Last year, I officially completed the requirements of Penn’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. Recently, I read Morgan Mitchell’s Newsweek article, The ‘Tyranny’ of Positive Thinking can Threaten Your Health and Happiness. This article makes a fundamental error concerning the definition of positive psychology, and I wish to correct that error.
Before World War II, psychology focused on three areas: curing mental illness, cultivating high talent, and making people’s lives more fulfilling and productive. Post WWII, economic incentives shifted psychology’s focus solely to pathology. Chief among these incentives were the decisions of grant-making bodies to fund research related to pathology and the realization among psychologists that they could earn a living treating mental illness.
Seligman and others (circa 1998) first conceived of positive psychology as a “science of human strengths,” seeking to prevent mental illness by cultivating human strengths. By 2006, positive psychology was also described as “seeking to promote human potential.” Today, positive psychology uses the scientific method to study the factors that contribute to human well-being.
The belief that humans can increase their well-being is not new. It can be traced back through the centuries and across cultures. Aristotle pondered a state of “being happy” (as opposed to “feeling happy”) he called eudaemonia. William James argued that our actions could lead to a state of happiness distinct from feeling happy. Seligman expressed the view that the absence of mental illness does not imply the presence of mental wellness.
The focus on using the scientific method, testing ideas and obtaining evidence before drawing conclusions, is what differentiates positive psychology from many books in the self-help section. As a result, Mitchell’s claim that a simplified form of positive psychology exists is incorrect.
Furthermore, research suggests that positive results are not limited to positive stimuli. For example, fear and anger have been shown to narrow selective attention. This effect is useful when a situation demands that we focus on a task or particular set of instructions. Additionally, the concept of post-traumatic growth is defined as a positive change which stems from a traumatic life event, generally an experience that nobody would choose.
Too much of a bad thing can be bad for you. But too much of a good thing can also be bad for you. Too much confidence can beget arrogance. Too much optimism can cause you to miss signs of danger. An overemphasis on autonomy can prevent you from seeking much needed help. None of these outcomes would be in line with Seligman’s original vision or with positive psychology as it stands today.
Researchers and practitioners of positive psychology do not consider approaches without grounding in scientific evidence to be part of positive psychology. Neither would they consider an approach that involves only positive thinking tp be part of positive psychology. Just as overcoming mental illness takes work on the part of a patient, so too does increasing one’s well-being.
It is unfortunate that Mitchell conflates self-help and positive psychology. However, positive psychology has sometimes been misunderstood as being happiology, the study of a hedonic superficial form of happiness, since at least 2006. Unfortunately, some authors who disregard positive psychology’s focus on the scientific method claim their work to be positive psychology in order to cash in on its popularity. I hope clarifying this distinction helps others differentiate between what might be positive psychology and what is not.