A Naysayer's Guide to Positive Psychology


This article first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.

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.”

Abandoning the positive emotions, Seligman’s book goes off in search of character,” which he admits is a Calvinist-sounding concept—”nineteenth-century Protestant, constipated, and Victorian.” To get to the roots of character, he and his colleagues sift through two hundred “virtue catalogs”—including Aristotle and Plato, Augustine and Aquinas, the Old Testament, Confucius, Buddha, and Benjamin Franklin—out of which they distill “six virtues”: wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. Now, as we walked up the museum stairs to the Monet exhibition, I told him that he had lost me at this point in his book. Courage, for example, could take one very far from the “positive emotions,” with their predicted positive effects on health and success, and into dangerous and painful situations, just as spirituality could lead to social withdrawal, fasting, and self-mortification. In fact, I blathered on, the conventional notion of “character” seems to include the capacity for self-denial, even suffering, in pursuit of a higher goal. To my surprise, he deflected the implicit criticism onto his erstwhile collaborator, Ed Diener, saying that Diener is “all about the smiley face” and just “trying to make people feel better,” whereas he, Seligman, is concerned with “meaning and purpose.”

Loyalty, I recall, did not make it onto the list of virtues.

Finally we arrived at the Monets, where after some preliminary gushing on his part we sat down on a bench and I settled my stenographer’s pad on my knee for some serious interviewing. But just then a security guard bore down on us and announced that I could not use a pen in the presence of the Monets. It is true, I don’t like the Monets, if only because they have been so thoroughly absorbed—along with lavender, scones, and “pictures of babies and young lambs”—into middle-class notions of coziness. I wanted to protest that I don’t hate them enough to stab them with my felt-tip pen, but I obediently traded it in for one of the stubby No. 2 pencils available at a nearby desk. At this point, the interview seemed to have gotten completely out of control: Seligman was the psychologist; I was the mental patient, deprived of sharp objects.

I plowed ahead, focusing now on the “Authentic Happiness Inventory,” a test available on one of his Web sites ( I had scored a less-than-jubilant 3.67 out of 5, and one of the questions that had pulled down my score asked the test taker to choose between “A. I am ashamed of myself” and “E. I am extraordinarily proud of myself.” I am neither of these, and since we’d been talking about virtues, it seemed fair to ask: “Isn’t pride a sin?” He answered that “it may be bad, but it has a high predictive value.” Predictive of what—health? “The research is not fine-grained enough to say that pride predicts health.” Frustrated and by now utterly baffled, I moved on to another question that had hurt my score, where I had confessed to being “pessimistic about the future,” assuming that it was the future of our species at issue, not just my own. Now, in the museum, I mentioned the possibilities of specieswide disasters like extinction or barbarism, but he just looked at me intently and said that, if I could “learn” optimism, as in his earlier book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, which shows the reader how to reprogram his or her thoughts in a more optimistic direction, my productivity as a writer would soar.

Only when we returned to his office, away from the mood-elevating Monets, did things take a nasty turn. Going back to his Authentic Happiness Inventory, I remarked that many of the questions seemed a bit arbitrary, leading him to snap, “That’s a cheap shot and shows your failure to understand test development. It doesn’t matter what the questions are so long as they have predictive value. It could be a question about butterscotch ice cream and whether you like it. The issue is how well it predicts.” Well, no. First you come up with a test that seems to measure happiness as generally defined, and then you can look for things that happiness seems to correlate with, such as liking butterscotch ice cream. But you cannot fold the ice cream into the definition of happiness itself. Instead of saying this, I moved on to one of the most irritatingly pseudoscientific assertions in his book, the “happiness equation,” which he introduces with the coy promise that it “is the only equation I ask you to consider,” as if positive psychology rests on whole thickets of equations from which the reader will mercifully be spared. The equation is:

H = S + C + V

H is “your enduring level of happiness, S is your set range, C is the circumstances of your life, and V represents factors under your voluntary control,” such as, for example, whether you engage in “optimism training” to suppress negative or pessimistic thoughts. I understand what he is trying to say: that a person’s happiness is determined in some way by his or her innate disposition (S), immediate circumstances (C), like a recent job loss or bereavement, and by the efforts (V) that the person makes to improve his or her outlook. This could be stated unobjectionably as:

H = f(S, C, V)

