Thursday, June 14, 2007

Positive Psychology

Mental Health & Positive Happiness

This is really exploratory paper about the movement to make more people happy. In the USA and the UK efforts are being made by psychologists to encourage a more happy outlook in life in the belief that happy people are more productive, live longer, have positive health outcomes and over-all lead a better life. Sounds great – however I am sure the reader can almost sense the word – but!

The Idea

It is proposed that primitive man survived because his brain was wired to be pessimistic – in other words – look at the down-side of things and you are ready for anything that may happen. Such as a ferocious animal deciding you are dinner. However if you are the happy optimist thinking it is ok the animal will go away, you may not see many days ahead. Our biological brain is wired to survive and our endocrine system supports this function. Stress is the modern day alertness to danger that our ancestors survived by. Of course in his day, when you are stressed by something you can use up the hormones produced for "fight or flight" and carry on as normal. Today many stressors cannot be fought or run away from – you have to just cope with life. In the USA (where else) they believe this original wiring can be changed through positive meditation and positive happiness pursuance. They are calling this Positive Psychology. Like all fads, the idea is wonderful but the evidence for it is thin on the ground. While I do not mean to be cynical – let us look at the facts.

Background to the Science

The man behind this new fad is in fact a very famous psychologist, Martin E.P. Seligman based in the University of Pennsylvania. To understand how he has arrived at the new idea one has to look back at his distinguished career so far. Seligman is best known for his concept of "learned helplessness" (1975) in which he advocated that people defeat their own ambitions through depression, that they in fact talk themselves into failure through believing they cannot help themselves to cope. Seligman is also well known as a critic of Behaviourism, (America's favourite theory of learning); he believes that phobias for instance are mainly the result of natural brain wiring to protect ourselves from dangerous animals or situations. He went on in 1974 to propose that in fact the genes predispose us to certain behaviour and that given the right cues would express itself. He also looked at the emotion of anger and tried to show that in fact most anger in manifest in frustrations (1975) that we usually show anger when we are prevented from fulfilling our needs. (Like most research at this time they really were rediscovering that Freud was actually right all along in his theory of mind and much of the above can be found in the works of Freud in the 1920's). So for Seligman his most productive years were the 1970's era. It was not until the year 2000 that we start to see a change of direction or maybe a summation of what has gone before. At this point he started to call for a more positive psychology but called it "Optimal Human Growth" not quite as catchy as the now, "Positive Happiness" (Again a return to Freudian principals – the, "Pleasure Principal", that if you allow your base desires to rule your life you can always be happy). It is this very reason Freud recognised that when the pursuant of happiness is thwarted by real life then mental breakdown and unhappiness is the result.

Positive Psychology

It is not my purpose in this paper to be overly critical of the new wave of thinking by Seligman and his followers but merely to put in perspective what may be a false premise, that being happy will, as Seligman claims (2006), help you live longer, be more healthy, learn new things more easily and over-all even if you are living in the most dire circumstances, you can overcome all these things by just learning to be happier. Sounds great does it not? These claims then are being tested out as we write in a nation wide experiment by Seligman in Scotland with the support of the Scottish Government.

Scotland can be a very hard place to grow up in and live. It has much abject poverty, high rates of drug and alcohol usage, HIV infections, poor quality housing for many city inhabitants and a low income per capita. In fact without the support of England's tax paying population Scotland would never survive independently without taxing its lucrative alcohol business into the ground. While many parts of Scotland have improved dramatically it is still full of crime and unemployment at all levels. So this is the scene where Seligman is hoping to create an atmosphere of happiness through positive psychology and solve everyone's problems. We will have to see in a year's time if his marketing ideas to the public of Scotland actually change anything. I have to admire his self-promotion to even have a government think they can overcome poverty with a smile or two. I think the BBC (2007) while making a documentary about Seligman and Scotland put it best, the reporter simply said, "Well maybe they just need better housing"

Who is it for?

This type of thinking is squarely aimed at the middle-class, high income, I feel sad because I want more and cannot get it, give me the quick solution and can I get it from a self-help book? This is the audience that buys millions of those books telling you how to make it in the world, be rich, be happy, and be successful and the rest. As one cynic put it – if you read all these books you learn one certain thing, come up with a new fad, write some books about it and make a lot of money from sad people looking for quick fix solutions to real life problems.

Reality Testing

If there is one thing we can credit Freud with understanding it is that the, Pleasure Principal leads to a fools paradise. In fact Freud realised that humans need to survive not be happy. People may want pleasure but they test reality all the time. This is to keep us within the bounds of morality, social norms and the law. Happiness comes from contentment not consumerism and false forced smiles in some seminar on how to be happier. We live in reality and that is where we have to cope and deal with life's problems. The mental hospitals of the world are full of people suffering the most appalling delusions and confusion with life. No positive psychology is going to change this situation.

