Monday, 27 April 2015

The nihilism of Positive Psychology

Seen re-engaging with the work of Maslow, I have come across a more recent movement called Positive Psychology (which claims Maslow as an intellectual father) and of which I was only vaguely aware.

It seems that Positive Psychology is a big deal in the USA (two and a half million Google Hits for the term, multiple YouTube videos with tens of thousands of views etc). On looking into it, I find that I have myself been through several cycles of Positive Psychology during my life - beginning around 1980, and with several iterations over the three decades.

So I feel myself to be an experiential expert on this subject! - in addition to having read and pondered, and indeed researched, several of the component elements (Jung, Maslow, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, the scientific study of spirituality, surveys of self-reported happiness etc.).

From this perspective, the Positive Psychology movement adds nothing except shallow ignorance and exploitative hype, permeated with pervasive dishonesty and fuelled by blatant careerism. The excuse of being 'well meaning' is, I am afraid, long since worn-out - we may be able to claim that the originators of this kind of stuff were well meaning, but now that we are fifty and a hundred years down the line we already know where this is destined for.

So, I can tell you that it does not work, and will not deliver - or, more exactly, Positive Psychology operates at the level and with the efficacy of just one Lifestyle Choice among many.

It is not that we do not know anything about the science of personal well being - loads is known, and most of that has been known to common sense for centuries (probably millennia). It is just that knowing it does not make the difference that advocates claim.

We now live in an era of nihilism, or life regarded as (in reality) meaningless and purposeless and each human as thoroughly alienated - so in this nihilistic context a Positive Psychology of well-being can only be a psychology of pleasing delusions. A psychology of emotional self-manipulation. And if followed rigorously, a psychology of transhumanism - that is, the project of unconstrained technological 'transcendence' of human limitations on pleasure, happiness, and freedom from pain and discomfort.

We may start with a human, the intent is that we will end-up with something that is happy - and never mind whether or not it is human. Failing that we will end up with something that is not-unhappy, that does not suffer - and never mind whether it is alive.

Because positive psychology is self-destroying. Insofar as it is factually true and possible to know and manipulate the human prerequisites of well-being; then so far well-being is utterly relativized, made subjective, and dis-valued. We become convinced that our deepest motivations are a consequence of 'science' and not a basis for life. Human meaning and purpose are become subjects for manipulation, not fulfilment.

So, whatever the motivations, insofar as the project of Positive Psychology succeeds, thus far it undermines itself. And we can know this as a fact, not jus on theoretical grounds, but from many trials of the idea since late Victorian times.

If we actually manage to make ourselves believe that science holds the meaning of life, then at that exact moment we will find that life has lost its meaning.

Positive Psychology is no less than a nihilism bomb, operating on a delayed timer.


Note added:

It seems mention-worthy that the Positive Psychology movement was launched and given status by Martin Seligman. It must first be acknowledged that Seligman has a track record of substantial and significant achievement in science. So, how are we to interpret this? It could be: 1. that Seligman's endorsement of Positive Psychology broadly validates it; 2. that Seligman's advocacy is based on ignorance (this option seems unlikely to me); or that Seligman has been, like so many scientific leaders over the past few decades, corrupted into a charismatic, careerist, BS-merchant and bureaucratic shill.

Thus: is MS's advocacy sound, simple-minded, or spin?

Judge for yourself: