Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Soft Science of Positive Psychology

Modern philosophy – and more recently science and psychology – have shared the revelation that reality is all in your head. Change your head, goes one line of thought, and you change your reality.

In psychology this has spurned positive psychology: The study of the positive mindset is implicitly carried out in contrast to the study of negative mindsets, which consist of most of psychology’s history.

Positive psychology, however, remains more of a movement than an area of study. It has yet to prove itself, and most of the innovation has occurred in semantics – where, for instance, exercise might have been said to treat depression, positive psychologists would say that it provides a buffer against depression. (I wrote a bit more on the topic here.)

And it’s not as if the scientists haven’t been trying – positive psychology remains a well-funded area of research, considered in academic circles to be fresh and forward-looking. It’s just lacked many groundbreaking findings.

In all fairness, it’s still considered a new topic, with roots that go back only one or two decades. Researchers are just warming up. But as a movement, it’s already starting to outstay its welcome.

As might be expected from any movement, it’s now undergoing a backlash. Cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich recently railed against the infusion of cancer treatment and positive psychology. After being diagnosed with breast cancer
She discovered that a positive attitude was more or less compulsory. Most of her fellow sufferers thought it would help them recover. Some even said that cancer was a “gift” that helped one find life’s purpose. Ms Ehrenreich disagreed…She complained about the debilitating effects of chemotherapy, recalcitrant insurance companies and, most daringly, “sappy pink ribbons”…

More generally, Ms Ehrenreich sees an “ideological force in American culture…that encourages us to deny reality.”…At a confab for motivational speakers, she is told that anyone can achieve “infinite power” by resonating in tune with the universe. From a popular preacher in Houston, she discovers that God will give big houses and nice tables in restaurants to those who sincerely wish for them. After slogging through countless books and lectures, she learns that food doesn’t make you fat unless you think it will, and that you can solve many of life’s problems by avoiding negative people. (The Economist, 12/17/09)

Ehrenreich, along with a handful of other authors, have recently published books that mock positive psychology as a feel-good movement devoid of any true science.

Between the movement and the backlash, positive psychology has a very American feel: It has more connections to alternative medicine than to clinical science, and its practical pop-science-for-the-masses approach bears some resemblance to America’s 19th century Spiritualist and Evangelical practices.

Areas such as a positive psychology are why psychology is still – and will long be – considered a soft science. In almost any other area of science, the creation of a new field of study would be spurned by some scientific breakthrough. Not so in positive psychology. Here, the change has occurred in the researchers’ minds, where they have made a conscious decision to focus on the positive instead of the negative.

Yet in itself, explicitly redirecting your thoughts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is what you do when you're testing assumptions: You change them and examine the consequences. This process can be powerful. It has given birth to non-Euclidian geometry and to Godel’s incompleteness theorems.

But in positive psychology it has produced very little. Highly studied emotions in positive psychology include flow, elevation, hopefulness, and appreciation. But in the current state of the things, these remain empty constructs and definitions, with few empirical connections.

The insight of empirical science is that, when increasing knowledge, we turn to the outside world. Reality is all in your head, but that does not deny the existence of a very real, concrete, palpable world outside of you. The stubborn inability to learn from this world, in politics, has led to true suffering; in business, has led to bankruptcy; in personality, has led to delusion; and in psychology, has led to positive psychology.



Media (in order of appearance)

Image: (1)Radioactive Happiness, 06/10/2006, Netsrot; (2) Woman getting massage, 12/08/2006, hop sungtrieu; (3) BP716 Rainbow and Bird, 07/14/2006, listentoreason.
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  1. Existentialists would suggest happiness is, well, relative. Dispair, sadness -- these are often the wellsprings of introspection and creativity. Maybe that's why the "happiness experts" haven't gotten too far...

  2. Along those lines, one false assumption in this arena is that happiness is often implicitly seen as the opposite of sadness. The terms certainly have opposite meanings, but this does not guarantee that they exist on polar sides of the same spectrum.

    On the one hand, positive psychology does recognize this, as constructs like 'flow' are treated as unique entities. But you still have the underlying assumption that just b/c psychology has mostly focused on the 'negative', it's possible to reverse course and focus on the 'positive'. It's a false assumption which is commonly made in other realms of life, and previously ( I suggested that it's the assumption behind communism and socialist utopias.

  3. You have a nice blog.I enjoy reading many of the books and papers on building a successful practice but “Change Therapy” by David Diana is one of the most unique yet. It is a collection of articles and stories that read like Levitt’s Freakonomics or Gladwell’s Outliers. The stories are fresh, unexpected and thought provoking. It’s a free download so take a look for yourself or share with your community.

  4. Having discovered your blog today I have found much that is interesting. However, I'm baffled by much of what you say in your posts on positive psychology.

    For example, you say, "Cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich recently railed against the infusion of cancer treatment and positive psychology." The two paragraphs you quote, however, seem concerned with positive thinking, self-deception and supernatural beliefs rather than positive psychology.

    I would appreciate it if you would explain what connection between these and positive psychology.


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