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:



ted said...

The notion of positive psychology will also make us more negative about our negative thoughts (which can only be suppressed but not eliminated). This is why the Christian understanding that we are all sinners is so important: It allows us to find comfort in grace instead of the relentless pursuit to fix ourselves.

Nathaniel said...

This sounds sort of like those "get quick rich" frauds that suggest positivity is the solution to life's woes, including monetary. It has built-in recursive defense, because failure or disagreement with it always means you're just not being positive enough.

ajb said...

I watched Seligman's talk. The picture he uses associated with the highest kind of happiness ('meaning') is Mother Theresa!

PS is testing in a more rigorous manner various things that (as you say) have been known for some time. It is broadly compatible with Christianity, and indeed reinforces various aspects of it within a scientific context.

Of course, it's not the whole answer. But, it's much better than psychology based on Freudian psychoanalysis, say (which Seligman briefly mentions in order to ridicule in the talk).

I think that PS can point towards various important aspects of Christian practice.

I have a brief review of Shawn Achor's recent PS book here

David Balfour said...

Watching this video it reminds me of the modern trend in the Michelin star culinary world of having a 'de-constructed' meal: instead of an apple crumble you can have a spiced stewed apple puree reduction with a side of organic oat crumble biscuits and a separate cube of freeze-dried free-range low-fat Jersey cream (perhaps on another plate and as a second desert with the sound of frolicking farm animals played on a tape for verisimilitude and a sprig of mint made to look like the grass in a fair trade farm)...and by the end of the meal you still haven't had an apple crumble! All the ingredients are there somewhere but the healthy appetite is bound to be left wanting for the genuine article. 'Meaning, engagement, pleasure' are surely all to be found in religious life without the need for elaborate deconstruction? Crucially, when they tell you that your de-constructed apple crumble is essentially zero calories and will make you a better person and more refined for eating it?! It's a wonder the beguilement is not immediately spotted a such (now that *is* 'wishful thinking' in action) by the audience at this magicians show, Ted, I believe his name is. The essential honesty of an apple crumble comes from the fact that it is obvious that if you try and eat one every day you will become a glutton and there is no such thing as a free lunch. Similarly, whilst there are pleasures to be had in life, religion reminds us that no matter much we may wish to avoid it pain, trials and difficulties are essential for a meaningful and engaged life, pleasures will come and go and we cannot expect to be free of negative emotions in mortal life unless we become something not human.