Tuesday, November 26, 2019

What Is Positive Psychology?

When it comes to treating psychological disorders the latest and most promising development concerns something called “positive psychology.” Invented by Martin Seligman, through the influence of Abraham Maslow, it shifts the field’s focus away from psychopathology, curing illness, toward developing character.

In effect, it has replaced pseudoscience with ethics. And even with religion. For that it has incurred the ire of many psychologists. Especially those who still believe that they are doing science.

They would have done better if they had recalled a point made by philosopher David Hume around two hundred fifty years ago. Namely, that science is about “is” while ethics is about “should.” There is no science of “should,” for obvious reasons: what you should or should not do under this or that set of circumstances is not a scientific fact. It's a choice.

As we know there is no such thing as a scientific fact about the future. We have hypotheses. We have prophecies. We do not know for a scientific fact that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning. We certainly do not know for a scientific fact the state of the climate a century from now.

So, positive psychology tells people to build on their strengths, not to obsess about their weaknesses. It tells them that they should develop good character traits, not to obsess about their character flaws, their sins and their thought crimes.

Considering that Freudian theory had been hawking a negative psychology, a psychology that moralistically condemned everyone for harboring unconscious criminal desires, a psychology that prescribed penance as a treatment, we can see that Seligman is trying to lead us out of the Freudian wilderness.

As for those who criticize Seligman for relying too much on religion, certainly Freud and Jung were mired in religious thinking. The treatments that are most devoid of religious influence involve psychopharmacology. Surely, they have an important role in some treatment, but they do not build character.

One might find things to criticize about positive psychology, but in truth, it represents a consequential step in the right direction. For now, that should suffice.

Joseph Smith recounts the story of Martin Seligman for Vox. He begins with the following pronouncement, made by Seligman when he became the head of the American Psychological Association twenty years ago:

Seligman told the crowd that psychology had lost its way. It had “moved too far away from its original roots, which were to make the lives of all people more fulfilling and productive,” he said, “and too much toward the important, but not all-important, area of curing mental illness.”

Given that mental illness is, in truth, a contradiction in terms, Seligman was surely making an important point. If we do not confuse the mind with the brain, we understand that the mind is not an organ, and therefore cannot be healthy or sick. Unless we are speaking metaphorically. It would certainly be colossally ironic if we based our scientific approach to mental illness on a specious metaphor.

The practices promoted by positive psychology feel very much like a religion. As though there is something wrong with that. Studies have shown that people who worship regularly enjoy better mental health than do those who do not. The difference is that positive psychology does not direct people to attend services. Perhaps it encourages them in that direction. Wouldn't that be constructive?

What Seligman named “positive psychology,” using a term coined in 1954 by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, promises personal transformation through the redemptive power of devotional practices: counting blessingsgratitudeforgiveness, and meditation. And it is expressly designed to build moral character by cultivating the six cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence.

Again, we can question Seligman’s definitions, and even his humanistic pretense, but still, he is surely correct to reemphasize the importance of moral action and of good character.

The purpose of life, he said, is well-being, or flourishingwhich includes objective, external components such as relationships and achievements. The road to flourishing, moreover, is through moral action: It is achieved by practicing six virtues that Seligman’s research says are enshrined in all the world’s great intellectual traditions.

Psychologists since the time of Freud have pretended not to care about ethics. They have pretended to be men and women of science and have refused to offer advice or counsel.

Philosophers such as Chapman University’s Mike W. Martin say it has left the field of science and entered the realm of ethics — that it is no longer a purely factual enterprise, but is now concerned with promoting particular values.

As it happens, negative psychology has always been in the business of promoting values, values like expressing your feelings, ignoring what other people think of you, and doing what you want. Of course, these are values. They happen to be useless, designed to make us into authentically self-actualized individuals, not to build character and to make us into functioning members of community.

Fair enough, the Maslow connection has led some people to believe that positive psychology is purely individualistic. In truth, negative psychology has failed to help people because it sees people as self-involved self-important self-indulgent human monads.

Thus I am inclined to dismiss this critique as wrongheaded:

Professors Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz, authors of the 2019 book Manufacturing Happy Citizens, have accused positive psychology of advancing a Western, ethnocentric creed of individualism. At its core is the idea that we can achieve well-being by our own efforts, by showing determination and grit. But what about social and systemic factors that, for example, keep people in poverty? What about physical illness and underserved tragedy — are people who are miserable in these circumstances just not trying hard enough?

Obviously, Cabanas and Illouz want us all to become social justice warriors, the better to blame others for our problems. And also to make us feel that the system is so completely rigged against us that we can never succeed. If it sounds like a dodge, a lame excuse for doing nothing, a cultivation of helplessness, that’s because it is.


UbuMaccabee said...

Great column, Stuart. I suspect the transformation of psychology you are referring to might look and sound something like this:


I welcome the turn toward the truth.

Anonymous said...

I've decided history can be best viewed as a very long "war of the priesthoods".

Psychology/Freud/Jung/Seligman/Maslow are simply a priesthood occupying a timescale closer to our own.

Stuart said: "They would have done better if they had recalled a point made by philosopher David Hume around two hundred fifty years ago. Namely, that science is about “is” while ethics is about “should.” There is no science of “should,” for obvious reasons: what you should or should not do under this or that set of circumstances is not a scientific fact. It's a choice".

The current "shoulds" of the scientistic/tech worshipping priesthoods have given the world a global surveillance state, and will soon escalate the complications and consequences of genetic manipulation.

Ethics seems very distant from the driving ethos, which seems more about power and control.

- shoe