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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 11/07/2010 | 3 Comments

I rarely attend international conferences but I did go to the European Positive Psychology conference in Copenhagen as I was asked to give a talk . I'm glad I accepted the invitation – not only was it a chance to catch up with people I know but also I've never been to any Scandinavian country. I was not disappointed. I loved Copenhagen. Quite simply it is a stunningly beautiful city with a mellow, relaxed atmosphere.

For me easily the best part of the conference was the Danish hospitality. I've never attended that type of event before and felt so consistently looked after. It was also very well organised. However, ironically, I felt much less positive about the content. Of course, there were some good talks – by Barbara Frederickson, Howard Gardener or William Damon, for example – but generally speaking it was more of the same.

What particularly concerned me, however, was my observation that PP is becoming, and probably has been since its inception, something of a cult.  What I  mean by this is that many followers only want to think within a limited, psychological,  frame of reference while simultaneously believing that the few tools that have been developed by PP are capable of changing the world. For example, at one of the workshops I attended a young woman outlined the evidence to support the alleged rise in young people's mental ill-health. She then went on to outline the intervention with which she was involved – an intervention designed to boost optimism. This presentation  consciously or unconsciously conveyed the idea that the heart of the problem was young people's thinking style as she did not even attempt to explain the cause of young people's ill-health. Thus she said nothing about family and community breakdown, the rise of the media, lack of exercise, diet or a whole range of factors which may have an impact on youngster's mental health.  No she could only talk within a very limited psychological frame of reference.   Of course, these type of psychological approaches have something to offer but if PP does not even refer to other way to analyse problems or conceptualise solutions it is dangerously myopic.

I went to a very different type of event last Sunday held by Glasgow University's Centre of Development and was surprised to see exactly the same dynamic. The keynote speaker was Professor Muhammad Yunus from the Grameen Foundation.  Professor Yunus is an amazing man who has done a considerable amount to tackle global poverty by lending small sums of money (microfinance) to poor people – mainly women – to transform theirs' and their families' lives.  Professor Yunus has now turned his attention to social business and this was the main theme of the event.  Of course, there is much in his vision and the tools he identifies but sadly in his talk he tended to present them as 'the answer' to the world's problems, in a similarly reductionist way as the folk at the PP conference.  Don't get me wrong I would have more confidence in Professor Yunus's approach to global poverty than I would Professor Martin Seligman's but at this event Yunus was tempted to present these same tools as the solution to unemployment, inequality, welfare dependence and so on – some of the endemic problems of the west. Here I would say, just as I would to Positive Psychologists, of course there is some truth and relevance in what you are saying but please do not see it as 'the answer'. There isn't one.

Comment By Comment
Luke Devlin
Joined: 11/07/2010

Comment Posted: 11/07/2010 23:10
Totally agree with this, and it applies to many other fields as well. Wilber calls this 'quadrant absolutism': it's not just reductionism, but a prioritisation of a certain perspective/ knowledge domain over others, or even a denial that others exist.

An integral approach- not necessarily only Wilberian- is definitely needed.
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Alex Smith

Comment Posted: 12/07/2010 12:25
I also agree. I've never heard of 'quadrant absolutism' nor of Wilber but I intend to deal with that gap in my learning. An old boss of mine used to say, 'If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.' Sums it up, doesn't it?
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Joined: 14/07/2010

Comment Posted: 14/07/2010 13:04
I also believe that we can easily fall into the trap of distilling human experience into a few 'problems' that require their respective 'solutions'. Of course, there are interventions and techniques out there which have been shown to be effective at tackling specific areas of one's life. However, I feel that individuals who rely solely on this reductionist, almost manualised approach, are forgetting just how rich and complex life actually is - any intervention that denies this is both patronizing to the individual, and potentially harmful.
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