Or, in words: H is a function of S, C, V, where the exact nature of that function is yet to be determined. But to express it as an equation is to invite ridicule. I asked the question that would occur to any first-year physics student: “What are the units of measurement?” Because if you’re going to add these things up, you will have to have the same units for H (happy thoughts per day?) as for V, S, and C. “Well, you’d need some constant in front of each,” he said, and when I pressed on, he responded that “C is going to decompose into twenty different things, like religion and marriage,” referring to the fact that positive psychologists have found that married and religious people are likely to be happier than single and skeptical people. So how, I ask, do you boil C into a single number? Again, his face twisted into a scowl, and he told me that I didn’t understand “beta weighting” and should go home and Google it.

So, just to be sure, I did, finding that “beta weights” are the coefficients of the “predictors” in a regression equation used to find statistical correlations between variables. But Seligman had presented his formula as an ordinary equation, like E = mc2, not as an oversimplified regression analysis, leaving himself open to literal-minded questions like: How do we know H is a simple sum of the variables, rather than some more complicated relationship, possibly involving “second order” effects such as CV, or C times V? But clearly Seligman wanted an equation, because equations add a veneer of science, and he wanted it quickly, so he fell back on simple addition. No doubt equations make a book look weightier and full of mathematical rigor, but this one also makes Seligman look like the Wizard of Oz.

Happiness and Health

The central claim of positive psychology, as of positive thinking generally, is that happiness—or optimism, positive emotions, positive affect, or positive something—is not only desirable in and of itself but actually useful, leading to better health and greater success. One book on positive psychology states that “happiness . . . is more than pleasant, it is beneficial,” and Seligman begins Authentic Happiness by summarizing a few studies showing that happy (or positive) people live longer than unhappy ones. In other words, you should make an effort to be happy, if only because the consequences of unhappiness may include poor health and lower achievement. Would happiness stop being an appealing goal if it turned out to be associated with illness and failure? Isn’t it possible to imagine being gloriously contented with a life spent indulging unhealthy habits, like the proverbially happy “pigs in shit”? Nothing underscores the lingering Calvinism of positive psychology more than this need to put happiness to work—as a means to health and achievement, or what the positive thinkers call “success.”

Happy, or positive, people—however that is measured—do seem to be more successful at work. They are more likely to get a second interview while job hunting, get positive evaluations from superiors, resist burnout, and advance up the career ladder. But this probably reflects little more than the corporate bias in favor of a positive attitude and against “negative” people. A widely cited review article entitled “The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?,” coauthored by Ed Diener, makes no mention of this bias and hence appears to do little more than to confirm it.

When it comes to the proposed health benefits of a positive outlook, the positive psychologists would seem to be on firmer ground. A positive outlook cannot cure cancer, but in the case of more common complaints, we tend to suspect that people who are melancholy, who complain a lot, or who ruminate obsessively about every fleeting symptom may in fact be making themselves sick. Recall the miraculous cures worked on chronic invalids by Phineas Quimby and others in the nineteenth century, simply by encouraging them to get up out of bed and start thinking of themselves as healthy people. We don’t have “neurasthenics” today, but there are plenty of ills with a psychosomatic component, some of which may indeed yield to a “mind over matter” approach. When John E. Sarno, a professor of rehabilitation medicine, published a book proposing that lower back pain was caused by repressed anger rather than a physical abnormality and that it was curable by mental exercises, thousands testified that they were helped, including the well-known health guru Andrew Weil.

In contrast to the flimsy research linking attitude to cancer survival, there are scores of studies showing that happy or optimistic people are likely to be healthier than those who are sour-tempered and pessimistic. Most of these studies, however, only establish correlations and tell us nothing about causality: Are people healthy because they’re happy or happy because they’re healthy?

Adding further ambiguity to the “picture of happiness as a prolonger of life and improver of health” are a number of studies showing that happiness or other positive emotional states may have no effect on one’s health. An improved mental outlook—generated in support groups or through psychotherapy—does not extend the lives of breast cancer patients, and the same has been found for those suffering from throat and neck cancer. Nor, it turns out, does optimism add to the longevity of lung cancer patients. The evidence that positive emotions can protect against coronary heart disease seems sturdier, although I am not in a position to evaluate it. At least a list of articles on heart disease and emotional states compiled for me by Seligman included a number of studies finding that optimism and other positive states can both protect against heart disease and hasten recovery from it. But others on Seligman’s list were more equivocal, and one study cited by Barbara Held of Bowdoin College found that people high in “trait negative affect” do more complaining about angina but are at no greater risk of pathology than cheerful people.

