As an undergraduate English major, I was unimpressed with my required foray into Psych 101. The leaden jargon of operant conditioning and psychoanalysis seemed more like assaults on the English language than methods for understanding the mind or healing the wounded psyche. It was the great authors I read in my literature classes—Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats, Austen, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville—who seemed a far superior source of wisdom about human nature, and who certainly had more to say about truth, virtue, and happiness.
But when it came to making a career choice and perhaps following in the footsteps of my impressive-sounding Lit professors, there was a problem. The more I learned about the politics of the English Department, the more it seemed to be a rank stew of envy, backstabbing, and professional claustrophobia. And my professors themselves, I eventually discovered, were, for the most part, frustrated, bored, and often alcoholic. The study of literature in itself apparently wasn’t a failsafe ticket to moral elevation and personal enlightenment.
With so many of my role models seemingly in need of psychotherapy, I decided to give that profession another look. Now, after 30 years in the field, I suddenly find much to remind me of my graduate years, when I was uplifted by great literature. After decades of being preoccupied with emotional pathology in all its DSM-documented permutations, psychology seems to have shifted its attention to the study of what’s best in us, where it comes from, and how it emerges to enrich our lives. From a growing body of research into what’s called Positive Psychology has come the news that mental and emotional health may have a lot to do with being good, rather than merely being happy. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us in his article, “Higher Ground,” of how important for emotional well-being are the “moral” emotions—gratitude, compassion, altruism, forgiveness, and, particularly, awe, the feeling of emotional elevation we get when we engage in religious worship, contemplate a magnificent landscape, or witness acts of charity, selflessness, and courage.
Much of the credit for this interest in self-transcendence goes to psychologist Martin Seligman, the de facto CEO of a Positive Psychology movement that’s yielded a large and growing body of solid research into what gives people “authentic happiness” (the title of Seligman’s bestselling book). According to Seligman and his cohorts, the keys to a satisfying and meaningful life sound a lot like what your grandmother might have advised: hard work, self-sacrifice, purpose, duty, a positive outlook—in short, moral character. What’s more, Seligman has even worked out a tough-minded course for helping people actually achieve happier lives. It’s a kind of happiness boot camp, replete with morally prescriptive exercises encouraging gratitude, appreciation, optimism, and similar virtues.
Networker Book Review Editor Richard Handler, who isn’t himself personally inclined to Pollyanna-ish excess, took Seligman’s 20-week Telecourse (with almost 200 other happiness seekers) and found it deeply instructive, if not always in ways that the Positive Psychology people might have expected. While recognizing the contribution Seligman and his band of merry men (and women) have made to therapy, Handler was left wondering whether science can really understand happiness. More to the point, he wonders if it’s really possible to devise “a practical system, a curriculum, a didactic course of happiness and wisdom” whose tenets can be absorbed like those of any other skill or habit.
Perhaps, he suggests, elixirs as fundamentally mysterious, elusive, and undefinable as happiness, awe, wonder, gratitude, and appreciation aren’t quite ready for mass-market bottling just yet. Nonetheless, as a corrective to the standard, largely amoral, psychopathology-based and self-absorbed psychological culture—in which the words virtue and self-sacrifice are almost taboo—Positive Psychology and the contemplation of what Haidt calls the “vertical dimension” of human experience are long overdue. Positive Psychology isn’t therapy, nor is it intended to be; but in its various manifestations, it certainly might enrich even the most traditional therapist’s understanding of what makes human beings tick.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.