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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 07/01/2010 | 2 Comments

In Bright-sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America Barbara Ehrenreich includes a whole chapter called 'Positive Psychology; the Science of Happiness'.

There are five main strands to what is essentially an attack on Positive Psychology (PP). 

1. PP tries to distance itself from mainstream, commercially driven positive thinking but it is essentially similar in that it is part of the 'coaching and motivation businesses'. PP hasn't been big on 'success' in the way that much of positive thinking is but nonetheless its focus on 'happiness' is marketed in very similar, individualistic ways. PP itself is thought of, and projected, as a 'brand'.
2. PP projects itself as scientific but is far from it according to Ehrenreich, who herself has a Ph.D in cell biology. She particularly takes issue with what she calls the 'pseudoscientific assertions' in Authentic Happiness particularly the equation

                                           H= S+C+V

where H is happiness, S is an individual's set range, C is the circumstances of his/her life and V is the factors under his/her voluntary control.  She argues that to present this as a simple equation is to 'invite ridicule' in part because Seligman cannot suggest that such  complex issues can ever be reduced to simple numbers. She also takes issue with some of the studies repeatedly cited by Seligman and others, such as the Nun Study, because they are simply correlational rather than causal. In other words, they present an association between two things (writing positive thoughts and longevity) but how do we know that there is not a third variable which is causal such as the background of the nuns?  What’s more some studies contradict the findings that there is a link between optimism and good health but these tend to get ignored. She argues that for researchers, the pressure to be part of the PP community is such that negative or mixed results get overlooked or dressed up to look more in line with the viewpoint of PP.
4. Much of PP has been funded by the Templeton Foundation which has conservative and right wing values. Ehrenreich emphatically does not argue that PP is part of a right-wing conspiracy but she thinks its ideas can easily be used to shore up conservative views and to encourage people to accept the status quo. She quotes Seligman as saying that making changes in the real world is 'often impractical and  expensive', the implication being it is better to change people's psychology so they can adjust to the status quo.
5. Another major focus in this chapter is Seligman himself who Ehrenreich interviewed on a couple of occasions and who she portrays essentially as manipulative and an opportunist.

Once I have finished the book I am currently writing (not too far off) I plan to write something on the Centre's general approach to confidence and well-being issues including our views and relationship to PP. So here I simply plan to respond to Ehrenreich's views.

First, I have felt for some time that PP is very much commercially driven. Indeed the book title Authentic Happiness was chosen by Seligman's publishers as they saw it as a good commercial title. This focus on happiness now permeates the movement even though some of the main leaders have misgivings about this emphasis. I also have concerns about researchers saying they are scientists yet having commercial interests in programmes which they heavily promote.

Second, I think PP's 'scientific' basis is often questionable. Studies are often quoted which 'prove' certain things – eg that the three blessing exercise works yet when you look at the original research it has often been carried out on a very distinct population. When researchers try to replicate these findings and get negative results, these studies are rarely published. Practitioners use of PP is considerably outstripping the science.

Third, I think there is a tendency in PP (and perhaps in psychology as a whole) to try and fix the individual, through psychological interventions, rather than looking at changing circumstances or even inquiring about circumstances. Thus, for example, in school interventions on children's well-being the focus is on their optimism or emotional literacy with nothing or little said about their lack of physical activity, exposure to advertising, screen use, diet etc. This means that PP could be socially conservative and even discourage people from taking action to solve problems.

Fourth, I think there is something off-putting about the American base of PP because it is founded on hero-worship and does not welcome criticism presumably because this is contrary to some of the underlying ideas – positivity is good. This is less of  an issue in Europe, however.

When I was on Martin Seligman's distance learning programme years ago  I couldn't understand why the Americans involved in the telephone discussions seemed to think they needed more positivity in life. If anything, I often thought them too positive and uncritical – they should come to Scotland and see what negativity is really like. This is why I think Scotland, more than America, has more to benefit from PP.

Where I part company with Ehrenreich is that I think that some of the research under the PP banner is helpful and useful and I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Indeed I think some of this research could be used as a justification for radical social change. What I increasingly take issue with in PP is the reductionist belief that these researches and practitioners hold the answer to people's problems and that somehow they are going to make the world happier through their distinctly limited toolbox of interventions. PP has undoubtedly something to offer but as you can see graphically in our Flourishing Lives project, psychology is only one piece of the jigsaw - it is not the whole picture.

Comment By Comment

Comment Posted: 04/02/2010 23:18
Hi Carol
I too have just read 'Bright Sided' and am in full agreement with your points.
As you know I spent some time last year studying Positive Psychology and subsequently joined an online forum so that topics of mutual interest could be explored. However I quickly discovered that the (largely American) contributors sought to defend the 'Science of PP' against detractors, and Barbara Ehenrech came in for substantial abuse following publication of her book.Seligman called it a 'curmudgeonly book' and accused Barbara'I hate hope'Ehenreich of 'dangerous journalistic malpractice' because she questioned the claims around posivity and cancer cures.

In my own work as a self employed facilitator and coach, I have become increasingly concerned at how this new science of contentment has also crept into organisations.

A couple of years ago I was invited to attend a 3 day residential programme organised and paid for by a large Australian Bank. The topic was, broadly, transformational leadership using a combination of interpersonal skills training, meditation practices and personal mastery techniques. We were given material on positive psychology as background reading and it was my introduction to this new science.
All bank employees (many thousands) had attended or were to attend a version of this programme.
As part of the programme, which became increasingly new age and weird, we were invited to walk a labyrinth in a dimly lit room whist listening to Gregorian Chants and reflecting on what was important to us. At the time I was preoccupied with a personal issue my 16 year old daughter was facing major, life-threatening surgery and I became upset.

One of the facilitators approached and sought to comfort me by suggesting that my daughters soul had chosen this path of suffering, and that I, as her mother, should be prepared to accept that she might choose to not be healed. She told me that any physical trauma or health concern could also be linked to damaged chakras early in life. When I challenged these wacky and offensive ideas, I was told that her journey of suffering may have begun in a previous life and I simply needed to reframe my thinking..

I like to think of myself as a positive, optimistic person and I am convinced that there are situations where we have a choice about how we respond, which may in turn have an impact on the eventual outcome. But concepts like the law of attraction (we reap what we sow, blame the victim) and other forms of magical thinking are, in my view, outrageous and plain bonkers.

It is one thing to make a personal decision to explore ways of dealing with problems and trauma, and to choose to buy self help books or attend expensive workshops - I frequently meet people for whom thinking positively has proved useful in helping them overcome personal challenges. But when organisations require that employees be upbeat and relentlessly cheerful in the face of difficulties caused by factors outside their control ('if you are unhappy you brought it on yourself'), then it risks becoming intrusive and possibly dangerous. Shifting the blame for workers unhappiness onto them, rather than exploring other factors such as work overload, low pay or poor management is not only mischievous and insulting, but might also be seen as a form of social control.
Barbara Ehenreich's book is timely and useful.

I'm enjoying your Flourishing Lives project - keep up the good work!!
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