of consciousness are accessible to all individuals. In particular, in the waking state, both subtle (often attributed to dreaming state), causal and nondual states are available to all human beings.
Go check out the rest of the post, it's worth the time. Here are some of my comments to his post, which apply to the whole PS movement:
I've been vaguely following the development of positive psychology over the years, and I have to say that it feels more like a band-aid than a form of healing.

I think there can be great value in supporting positive states, so in this sense positive psychology has a lot of value. But the problem is that it focuses almost exclusively ,as far as I can tell, on states and not on maladaptive splits in the developmental process (i.e., the development of unhealthy subpersonalities that can act as autonomous “selves,” for example). From what I have read, there seems to be a nearly total rejection of the “archeological” mode of therapy within the positive psychology camp.

To me, states can be seen as symptoms, but not as causes. So simply treating states is to ignore the underlying causes – the deeper psychological wounding that is causing the negative states.

Any real healing of pathology must address wounds to the psyche, and from what I have seen in my own experience, there must be clear access to and a freeing of “stuck” energy/emotions for the pathologies to be released.

Through avoiding these deeper wounds and focusing on positive states, it feels to me that positive psychology is equivalent to giving morphine to someone with a bleeding head wound – it might stop the pain for a while, but it won't address the underlying cause of the pain.

Of course, I am not a professional and I could be missing subtleties of how positive psychology is being used in the therapeutic setting.
I do think that PS has a role to play in an AQAL model of therapy, but it should not be a stand-alone approach for most people. I'm also dubious about its use in the classroom as outlined in the NY Times Magazine -- it seems to have taken on the tone of a religion rather than a tool.


Anonymous said...

I was depressed for a while and went through "talk therapy". Also the meds. that they are always pushing. It wasn't made happy. It stopped the crushing unhappiness but it did not make me happy. It wasn't until I decided that I was ready to be happy that I could be happy. That is not the scientific anwser or something that I could really explain. But it was simply a choice.


Dave Shearon said...

Although positive psychology approaches to psychotherapy are, as you point out, being developed, the primary focus of positive psychology is on building strengths and the experience of positive emotions and thought patterns such as Seligman's construct of a positive explanatory style. It is thus aimed at individuals who are not suffering from a psyhological disorder. It's focus is not on healing, but upon helping individuals live happier lives and achieve more of what makes life meaningful to them. Neither Seligman nor any of the other researchers I have studied suggest that positive psychology replaces reparative psychology. Many of them, and this is particularly true of Dr. Seligman, made huge contributions to reparative psychology before turning to positive psychology. Horses for courses, as they say. Positive psychology is a different horse from reparative psychology, and it runs on a different course. We need both, and we need to continue to develop and find the most appropriate uses for both.