A naysayer's guide to positive psychology
by Barbara Ehrenreich
I approached my chance to interview Martin Seligman in May 2007 with some trepidation. Only three months earlier I had published an essay in Harper's critical of both positive psychology and pop positive thinking. Sure enough, when I first encountered Seligman he was practically scowling. "There he is!" the security guard at the reception desk in a boxlike building at the University of Pennsylvania said, pointing upward to a short, solid, bullet-headed man looking down from the second-floor balcony. I smiled and waved, to which Seligman responded only, "You'll have to take the elevator."
He was not, however, waiting for me on the second floor and had disappeared into his office. His secretary informed me that he would be busy for a minute and that he wanted me to meet these two ladies from the Australian military while I waited. After shaking their hands and learning that they had come for help in "preventing problems before they get to the complaint stage," I was ushered into his office, only to face another delay—a phone call from the BBC, he told me, which I was welcome to sit through, although no chair was offered.
The phone call—to schedule an interview about a plan to offer "optimism training" in the British public schools—seemed to lift his spirits, and after a few minutes of innocuous conversation, he announced that it was such a beautiful day that it would be a shame to spend it indoors. "I have a plan," he said. "We're going to go the art museum. Flowers will be blooming outdoors and we can see the Monets." I protested weakly that this excursion might interfere with note taking, not bothering to point out the contradiction between being in a museum and being outdoors. But apparently he was following his own instruction from Authentic Happiness: "Choose your venue and design your mood to fit the task at hand." As soon as we were in a taxi heading to the museum, he revealed that the Monets were his wife's idea. "That'll put her in a good mood," she had suggested. I began to wonder whether the Australian visitors and the BBC call had been timed, in part, for my benefit.
Once we were at the museum—the one made famous by Rocky Balboa—the barriers to a normal interview seemed only to multiply. First he insisted on a quick tramp around the outside of the building; then, inside at the reception desk, he made my heart sink by inquiring about a lecture that seemed to be going on. When that turned out to be unavailable, he started asking about an exhibition of photographs of early Santa Monica, and I pictured an afternoon spent trailing him throughout the more obscure sections of the museum. It was impossible not to dwell on the fact that Seligman's early work, before he announced the launching of positive psychology, had been about "learned helplessness," showing that when dogs are tormented in random ways they become passive, depressed, and unable to defend themselves.
Although note taking was almost impossible, I attempted to carry on a conversation about Authentic Happiness, which I had found just as elusive as he was turning out to be. Like most lay books on positive thinking, it's a jumble of anecdotes (primarily autobiographical in Seligman's case), references to philosophers and religious texts, and tests you can take to assess your progress toward a happier and healthier mind-set. Only on a second reading did I begin to discern a progression of thoughts—not a logical progression but at least a kind of arc. He begins with what positive psychologists call their field's "origin story," about how he was weeding his garden one day when his five-year-old daughter challenged him to stop being such a "grouch." Grouchiness, he realizes, is endemic to the academic world: "I have noticed over thirty years of psychology department faculty meetings—conducted in a cheerless, gray, and windowless room full of unrepentant grouches—that the ambient mood is on the chilly side of zero." Prodded by his daughter, he decides that "it was worth trying hard to put more positive emotion into my life," and a veritable candy land of pleasures begins to open up, epitomized by "a cloudless spring day, the ending of the Beatles' ÔHey Jude,' pictures of babies and young lambs, and sitting down in front of a blazing fire on a snowy evening."
But just as he seems to be on the verge of embracing hedonism, or at least a kitschy version thereof, he pulls back sharply in a burst of Calvinist disgust, enjoining the reader to "strive for more gratifications, while toning down the pursuit of pleasure."
"Gratifications," it turns out, are "higher" forms of pleasure because they take some effort, and they include "playing three sets of tennis, or participating in a clever conversation, or reading Richard Russo." In contrast, things like "watching a sitcom, masturbating, and inhaling perfume" involve no challenge and hence are only "pleasures." This seems unnecessarily judgmental, and not only because Richard Russo is not exactly Marcel Proust, but the reader soon finds, to her complete confusion, that the whole category of "positive emotions," including both gratification and pleasure, is suspect: "When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found," and without them, evidently, there can be no "authentic happiness."