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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 08/07/2008

Felicia Huppert is a professor of psychology at Cambridge University. At last week’s European Positive Psychology Conference in Croatia the Centre held a symposium on work in Scotland and Felicia was the person we nominated to act as a discussant. In other words her role at our session was to respond to the four presentations she had listened to. Felicia (often noted for her critical faculties) was fulsome in her remarks, saying that she thought the work in Scotland was leading the field. Felicia particularly singled out two aspects of our work for positive comment. One was our attempts to link evidence with practice. The other was the fact that we are not simply trying to work with individuals in Scotland but are taking a group/community perspective.

Information on the presentations which elicited this response will be added shortly to the website. What I want to set out here is another view on why someone like Professor Huppert should say we are leading the field: it is not necessarily because the work we are doing is of such high quality but because, sadly, Positive Psychology is not currently living up to the ambitious mission it set for itself over eight years ago.

I set out some of my views for this at the conference in an earlier presentation on a symposium convened on conceptual issues. Part of my argument is that Positive Psychology (in the tradition of American psychology) has a big vision – in this case of improving the well-being and happiness, not just of people with mental difficulties, but potentially of everyone. However, when you look at the tool box of interventions Positive Psychologists have devised to ‘fix’ the world it is shamefully inadequate. In it we have the three blessings, the ABCDE technique, gratitude and a few other interventions which are basically about how people think or feel. I am not saying that there is no value in these approaches but on their own that are woefully inadequate.

Take a minute and think about the well-being of young people. IF we were to make a list on the factors which may impinge on this it would be enormous – parental influences (including divorce, parent’s working hours), diet, exercise, media, advertising, school, exams, political climate and a daily dose of pessimism about impending climate catastrophe, to name only a few. However, all Positive Psychologists seem to talk about in relation to young people is optimism, flow, resilience and signature strengths. I am not saying they are irrelevant but they may be of much less importance than the impact of the media or a sedentary lifestyle. Indeed they could be diverting people from some of the big issues – such as exercise. These are not the types of topics which are discussed at Positive Psychology conferences.

Partly in response to my critique one of the founders of Positive Psychology, Mihaly Cziksentmihaly spent some time in his session on flow talking about his original objectives for PP. Yes, he said it was partly about improving life satisfaction through positive interventions such as those on optimism or gratitude. But this was only one part of the objective – and the least important at that. The more important aspect of Positive Psychology’s mission was to join those in other social sciences to foster an in-depth understanding of how various life domains helped or hindered people’s feelings of well-being. The contexts he was referring to included all aspects of life – housing, hospitals, the media, politics and so forth.

In Scotland we have not managed to form the broad alliances to take this approach forward but at least we are aware of its importance and are arguing passionately for the necessity to broaden out beyond the narrow individual focus which is coming to dominate in Positive Psychology.

This does not mean there is no value in the types of concerns being addressed by Positive Psychologists. Far from it – particularly for us in Scotland where there are chronically low levels of optimism in some of our poorer communities. There is also a lot of interesting work being done under the PP banner. But we must be careful not to suggest that these types of interventions are a panacea. PP is only an important part of a much bigger whole.

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