Thursday, August 6, 2009

Positive Psychology and the Science of Happiness

The advent and popularity of positive psychology portends a brighter future for psychotherapy. Where previous therapy tried to eliminate negative emotions and pathological behaviors, positive psychology emphasizes the value of doing the right thing.

Instead of trying to figure out why people get things wrong, positive psychology aims to help them get things right.

Positive psychology originated with Aristotle's ethics. Therein we find the basis for a psychology that encourages self-improvement, good habits, virtuous action, and happiness.

For Aristotle happiness came to those who did the right thing, not necessarily to those who followed their bliss, acted according to their desires, or acquired what they wanted.

This does not mean that you can be happy with nothing. It means that you will not be happy merely by getting what you want. And it also means that while you can control and be responsible for your actions, you cannot control the actions and decisions of another person.

You should not base your happiness on whether or not you find the lover of your dreams. Making your happiness depend on the choices of another person may bring ecstasy, but it is more likely to bring despair.

The concept of virtue might well be confusing here. Aristotle and positive psychology have one notion of virtue; religions have another

In religion most virtue involves abstaining from sinful actions. We can even call it a morality of inaction. If you slip up and fail to abstain, religion offers ways to repent the sin.

When it comes to positive virtue, Christianity, for example, sees it wholly in the practice of a certain kind of love, called "agape," which translates as charity.

Where positive psychology emphasizes doing the right thing in the sense of being a good friend, being responsible, reliable, loyal, and trustworthy, Christian love involves giving alms to the poor.

As for happiness, Christian religions generally identify happiness with the eternal bliss that will be yours in the after-life.

Psychoanalysis transformed this into the notion that you will be happy when you complete treatment... except that treatment never really ends. In Freud's words, it is interminable.

If classical psychotherapy-- the kind that seeks to cure through insight into the past-- has survived this long without ever really offering a cure, the reason must be that it has been selling hope. Hope for a Promised Land or for a Paradise that would be yours in some ill-defined future.

Our secular culture has transformed this version of happiness and offered the notion that we are happiest when we are on vacation. Happy people do not bask in the glow of God's love; they return to a more pagan version and see happiness as an afternoon of sun worship on the beach.

Making vacation (and its cousin, leisure) the prototype of happiness means that happiness involves being absolved of all responsibility, no longer having to work, and being liberated from all of the rules that society imposes on us.

Better yet, this version of happiness involves inactivity, even passivity. It has nothing to do with the Aristotelian concept of virtuous action.

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