“I’ve spent my life working on extremely miserable people and I’ve asked the question, “How do extremely miserable people differ from the rest of you?” And starting about six years ago we asked about extremely happy people and how do they differ from the rest of us? And it turns out there’s one way, very surprising – they’re not more religious, they’re not in better shape, they don’t have more money, they’re not better looking. The one way they differ is they’re extremely social …” (Martin Seligman, TED Talk, 2004)
Martin Seligman is the founder of the Positive Psychology movement and the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. A respected, admired, successful, charismatic and inspirational figure in psychology, Seligman is also a bit of a showman. And I suspect that he is occasionally economical with the truth. It’s not strictly true for example that he’s spent his life working on extremely miserable people. It might be true to say that he has spent most of his career researching depression prior to Positive Psychology. But I was interested to find out one of the other things he was doing before he became the guru of positive emotion and positive psychology.
Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness” through experimenting on dogs. From around 1967, he and his colleagues would apply “intense electrical shocks to the dogs causing them to howl and involuntarily urinate. They [the dogs] were left with no options to avoid the pain and an understanding that it would continue with no relief” (Wikipedia). When the dogs were subsequently faced with an option to get away from the pain, their previous conditioning meant that they carried on enduring the shocks rather than seeking to avoid them. This form of “learned helplessness” could be seen to apply equally well to depressed humans. Seligman then addressed the flip-side of learned helplessness which is “learned optimism”, from where it was a relatively short step to focusing generally on a broader range of positive emotions.
Positive Psychology (PP) as a whole focuses on the empirical study of positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions and positive psychologists seek not just to treat mental illness but “to make normal life more fulfilling” and “to find and nurture genius and talent”. To my mind, most of the focus appears to be on positive emotions and individual traits as a way of thriving and becoming happier, more satisfied and engaged with life (which is not necessarily the same as happiness).
As Dorothy pointed out in her review of Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity,
The term “positivity” is a better one than happiness, since it contains within it a whole list of positive emotions, including joy, love, curiosity, contentment, gratitude, amusement, hope, inspiration, wonder, and pride. Fredrickson has done lots of studies on the effects of these positive emotions on people, and … […the basic argument is that we can increase our positivity ratios, then there will be] … a tipping point that can fundamentally change our experience of life. Once we reach that point, we become more open to life, more curious, more imaginative, and more resilient.
… The key to thriving, she argues, is to make a conscious effort to create positive emotions and to fully experience the ones we already have. A major part of the book is devoted to describing ways of doing this, and her recommendations … include things like making a conscious effort to savour the positive things that happen to us, to practice insight meditation or lovingkindness meditation in order to open the mind and heart, to find distractions that will get us out of negative ways of thinking, and lots of others.
I’ve yet to get past chapter two in Fredrickson’s book (since I’ve been caught up with other reading) but while I’m in favour of a positive approach, I’m mistrustful of the 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. Nevertheless I like the idea of positive emotions undoing the stress of negative ones, and making a conscious effort to savour positive experiences as a way of opening our hearts and minds. It stands to reason that if the process of becoming depressed can be seen as going into a negative spiral, why shouldn’t the opposite of that process be an upward spiral? And what do we have to lose by accentuating the positive?
Well it turns out that two of the drawbacks of a positive focus I’ve found through my reading are the way that it tends to close down the space for expressing negative feelings, and also simplifies complexity. The more I read up on the subject, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that complexity is good and that positive emotions and negative ones can live side-by-side. Of course we have a huge need to simplify complex experiences. How much easier to say I hated that experience or I loved that one than to describe the complex mix of emotions that are evoked? And tagging along inevitably with a relentless positive focus is the opportunity to make money out of self-help books and lectures. It’s not coincidental that the word happy derives from the Old Norse word happ, which means luck or good fortune. People have been making money out of selling ways of increasing good fortune to others for centuries.
And the allure of a positive focus, it seems to me, is the promise of doing away largely with the negative. Just follow this advice and pain and suffering will be largely a thing of the past. Your relationships will be better, your work will be more fulfilling and you will generally thrive a lot more (and be healthy and have a better social life). But a lot of that kind of thinking is just wishful thinking, as we know. Both Polyanna and Norman Vincent Peale should serve to remind us of that.
A Polyanna is “a person who is constantly or excessively optimistic” and the name comes from the 1913 novel by the US writer Eleanor Porter.
The title character is Pollyanna Whittier, a young orphan who goes to live in Vermont with her wealthy but stern Aunt Polly. Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centres on what she calls “The Glad Game”, an optimistic attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation. It originated in an incident one Christmas when Pollyanna, who was hoping for a doll in the missionary barrel, found only a pair of crutches inside. Making up the game on the spot, Pollyanna’s father taught her to look at the good side of things — in this case, to be glad about the crutches because “we don’t need ’em!”
With this philosophy, and her own sunny personality and sincere, sympathetic soul, Pollyanna brings so much gladness to her aunt’s dispirited New England town that she transforms it into a pleasant place to live. […]
Eventually, however, even Pollyanna’s robust optimism is put to the test when she is struck down by a motorcar while crossing a street and loses the use of her legs. At first she doesn’t realize the seriousness of her situation, but her spirits plummet when she accidentally overhears an eminent specialist say that she’ll never walk again. After that, she lies in bed, unable to find anything to be glad about. Then the townspeople begin calling at Aunt Polly’s house, eager to let Pollyanna know how much her encouragement has improved their lives; and Pollyanna decides she can still be glad that she had legs. The novel ends with Aunt Polly marrying her former lover Dr. Chilton and Pollyanna being sent to a hospital where she learns to walk again and is able to appreciate the use of her legs far more as a result of being temporarily disabled. (Wikipedia)
The message that this story illustrates for me is that if you just think positively enough, then you can do away with traumatic things such as injuries. Of course some people do learn to walk again after apparently being crippled in car accidents. But there’s a fine balance between being optimistic in the face of tough setbacks and denying or repressing losses and so preventing yourself from mourning those losses.
Next time: Norman Vincent Peale and the importance of embracing complexity