Some thoughts on Positive Psychology I

“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

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14 Responses to Some thoughts on Positive Psychology I

  1. I so enjoyed reading this post, Pete. It is thoughtful and interesting and wise. I’m looking forward to the next one.

    I tend to agree with you on the value of complexity. I also think that there can be an underlying connection with love and compassion, which is sustaining, while at the same time being honest about reality.

    And shocking dogs till they pee is despicable.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks Lilian! That’s an interesting comment about love, that it’s honest about reality. Made me think that there’s a difference between loving the image (or ideal) we have of people and loving the real person (faults and all).

  2. “…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?”

    I hope/wish this is true. There may be something in our evolutionary wiring that makes negative (i.e. fearful) stimuli imprint stronger and unpleasant/fear inducing memories more salient.

    Survival probably depends more on attending to dangerous cues than it does attending to pretty (happy) things in nature. In fact, if we look at the coral snake, for example, we learn to distrust pretty colors found in nature.

    Thanks for this post. It gave me an insight about a case I’m working on, feeling stuck on.

  3. litlove says:

    Bravo! Completely on your side with this, Pete. A couple of thoughts occurred to me – the first is that Seligman could surely have identified learned helplessness without resorting to electric shock abuse on dogs. That does not sit well with the image of a guy insisting we should all be permanently cheery.

    The other thing is that I’ve been reading up on psychosomatic illnesses (very fascinating) and was particularly interested in the theory of one analyst who described how early experiences that swamped the child’s delicate, complex emotions taught him/her to evacuate untenable feelings so quickly that he/she had no sense at all of them being there. Instead they came out as feelings of being ill. This is the basic model for psychosomatic symptoms which tend to appear on people who are very restrained and constrained in their self-expression, who don’t do the emotional processing necessary for dealing with negative emotions. If we follow down this route, of intensive mothering (that perpetually risks swamping the child), coupled with an insistence on positivity, we are only going to see more and more people with long term chronic health problems, as sadness, distress and insecurity get expressed by generalised pain, continual colds, hormonal disturbances and fatigue. Well, it made me stop and think, that’s for sure!

  4. doctordi says:

    Yep, likewise appalled by that blatantly abusive experiment on our trusting canine friends. That is a deplorable abuse of power.

    Really good, interesting post, Pete. I agree with you too. There has to be room to acknowledge negatives in all their tarnished glory – they are unavoidable in life, and no good will come of pretending (“la la la”) they don’t exist. They’re part of the full complex range of human emotion and human existence – why would we want to shut ourselves off from communicating with each other about them? It strikes me as unhealthy as well as unrealistic. Litlove identifies an interesting effect of trying to deny them, kind of a leak that springs elsewhere in the pipe.

  5. Grad says:

    Great post, Pete. Ditto the above. There seems to be an idea “out there” that always happy all the time is the way to go. Unfortunately, we’re just not wired that way. Nor do I think we should be. No joy without sadness, no success without failure, no light without dark. And although all of us die, not all of us truly live.

  6. Pete says:

    phd in yogurty – Very interesting re the coral snake. Part of the complexity of nature I guess. Good luck with the case. I’ve found the upward spiral that Fredrickson talks about, which is part of her broaden-and-build theory, encouraging.

  7. Pete says:

    Litlove – Thanks! And that’s so interesting re the somatic effects of denying negative emotions such as anger (and fear). Would be interested to read more on that.

    And I completely agree that Seligman could have developed his theory without torturing dogs. But this was the 1960s and behavioural conditioning (cf. Pavlov) was all the rage. I see that he also commented on aversive therapy for gay men but not sure if he was involved in those experiments himself. Shows the influence of culture in informing psychological theories.

    Di – Thanks! Your comment reminded me of one by Adam Phillips that he would much rather read a European novel than a self-help book since the former has so much more complexity.

    Grad – Very true. I should have put that comment about joy/sadness, light/dark, success/failure in my presentation!

  8. David says:

    Pete, you might be very interested in John Sarno’s book “The Divided Mind,” which is about repressed emotions and chronic illness. It is a fascinating read.

    Though I share the thread’s horror at the dog experiment, I also do believe that learned helplessness is indeed at the root of a lot of depressive/stuck behaviors. I have seen it in many people, including myself. However, I also think that the route to healing involves accepting the contradictions inherent in all situations … I think of it as the “and vs. but” line of thinking. I don’t try to focus on the positive necessarily, but I do try to let it coexist along with the negative. I try to change “I’m financially OK right now, but I fear the economy will get even worse” to “I’m financially secure right now, and I have reason to believe that I have the skills to survive if things do get worse.” Sort of … an “and” statement makes the situation inclusive, whereas the “but” statement doesn’t leave room for the positive to assert itself.

    • Pete says:

      Thanks David, will check it out. And I completely agree with your thinking on “and vs. but”. The positive sentiments that co-exist with the negative ones and so provide much-needed balance and resilience.

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting post! I fully agree with your conclusions, but I also think it would be a shame for people to dismiss the ideas behind positive psychology out of a fear of taking the ideas too far or a fear of not dealing properly with negative feelings. Definitely there needs to be balance and no one should be insisting on positivity and happiness. But I think if people are mindful of these dangers and are striving for balance, there is so much to gain from the upward spiral ideas Frederickson writes about.

    • Pete says:

      Dorothy – Yes I agree, although still have to read the rest of Fredrickson’s book to fully understand the upward spiral she talks about. I think Positive Psychology gets simplified in popular consciousness to mean just focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative but this is a misperception. Thanks for getting me thinking about this in the first place!

  10. Carmen Lynne says:

    I disagree that “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”. I believe that the message Pollyanna expressed was more that – certainly bad things happen, and bad things even happen to good people, but there is always a way to see the good in a situation that appears to be uniformly bad. I think it’s a shame that Pollyanna gets such a bad rap nowadays, as I appreciated her story as a child and I am still living by it now. I am a naturally optimistic person, and that does NOT mean I haven’t suffered or endured pain and negative emotions, just that I am able to bounce back from adversity and continue seeing the light. Surely it’s better to live that way?

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