Some of the studies Held has reviewed even conclude that negative traits like pessimism can be healthier in the long run than optimism and happiness. For example, a 2002 study found that women who are mildly depressed are more likely to live longer than nondepressed or very depressed women. Somewhat alarmingly, a longitudinal study of more than a thousand California schoolchildren concluded that optimism was likely to lead to an earlier death in middle or old age, possibly because the optimistic people took more risks. Another, more recent, study found that preteenagers who were realistic about their standing among their peers were less likely to become depressed than those who held positive illusions about their popularity. But the most surprising case for pessimism comes from a 2001 study coauthored by Seligman himself, finding that, among older people, pessimists were less likely to fall into depression following a negative life event such as the death of a family member. This study goes unmentioned in Authentic Happiness, but at the time it led Seligman to comment to the New York Times that “it’s important that optimism not be footless [probably meaning “footloose”] and unwarranted.” So realism has its uses after all.

But the results that go out to the public through the media tend to be spun toward the positive effects of positive emotions on health. Partly, this represents a long-standing media bias away from “null results”: a study finding, for example, that there is no sex difference in the ability to sprint or solve quadratic equations is likely to be judged less newsworthy than a study reporting that one sex left the other in the dust. In the case of positive psychology, a 2002 New York Times article cited two studies linking optimism to longevity—and four studies tracing longevity to such other traits as “conscientiousness,” calmness, pessimism, and even cantankerousness. Yet the article was headlined “Power of Positive Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging.”

Another case of positive self-spinning is provided by Suzanne Segerstrom, a researcher at the University of Kentucky, who won the 2002 Temple-ton Foundation Award for Positive Psychology for her work on what may be the holy grail of positive psychology—the possible link between positive emotions and the immune system. Although the immune system plays no clear role in cancer, it is definitely important in fighting off colds and other infectious illnesses. Whether there is a link between positive emotions and the immune system is another matter. Martin Seligman asserts such a link, writing that “happy people” have “feistier immune systems than less happy ­people.” In a 1998 paper, Segerstrom reported that optimism was correlated with greater immune competence, as measured by levels of key immune cell types. But in a second study, published three years later, she found that “some contradictory findings have emerged” and that, in some circumstances, more optimistic people “fare worse immunologically” than pessimists.

You would not know, however, that her results were negative or at best “mixed” from reading her newspaper accounts of her work. In a 2002 interview with the New York Daily News, she stated that the health benefits of optimism are “significant” and that not only do “optimists almost always have better emotional adjustments,” but “most optimists show higher immune responses to illness.” When I interviewed Segerstrom by phone in 2007, she insisted that she had been under no pressure from the media, or anyone else, to downplay her negative results. But when I brought up her award a little later on in our talk, she told me, “To get the Templeton award . . . You don’t get anything for a null result.”

The Templeton Connection

The Templeton Foundation, which contributed $2.2 million to Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center in the first decade of the twenty-first century, as well as about $1.3 million to miscellaneous positive psychology research projects on such matters as gratitude, humility, and connectedness, is probably best known for its efforts to put religion on an equal intellectual footing with science. Founded by billionaire investor Sir John Templeton in 1972, the foundation gives out an annual Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, which was designed to fill a gap left by the Nobel prizes and pointedly pays more than they do. (In 2002, perhaps reflecting a certain lack of progress in religion, it was renamed the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or discoveries about Spiritual Realities.) The foundation’s campaign to bring scientific legitimacy to religion has led to some dubious ventures, including funding in 1999 for a conference on intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. More cautiously, in recent years, the foundation has backed away from intelligent design and expressed its “spiritual” orientation through funding for research into the efficacy of prayer—another null result—as well as various abstract qualities like “character” and “humility.” Until his death in 2008, Sir John Templeton was fond of bringing scientists and theologians together with the aim of finding common ground in luxurious tropical resorts.

