Positive Roots, Positive Politics
Positive Psychology does not critique the methodologies of psychology, rather it critiques its subject matter. It calls us, as psychologists, to address an imbalance that it claims has been present in the discipline for the last 50 years. It claims that psychology has been almost exclusively focused on understanding the negative aspects of the mind, and fixing the problems of human life, at the expense of the positive aspects such as positive subjective experience, positive character traits, and positive institutions. As such, positive psychology as a sub-discipline that at the core, is characterised by advocacy for increased research in these areas. Given this starting point, the positive psychology movement is inevitably value-laden from the outset. Within ‘pure’ positive psychology research, the value is merely circumstantial, a necessary characteristic of its being included in the category of ‘positive psychology research’. However, proponents of positive psychology have also made the stronger claim that research in this field be applied with the aim of increasing human happiness and improving human lives. This, I believe, requires a more precise definition of the ‘good’, as seen by positive psychology. Deiner and Suh (1997) proposed three ways in which something can be designated ‘good’: things that are regularly chosen by people can be assumed to be good, people’s positive subjective experience of something can indicate that that thing is good, and people treat the things which social norms and traditions designate as ‘good’ as good. I argue that these three bases can be reduced to the second – positive subjective experience. People regularly choose things freely because of implicit or explicit association with positive affect, and social norms and traditions are but another manifestation of the association of things with positive affect. Similarly, of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) distinction between positive psychology’s areas of study (positive subjective experience, positive character traits, and positive institutions), I argue, following Plato, Bentham (1789), and others, that positive character traits and positive institutions are good only extrinsically, deriving their value from their capacity to produce positive subjective experience. As such, positive subjective experience can be taken to be the only thing which is ‘intrinsically good’, all other things of positive value deriving their value from positive affect. Consequently positive psychology is grounded in this notion of positive affect.
After 10 years of research, positive psychology has become well-established, having now got dedicated journals, masters degrees, college textbooks (Gable and Haidt, 2005). However, as Gable and Haidt (2005) note, despite the three pillars of positive psychology mentioned above, the majority of research has been conducted on positive subjective experience and positive character traits, with positive institutions being neglected. If positive psychology is to fulfill its goal of increasing human happiness, in addition learning about and developing interventions to increase happiness, it must also engage society at a wider level. This represents an opportunity to improve the lives of people on a large scale, something which is a goal not only of psychology but also a political and moral goal. Below I will discuss some of these possibilities in more detail.
Diener and Biswas-Diener (2001) present a literature review comparing subjective well-being and income levels. The paper provided evidence that happiness and income were strongly correlated only to the point at which one’s basic needs were met. After this point, a law of diminishing returns is in effect, with income level only a very weak predictor of happiness, especially in wealthy, developed nations. In a widely cited study, Easterlin (1974) found that while average income in the United States increased between 1946 and 1970, happiness did not and even declined at points during this period. Taken together, these data suggest that in countries where gross domestic product is adequate to meet the basic needs of its citizens, money quickly loses its importance for well-being. However, policy in almost every country in the world, including developed nations, is judged on the basis of economic/monetary indicators (Diener and Seligman, 2004).
If one accepts that happiness is important and that increasing it is a worthwhile aim, then positive psychology has a role to play. By researching happiness and the conditions that promote it, positive psychology may be able to support and facilitate a re-focusing and re-direction of policy-making and governance at a national level. This support will come from the provision of empirically-based research findings to guide policy decisions that are more likely to increase the public well-being. For example, state funding could support programs such as the ‘Penn Prevention Program’ which has been demonstrated to reduce risk of developing depressive symptoms in children (aged 10-13) by teaching ‘learned optimism’ techniques (Jaycox et al., 1994). Since research has also found happiness to be related to strong social ties (Baumeister and Leary, 1995) and freedom from mental illness (Packer et al., 1997), policies which build strong communities and increase funding for mental health services could serve to raise national happiness.
As Linley et al. (2006) indicate, small movements towards this objective have already begun. The United Nations University WIDER project has produced some work on developing measures of subjective well-being to supplement traditional economic measures (Veenhoven, 2004). One extremely noteworthy case is that of Bhutan, a small country in South Asia. Bhutan has one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world (5,400 US$ in 2009) – 137th (CIA World Factbook, 2010). Yet in 1972 the King of Bhutan introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness to reflect his approach to the development of Bhutan (Braun, 2009). The Centre for Bhutan Studies opened in 1999, which conducts research into happiness, including the development of a index of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (Braun, 2009). The information from this instrument, which measures many facets of well-being, is used to identify areas needing more input and guide policy-making (Braun, 2009). For example, one project initiated by the government involved setting up health services, dormitories and food in temples, in order to facilitate the elderly who wish to remain at their temple in their old age for a life of meditation, as opposed to moving to a nursing home (Braun, 2009). White (2007) presented evidence that Bhutan ranked 8th in the world on subjective well-being, and the only country in the top 20 with a low GDP. This clearly supports the idea that policy at a national level can be effective in increasing the happiness of the public.
Positive psychology therefore presents an opportunity to bolster developments of this kind with scientifically tested concepts. The contributions of positive psychology to date have been great, providing us with interventions to be used at an individual level. However, I believe positive psychology holds great promise in getting involved at the higher levels of society, and hope that the field will make good on its promise and progress in this direction.
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