Is positive psychology all it’s cracked up to be?
Just over 20 years old, this field has captivated the world with its hopeful promises — and drawn critics for its moralizing, mysticism, and serious commercialization.
By Joseph Smith
The story of positive psychology starts, its founder often says, in 1997 in his rose garden.
Martin Seligman had just been elected head of the American Psychological Association and was in search of a transformational theme for his presidency. While weeding in his garden one day with his young daughter, Seligman found himself distracted and frustrated as Nikki, then 5, threw flowers into the air and giggled. Seligman yelled at her to stop, at which point Nikki took the professor aside. She reminded him how, from ages 3 to 5, she had been a whiner, but on her fifth birthday, had made a conscious decision to stop. If she could change herself with an act of will, couldn’t Daddy stop being such a grouch?
Seligman had an epiphany. What if every person was encouraged to nurture his or her character strengths, as Nikki so precociously had, rather than scolded into fixing their shortcomings?
He convened teams of the nation’s best psychologists to formulate a plan to reorient the entire discipline of psychology away from mostly treating mental illness and toward human flourishing. Then, he used his bully pulpit as the psychology association’s president to promote it. With Seligman’s 1998 inaugural APA presidential address, positive psychology was born.
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.”
Seligman’s own experience made this deficit very clear. He had become famous, as he would later write in his autobiography, for his work on what he called “the really bad stuff — helplessness, depression, panic,” and that this had made him perfectly placed to “see and name the missing piece — the positive.”
The APA leader called on his colleagues to join him to effect a sea change in psychology and to create a science that investigates and nurtures the best human qualities: a science of strengths, virtues, and happiness. 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 blessings, gratitude, forgiveness, 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.
Today, Seligman is the foremost advocate of the science of well-being. He had made his name in academia in the 1970s and ’80s for discovering the phenomenon of “learned helplessness,” in which individuals become conditioned to believe that negative events are inescapable, even when those events are within their control. In 1991, he came to the public’s attention with his book about combating these kinds of processes, Learned Optimism, which he claimed was the world’s first “evidence-based” self-help book.
But it was when Seligman shifted toward the psychology of happiness with the 2002 publication of Authentic Happiness, followed in 2011 with Flourish, that Seligman started to become a household name. The theory and practice of positive psychology caught fire in the public’s imagination, thanks in part to Seligman’s informal prose and optimistic message. Now, Seligman’s TED talk has been viewed more than 5 million times online; he has met heads of government and religious leaders, including the UK’s former prime minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama, and has appeared on shows such as Larry King Now.
Despite his association with the science of happiness, Seligman is by his own admission brusque, dismissive, and a grouch. He casts himself as a maverick, butting heads with the academic establishment, and yet he’s the ultimate insider — probably the best-known, best-funded, and most influential psychologist alive. As a scientist, he insists on the value-neutral purity of the research he directs, yet presides over a movement that even its fans say seems to have some of the characteristics of a religion.
To many of its followers, the movement is a godsend, answering a need to belong to something larger than themselves and holding out the chance of better, fuller lives through truly effective techniques backed by science. To its critics, that science is undercut by positive psychology’s moralizing, its mysticism, and its money-spinning commercialization. But how valid are these concerns, and do they matter if positive psychology makes people happy?
Positive psychology has grown at an explosive rate since Seligman ushered it into the public conscious, surprising even Seligman himself. The field has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants. Its 2019 World Congress was attended by 1,600 delegates from 70 countries. It inspires tens of thousands of research papers, endless reams of popular books, and supports armies of therapists, coaches, and mentors.
Its institutional uptake has been no less impressive. More than a million US soldiers have been trained in positive psychology’s techniques of resilience just two years after the “Battlemind” program was launched in 2007. Scores of K-12 schools have adopted its principles. In 2018, Yale University announced that an astonishing one-quarter of its undergraduates had enrolled in its course on happiness.
Since that inaugural presidential address in 1998, Seligman has distanced positive psychology from its original focus. At its inception, the field sought to map the paths that end in authentic fulfillment. But with Flourish, Seligman changed course. Happiness, he declared, is not the only goal of human existence, as he’d previously thought.
The purpose of life, he said, is well-being, or flourishing, which 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.
“Positive psychology gives the impression you can be well and happy just by thinking the right thoughts.”This shift toward moral action hasn’t helped the critical response towards positive psychology’s lofty aims and pragmatic methods. 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.
But that’s not the only critique. Others decry positive psychology’s commodification and commercial cheapening by the thousands of coaches, consultants, and therapists who have jumped on the bandwagon with wild claims for their lucrative products.