Templeton might have been attracted to positive psychology’s claim that positive emotions can influence physical health—a “mind over matter” proposition that can be found in just about any form of American spiritualism since the nineteenth century. But there is another, more intriguing connection. Templeton was an acolyte of Norman Vincent Peale and a minor positive thinking guru himself. According to the Templeton Foundation’s 2004 “Capabilities Report,” he “credits Norman Vincent Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, read 70 years ago, with making him realize that Ôwhat I had become in my short lifetime was mainly dependent on my mental attitudes—a mental attitude of looking for the good will bring good to you; a mental attitude of giving love will bring love to you.'”

But Templeton was not just another positive-thinking businessman. He was something of a political ideologue, as is, to an even greater degree, his son and, since 1995, successor at the foundation. John Templeton Jr. is a major Republican donor and activist, having helped fund a group called Let Freedom Ring, which worked to get out the evangelical vote for George Bush in 2004. In 2007, he contributed to Freedom’s Watch, which paid for television commercials supporting the war in Iraq, often by conflating Iraq with al Qaeda. More recently, he supported the Romney and then the McCain campaigns for the presidency and was the second-largest individual donor to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage.

The foundation itself is, of course, nonpartisan but is strongly biased in favor of “free enterprise.” Over the years, it has given cash awards to a number of conservative scholars, including Milton Friedman and Gertrude Himmelfarb, and grants to a long list of conservative organizations. In its 2006 report, we learn that the Templeton Foundation “supports a wide range of programs and research initiatives to study the benefits of competition, specifically how free enterprise and other principles of capitalism can, and do, benefit the poor.” The words “and do” suggest a foregone conclusion, although the report goes on to raise the plaintive question “Why should half the world’s population live in circumstances of relative squalor when it has been demonstrated that the principles of the market and free enterprise can lead to sustained economic development?” (italics in original).

This is not to suggest that positive psychology, or positive anything, is part of a right-wing conspiracy. Pop positive thinking has a mixed political lineage: Norman Vincent Peale was an outspoken conservative, at least until his attacks on a Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy, resulted in charges of bigotry. On the other hand, perhaps the most famous contemporary promoter of positive thinking is Oprah Winfrey, whom we normally think of as a liberal. As for positive psychology, Seligman himself certainly leans to the right. He is famously impatient with “victims” and “victimology,” saying, for example, in a 2000 interview: “In general when things go wrong we now have a culture which supports the belief that this was done to you by some larger force, as opposed to, you brought it on yourself by your character or your decisions.”

The real conservativism of positive psychology lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power. Positive psychologists’ tests of happiness and well-being, for example, rest heavily on measures of personal contentment with things as they are. Consider the widely used “Satisfaction with Life Scale” developed by Diener and others, which asks the respondent to agree or disagree with the following propositions:

In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

The conditions of my life are excellent.

I am satisfied with my life.

So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

One could imagine positive psychology, or a more liberal version thereof, spawning a movement to alter social arrangements in the direction of greater happiness—by advocating more democratically organized workplaces, to suggest just one example. Instead, positive psychology seems to have weighed in on the side of the employers, with Seligman collaborator Chris Peterson telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2008 that business executives are particularly enthused about the new happiness science: “Hardheaded corporate culture is becoming interested in how to get more work out of fewer workers. They’re realizing that if their workers are happy, they will work harder and more productively. So they’re leading the charge.” As for social action against societal injustice, the American Psychological Association’s Monitor reported in 1998: “Seligman asserts that . . . those who reproach others and side with the underdog may feel better in the short term, . . . but such good feelings are transient.” Why social activism should produce only fleeting good feelings—compared with performing other virtuous deeds, viewing Monets, or reading Richard Russo—is not explained.

Like pop positive thinking, positive psychology attends almost solely to the changes a person can make internally by adjusting his or her own outlook. Seligman himself explicitly rejects social change, writing of the role of “circumstances” in determining human happiness: “The good news about circumstances is that some do change happiness for the better. The bad news is that changing these circumstances is usually impractical and expensive.” This argument—”impractical and expensive”—has of course been used against almost every progressive reform from the abolition of slavery to pay equity for women.

The next time I met Martin Seligman he was unexpectedly friendly and ­welcoming. The setting was the Sixth International Positive Psychology Summit, held in the majestic Gallup Organization building in downtown D.C. He invited me to sit down next to him and asked whether I had enjoyed the morning session’s “energy break.” This had been a five-minute interval embedded in a presentation on teaching positive psychology at the graduate level, led by some female graduate students. The audience was instructed to stand, do a few shoulder rolls and neck stretches, shake their bodies, and then utter a big collective “Aaaah.”

