Positive Psychology: Where The Big Bucks Are…

As any psychologist knows you have to publish or perish and the best way to do this is with unrestricted funding and an ‘in’ topic; enter positive psychology! The New Age has arrived in the field of psychology and it’s making quite an impression.  Though its basic tenets are laudable from an empirical perspective the hype that surrounds it is not. The field of psychology seeks to understand humanity in all its complexities, be they good, bad or ugly and though one could argue that its focus has been primarily pathological such an approach may be justified  given the costs socially, financially and culturally of such psychopathologies.

Mental illness is a major concern in modern society. It impacts families, communities and government policies. Psychology, both research and applied, has contributed greatly to our understanding and treatment of mental illness. To accuse Psychology of being a science of victimology is tantamount to negating the immeasurable value of these contributions. Fifty years ago people with serious mental disorders were institutionalised. Today, thanks to mainstream psychology, there are a range of alternatives available. Advances in psychopathology and various therapies now enable many people who would have previously been institutionalised to lead more fulfilling lives within the community. Not everyone has the luxury of engaging in learned optimism

As stated earlier positive psychology’s basic tenets are sound. However the emphasis on optimism and learned optimism immerse the discipline in tautology. Proponents of the science have engaged in practices which render it nothing more than a New Age movement. Lyubomirsky, as a serious psychological researcher, has written a book that would make Oprah proud. “The How of Happiness’ can change your life, from a purely scientific perspective of course and for those not big on literature there is always her I phone application “Live Happy”. This is science for the masses. On a more serious note many of the arguments raised by positive psychologists are fallacious. They are guilty of a

“, failure to clearly define or properly apply terms, the identification of causal relations where none exist, and unjustified generalisation. Instead of demonstrating that positive attitudes explain achievement, success, well-being and happiness, positive psychology merely associates mental health with a particular personality type: a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.”       (Miller, p.592, 2008)

Another problem with this emphasis on optimism, learned or innate, is its failure to recognise the validity of pessimism. Though Seligman acknowledges that there are some psychological benefits to pessimism he also dismisses pessimists as a small minority (Ruark, 2009). More than a quarter of the population (Norem, 2002) is not, I would suggest, a small minority. Lillenfield (In Ruark,2009) voiced similar concerns. He intimated that the popular notion that positive psychology is for everyone could have a detrimental effect on people with low self esteem as research showed the use of positive affirmations (such as I am a loveable person) made them feel worse, not better. Another interesting point in relation to the issue of self-esteem raised by Murk, (2006) is positive psychologies role in someone with negative self esteem. He believes that this area has been neglected by positive psychology and argues for a more humanistic which encapsulates self esteem at every point on the continuum and does not simply focus on positive personality traits and those who have them.

The new and burgeoning field of positive psychology furthers our understanding of the human condition; but at what cost? Happiness, happy people and happy places are not the be all and end all of our society. Trauma, crisis, illness and negative emotions all have a place and a function in life. Since the inception of humanistic psychology researchers have endeavoured to investigate and comprehend human nature and in so doing have studied positive as well as negative traits and behaviours. As far back as 1954 Maslow used the term positive psychology so it is not necessarily a new and recent concept or field of study. What is new is the hype and controversy which surrounds this discipline. It connotates, for many, self-help and New Age movements and given the speed with which many of its psychologists have jumped on the self-help book bandwagon this is hardly surprising. Publish or perish should not mean anywhere at any cost. These pop culture enthusiasts bring the whole discipline of psychology into disrepute. As Sundararajan (p.35, 2005) says “An empirically based version of the good life as proposed by positive psychology is a donut with something missing at the core–the moral map.”


Lyubomirsky, S. (2008).  The How of Happiness; A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin; London

Maslow, A. (1954).  Motivation and Personality. Harper: NY

Miller, A. (2008). A Critique of Positive Psychology – or ‘the new science of happiness’. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42, 3-4, 591-608.

Mruk, C.J. (2006). Self-esteem, research, theory and practice: toward a positive psychology of self esteem, (3rd Ed.). Springer: NY.

Norem, J. (2002).  The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Using defensive pessimism to harness anxiety and perform at your peak. Perseus: NY

Ruark, J., (2009). An intellectual movement for the masses. Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle/ariticle/An-Intellectual-Movement-for/47500  accessed: 18/04/10.

Sundararajanl, L, (2005). Happiness Doughnut: A Confucian Critique of Positive Psychology. The Journal of Philosophical Psychology, 25, 1, 35 -60.


~ by annstyles on April 29, 2010.

One Response to “Positive Psychology: Where The Big Bucks Are…”

  1. I would agree that there is a very real danger that “positive psychology merely associates mental health with a particular personality type: a cheerful, outgoing, goal-driven, status-seeking extravert.” (Miller, p.592, 2008)
    as you write in your article. This certainly diminshes applications of coping strategies and beneficial pain (to use a controversial concept) which serves real purpose in reactions to many situations and the often less than ideal environments which we may live and grow in. I would argue that the emphasis on happiness is a misinterpretation of the principles of positive psychology which is, unfortunately, all too easy to make. Positive psychology occupies an important niche which investigates the psychological mechanisms of positive outcomes rather than presuming these result simply from a lack of negative outcomes. I suppose this is a biased investigation, ignoring ‘neutral’ and ‘negative (destructive?)’ psychological mechanisms but it there does seem to be a space in the field which this approach can usefully occupy. Positive psychology is an addition not an alternative.

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