Over the last decade the field of positive psychology has become a burgeoning area of research within academic psychology. Well known figures in positive psychology include Martin Seligman (developer of the well known learned helplessness model of depression and past president of the American Psychological Association), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (creator of the construct of flow), and Daniel Gilbert (author of the widely acclaimed Stumbling on Happiness). The field of positive psychology focuses on developing a scientific understanding of positive human experiences and virtues. Important research areas include happiness, optimism, fulfillment, compassion, and gratitude. The field positions itself in contrast to traditional approaches to mental health, which focus on psychopathology and treating mental illness. The roots of positive psychology can be traced to the field of humanistic psychology, which peaked in popularity during the 1960s. Well known pioneers of humanistic psychology included Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Fritz Perls.
The field’s roots can be traced back even further to the American pop culture emphasis on the power of positive thinking (e.g., Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie). Earlier foundations for these traditions can be found in the “New Thought Movement” that swept the United States in the mid-nineteenth century through the influence of figures like Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of Christian Science) and Phineas Quimby, a New England mesmerist and popular healer. There is a thread of continuity linking all of these traditions, which all share a positive, optimistic perspective and, in one way or another, emphasize the power of the mind to influence both psychological and physical health.
American culture is known for its optimistic quality. The common stereotype that contrasts the positive, optimistic American sensibility with the darker, world-weary European one is not without some validity. At one level, optimism is an important American “natural resource.” It inspired the development of one of the world’s first modern democracies and provided a haven for immigrants fleeing lives of persecution, oppression, and poverty in their homelands. Ideally, America is the land of equal opportunity — a classless society, where hard work allows anyone to lead the type of lifestyle that was once reserved for the privileged aristocracy.
But we all know that this ideal masks a very different reality. The discrepancy between the wealthy and the poor is greater in the United States than virtually any other developed country. America’s self-image as the “land of equal opportunity” obscures the fact that there are massive inequities in the social and economic conditions into which people are born, and, further, it provides an easy justification for blaming the underprivileged for their own problems. Rather than reforming social policies that perpetuate the discrepancies between the privileged and underprivileged, the myth of equal opportunity can be too easily translated into an equation between poverty and moral failure.
Similarly, the assumptions that we all have the ability to be happy and that happiness is a “good” in its own right becomes translated into a moral imperative to be happy. This leads to an insidious type of oppression that marginalizes and silences those who are suffering from psychological problems or physical illness, and judges them as failures or implicitly as morally inadequate. There is a limited tolerance for sadness and other painful emotional experiences. One of the many concerns that critics raise about the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) is that diagnostic criteria for a number of psychiatric disorders are becoming broadened to the point that painful experiences once considered part and parcel of everyday living will now qualify people for psychiatric diagnoses. Sadness becomes “depression.” Depression becomes a form of illness to be treated with medication, or evidence of a failure to take responsibility for one’s life.
Evidence of a link between a positive psychological attitude and recovery from various illnesses becomes translated into a moral imperative to stay cheerful in the face of chronic illness. Cancer becomes a “gift” — an opportunity to learn a much needed lesson. In a recent book written in the wake of her own personal struggle with breast cancer, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (2009) critiques what she refers to as our “relentless promotion of positive thinking” in America. In her words:
“Americans are a ‘positive’ people. This is our reputation as well as our self-image. We smile a lot and are often baffled when people from other cultures do not return the favor. In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent…. Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Australians, and even the supposedly dour Finns.”
On a personal note Ehrenreich speaks about her tremendous sense of isolation while struggling with breast cancer because of the cultural pressure to deal with her experience in a “positive way.” For example, she tells us that at one point she posted a statement on an online breast cancer support group bulletin board that conveyed some of her despair and anger. In response Ehrenreich reports receiving a “chorus of rebukes.”
People often speak of Freud as having a pessimistic perspective on human beings. He theorized that there is an inherent conflict between instinct and civilization, and he emphasized the importance of acknowledging and accepting the hardships, cruelties, and indignities of life, without the consolation of illusory beliefs. In an oft-paraphrased statement, he argued that the goal of psychoanalysis is one of transforming neurotic misery into ordinary human unhappiness. This can be interpreted as a pessimistic perspective. But it can also be viewed as a realistic and profoundly liberating perspective — not unlike the Zen perspective, which holds that enlightenment involves letting go of the fantasy of escaping the realities of everyday life. Essentially, what Freud was arguing was that the goal of life is not to eliminate those aspects of existential suffering that are an inevitable part of the human condition, but rather to help people to live more wisely — to reduce the extent to which they unconsciously inflict suffering on themselves.
So what could possibly be wrong with the growing interest in positive psychology? At one level, there is something very much right about it. Just as the humanistic tradition of the 1960s was an important corrective to the conservative and pathologizing aspects of the psychoanalysis of the times, as well as the mechanistic aspects of the behavioral tradition, positive psychology’s focus on happiness and achieving beneficial states of mind is a potential force for good. Yet at the same time there is something missing from it — a tragic or ironic sensibility. Positive psychology fails to grapple fully with the painful aspects of life with its inevitable sorrows, losses, and indignities.
A version of this article first appeared in Psychology Today’s “Straight Talk.”