Positive Psychology: Does It Really Work?

Taking a Critical Look at Martin Seligman's Pursuit of Happiness

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."

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.

I attempted to carry on a conversation about his book, Authentic Happiness. 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 mindset.

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.

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're 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.

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?

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 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. ‘I have the same worry they do. That's what I do at 4 in the morning,' he says."

This blog is excerpted from “Bright-Sided." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Anxiety/Depression

Tags: conversation | ED | habits | martin seligman | positive psychology | psychologists | psychotherapist | psychotherapy | therapist | networker | love | courage | happiness | happy | thinking positively | learned helplessness | Authentic Happiness | happy people | positive thinking | Barbara Ehrenreich

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