In several high-profile cases, serious flaws have been found in positive psychology’s science, not just at the hysterical fringe, but in the work of big stars including Seligman himself. There are worries about its replicability, its dependence on unreliable self-reports, and the sense that it can be used to prescribe one thing and also its opposite — for example, that well-being consists in living in the moment, but also in being future-oriented.
And for a science, positive psychology can often sound a lot like religion. Consider its trappings: It has a charismatic leader and legions of rapturous followers. It has a year zero and a creation myth that begins with an epiphany.
“I have no less mystical way to put it,” Seligman wrote in Flourish. “Positive psychology called to me just as the burning bush called to Moses.”
Seligman’s inclusion of material achievement in the components of happiness has also raised eyebrows. He has theorized that people who have not achieved some degree of mastery and success in the world can’t be said to be flourishing. He once described a “thirty-two-year-old Harvard University summa in mathematics who is fluent in Russian and Japanese and runs her own hedge fund” as a “poster child for positive psychology.” But this can make well-being seem exclusive and out of reach, since accomplishment of this kind is not possible to all, or even most.
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?
“Positive psychology gives the impression you can be well and happy just by thinking the right thoughts. It encourages a culture of blaming the victim,” said professor Jim Coyne, a former colleague and fierce critic of Seligman.
Then there are positive psychology’s financial ties to religion. The Templeton Foundation, originally established to promote evangelical Christianity and still pursuing goals related to religious understanding, is Seligman’s biggest private sponsor and has granted him tens of millions of dollars. It partly funded his research into universal values, helped establish the Positive Psychology Center at Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania, and endows psychology’s richest prize, the $100,000 Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology. The foundation has, cultural critic Ruth Whippman wrote in her book America the Anxious, “played a huge role in shaping the philosophical role positive psychology has taken.”
We should find this scandalous, Coyne says. “It’s outrageous that a religious organization — or any vested interest — can determine the course of scientific ‘progress,’ that it can dictate what science gets done.”
Despite the criticism, positive psychology remains incredibly popular. Books with “happiness” in the title fly off the shelves, and people sign up for seminars and courses and lectures in droves. We all seem to want what positive psychology is selling. What is it that makes this movement so compelling?
Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside and an early star of the movement, told me that positive psychology was born at a time of peace and plenty. Many today “have the luxury to reflect and work on their own well-being,” she says. “When people are struggling to get their basic needs met they don’t have the time or resources or energy or motivation to consider whether they are happy.”
The 2008 financial crisis, though, seems to challenge this hypothesis. Suddenly, the luxury to reflect evaporated for vast numbers of people. But analysis by social scientists shows that the number of academic papers published on positive psychology and happiness continued to rise.
That’s led skeptics such as Coyne, Cabanas, and Illouz to suggest that positive psychology’s popularity today is less a question of demand than supply. There’s so much money in the movement now that it is propelled by the energy and entrepreneurial vim of the coaches, consultants, writers, and academics who make livings from it.
It’s also possible, however, that positive psychology’s entanglement with religion may contribute to its popularity. As Vox recently reported, secularism is on the rise in the US. But the propensity to believe in the divine runs very deep in the human psyche. We are, psychologists such as Bruce Hood say, hard-wired for religion. Positive psychology’s spiritual orientation makes it the perfect receptacle for our displaced religious impulses. Critics such as Coyne claim this is by design. The missionary tone, being called like Moses — these are all part of Seligman’s vision for positive psychology.
“Seligman frequently makes claims of mystical intervention that many of us dismiss as marketing,” Coyne told me.
But does the marketing matter if positive psychology helps people lead better lives? Skeptics, once again, question whether the benefits of positive psychology are really as great as claimed. Cabanas said that there “is no major conclusion in positive psychology that has not been challenged, modified or even rejected.” Yet the fact of positive psychology’s meteoric rise cannot be ignored; Seligman and his colleagues are very clearly doing something right, something that gives hope, optimism, and perhaps even happiness to millions of its consumers.
When I asked Seligman about the field’s connection to religion, he said most practitioners “would dissent from my strange beliefs,” and that those beliefs were his own. He referred me to the final chapter of his autobiography, in which he describes the death of his friend and mentor Jack Templeton, whose father’s foundation has funded Seligman’s research.
Seligman was bedridden at the time, but after reading a tract on positive Christianity, he had a “command hallucination” to rise and attend the evangelical memorial service.
The tract read: “Religion and science are opposed, but only in the same sense in which my thumb and forefinger are opposed — and between the two, one can grasp everything.”
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