A Few Words About “Positive” Psychology

I’ve got the answer to Dr. David Van Nuy’s Psychology Today blog post Did Coke Hijack Positive Psychology? Unequivocally, no. If Coke did ‘hijack’ positive psychology, it’s because with a title like positive psychology, you’ve automatically set yourself up for such exploitation. Positivity likes to edit out such errors in human character as gluttonous and greedy intent. They aren’t seen as positive, at least, not among allies.

Positive psychology is positive because of the other side of the equation, the pathologizing of negativity.

Positive Psychology was officially “born” at the annual American Psychological Association conference in 1998 during Dr. Martin Seligman’s inaugural address as association president. Dr. Seligman, already well-known for his pioneering work on the subject of learned helplessness, and later, on optimism, declared that psychology had too long focused on pathology, and that the time had come for an empirical study of human strengths and human happiness.

Blurring the focus on failure, weakness, and unhappiness doesn’t make them disappear. Seeing failure, weakness, and unhappiness as pathological states is to call diseased what, frankly, isn’t diseased. It’s also a way of denying the reality of negative experience. On top of this objection, you’ve got hunger, homelessness, and poverty. I think there is more apt to be a relationship between unhappiness and poverty than I do a relationship between unhappiness and disease, pain and discomfort notwithstanding. I also think that these conditions might have something to do with the wealth and education of other peoples such as, for instance, professional psychologists.

Interestingly, Seligman made no mention of these important forerunners. Presumably, he wanted to distance Positive Psychology from the human potential movement, which had been criticized for its excesses and tarred with the brush of narcissism. More importantly, Seligman wanted to establish Positive Psychology on a firm scientific foundation. In this regard, he has certainly succeeded.

Dr. Nuy here is confusing science with popularity, the same problem that exists in the psychiatric field. The popularity of a theory doesn’t make it true to life. The fact that the psychologist goes pop doesn’t have a great deal to do with rigorous scientific investigation. We’ve seen too many lost monkey evolution trials to believe otherwise.

In just 12 years, the Positive Psychology movement has generated 64,000 research studies, 2 academic journals, and an international professional association. Additional resonance comes from the current zeitgeist in which we’ve seen an explosion of popular interest in activities such as yoga and meditation, as well as a proliferation of books about happiness.

Scientific research is neutral in itself; it serves whoever can make the best use of it, why should psychology be different? Perhaps because we’re dealing with theologians here instead of with scientists. I think it no irony that he mentions among the above an interest in yoga and meditation.

I believe in giving people, social animals, more control over their lives, plural. I think that that is the answer to failure, weakness, and unhappiness. I think the answers to these matters can come from political science, I don’t think they can come from psychology. The problem is with this tunnel vision of focus on humanity as the atomistic entity it isn’t. Man isn’t a man, woman isn’t a woman, and human isn’t a human. Where success for the individual is achieved at the price of an absolute apocalypse for the rest of the species, doesn’t that speak volumes as to the root of the problem we see here? Positive psychology in this context becomes just another magical thinking method for ignoring the overriding concerns of the vast majority of our species, people who aren’t wealthy.

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