At the time of the “summit” meeting, in October 2007, positive psychology had a lot to celebrate. It was gaining ground at all levels in academia, with more than two hundred colleges and graduate schools offering courses in positive psychology, sometimes dubbed “Happiness 101,” in which students reflected on their happier moments and engaged in exercises like writing “gratitude letters” to people in their lives. At Harvard, the introductory positive psychology course had drawn 855 students in 2006, making it the most popular course on campus, surpassing even economics, and a similar undergraduate course at George Mason University was the subject of a New York Times Magazine article in early 2007. Graduate-level courses, like those required for the master of applied positive psychology degree at the University of Pennsylvania, were popping up all over the world. According to one summit speaker, Ilona Boniwell of the University of East London, “rapid growth” of postgrad programs could be expected in Argentina, Australia, India, Israel, Mexico, Spain, and Singapore.

Moreover, attractive careers seemed to await those who earned higher degrees in positive psychology. The University of Pennsylvania program claims as one of its alums a coauthor of the business self-help book How Full Is Your Bucket? and two other alums have founded a consulting group to bring positive psychology into the public schools, through workshops on such topics as “measuring and nurturing character strengths and virtues” and “learning tools for building optimism and resilience.” Another alum, David J. Pollay, is a business consultant and columnist for the Happy News Web site. Mostly, the opportunities seemed to lie in applying positive psychology to organizations and businesses, through consulting and coaching.

Yet even at this self-congratulatory “summit,” there was some anxiety about the scientific foundations of positive psychology. In her description of the “challenges” facing the master’s program in positive psychology at her London university, Ilona Boniwell had included “healthy British skepticism.” This struck me as odd: Wouldn’t a physics or sociology professor be delighted to have skeptical, questioning students? When I put this query to her during a break in the proceedings, she told me: “A lot of results [in positive psychology] are presented as stronger than they are; for example, they’re correlational, not causative. The science of positive psychology has not necessarily caught up with the promise of positive psychology.” The “promise” was lucrative careers in business coaching, and the science would apparently just have to catch up.

In fact, the publicity received by positive psychology in the preceding year had been less than 100 percent positive. The 2007 New York Times Magazine article on Happiness 101 courses had complained about “the sect-like feel of positive psychology” and suggested that “the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good anyway.” The article went on to report that “the idea that whatever science there is may not yet be first-class troubles Seligman, too. ÔI have the same worry they do. That’s what I do at 4 in the morning,’ he says.”

These worries finally surfaced at a late afternoon plenary session on “The Future of Positive Psychology,” featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener. Seligman got the audience’s attention by starting off with the statement “I’ve decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong.” Why? Because it’s about happiness, which is “scientifically unwieldy.” Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of “success” and “accomplishment”—which I couldn’t help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus. With the addition of success, Seligman went on, one was talking no longer about positive psychology but about a “plural theory” embracing anthropology, political science, and economics, and this is what he would be moving on to—”positive social science.”

Seligman’s statement created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students, and coaches. It must have felt a bit like having one’s father announce that he found his current family too narrow and limiting and would be moving on to a new one. In the Q&A session, some picked up on Seligman’s admission that the scientific basis of positive psychology is all too thin, with one asking, “How do we balance the empirical side of positive psychology with the applied stuff ,” like coaching? Diener responded, in part, that “people doing things that there isn’t good evidence for” are at least “meeting a need.” Seligman agreed, saying that positive psychology was under pressure to produce practical results because “people want happiness.” If that sometimes means that the applications, like coaching, get ahead of the science—well, “science follows from practice,” he said, invoking the Wright brothers, “who flew when scientists didn’t know how birds fly.”

The idea of moving on to “positive social science” provoked even more anxiety. Diener defended the phrase “positive psychology,” saying, “It’s a brand.” Besides, he said, he “hates” the idea of positive social science, since social science includes sociology and sociology is “weak” and notoriously underfunded. The subject seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism. When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology “applied behavioral economics,” because “it’s popular in business schools and goes with high salaries,” nobody laughed.

From the book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Copyright © 2009 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of fourteen books, including the bestselling Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. She lives in Virginia.