So what is the purpose of psychology?

I can here only state my own point of view, that psychology is a science that has the goal of understanding all human behaviour in an effort to help those less fortunate in the normal world of human existence to cope and prosper, not materially but mentally. It is not in the business of false hopes based on not facing the reality of a person's circumstance.

To Be Fair.

In order not to be to one-sided in this paper I have below stated the aims of Positive Psychology in full, direct from Seligman's own web-site (which is free of all copy write).


Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The Positive Psychology Centre promotes research, training, education, and the dissemination of Positive Psychology. This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.
Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive emotions, positive individual traits, and positive institutions. Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.

Some of the goals of Positive Psychology are to build a science that supports:

• Families and schools that allow children to flourish

• Workplaces that foster satisfaction and high productivity

• Communities that encourage civic engagement

• Therapists who identify and nurture their patients' strengths

• The teaching of Positive Psychology

• Dissemination of Positive Psychology interventions in organizations & communities

I could not help when reading through this statement thinking of the word "cult" I do not mean to be unfair but while what is being said here is perfectly reasonable but it fails to deal with the realities of poverty, war, and politics, the games people play and real life.

Do you truly want to be happy?

If psychology and in general therapy has taught us one thing it is that a better understanding of both the positive and the negative aspects of human behaviour can lead us to a concept of self-understanding and a basis for living and coping in the real world of everyday problems. The purpose of life at its base is to survive; maybe happiness is a luxury for the academia and the pursuant of the middle classes only. If you really want to be happy then perhaps we should look back to Freud and re-assess his wisdom and not keep thinking of him as a historical foot-note. One American, Eric Berne (1960) understood more than any other psychologist the meaning of true happiness, understand yourself, understand other people and what drives them – then you can be happy.

One Last Point!

The test of a good theory is can it be applied in a wider society, we call this universality, I have lived in China for nearly four years and have studied the people, the culture and the way of life here. While I advocate a positive attitude to my therapy clients I always tinge it with a dose of reality. Like all good cooking the recipe has to suit the taste of the person consuming the dish. Here happiness comes from relationships and who can do what for whom. Dale Carnegies famous book is still a big seller here, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Happiness is not an American only concept. There way is not our way!

Professor Stephen F. Myler PhD

Shanghai, P.R. China.


Gross, R (2005) Psychology, The science of mind and Behaviour 4th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton. (for outline of Seligman's background research).

Internet: & for the outline and direct descriptions of the Positive Psychology movement.

All other comments are that of the writer, Dr, Stephen F. Myler (Psych)

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Hear Hear!

Two articles today, the first, at the link below, is about how too many Americans are all to willing to surrender liberty to gain a percieved security from a dangerous but unlikely threat.

Land of the Enslaved & Home of the Wussy

Now here we have this editorial is about people actually being awake and alert and doing the right thing.

We need more people like the folks in the second article, then we would not need to surrender our rights for security.

On a Wing and a Prayer
Grievance theater at Minneapolis International Airport.

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Those are the words that started it all. Six bearded imams are said to have shouted them out while offering evening prayers as they and 141 other passengers waited at the gate for their flight out of Minneapolis International Airport. It was three days before Thanksgiving. Allahu Akbar: God is great.

Initial media reports of the incident did not include the disturbing details about what happened after they boarded US Airways flight 300, but the story quickly went national with provocative headlines: "Six Muslims Ejected from US Air Flight for Praying." Yes, they were praying--but let's be clear about this. The very last human sound on the cockpit voice recorder of United flight 93 before it screamed into the ground at 580 miles per hour is the sound of male voices shouting "Allahu Akbar" in a moment of religious ecstasy.

They, too, were praying. The passengers and crew of flight 93 lost their valiant fight to take back the plane just one hour and 20 minutes after it pushed back from the gate. Until the hijackers stormed the cockpit door, they were just a handful of Middle Eastern-looking men on their way to sunny California. So, yes, let's be exceedingly clear about the whole matter. Some 3,000 men, women and children are dead because the unassuming people on those airplanes did not look at them and see murderers. Or dangerous Arabs. Or fanatical Muslims. They saw a few guys in chinos.

In five years since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. commercial carriers have transported approximately 2.9 billion domestic and international passengers. It is a testament to the flying public, but, most of all, to the flight crews who put those planes into the air and who daily devote themselves to the safety and well-being of their passengers, that they have refused to succumb to ethnic hatred, religious intolerance or irrational fear on those millions of flights. But they have not forgotten the sight of a 200,000-pound aircraft slicing through heavy steel and concrete as easily as a knife through butter. They still remember the voices of men and women in the prime of their lives saying final goodbyes, people who just moments earlier set down their coffee and looked out the window to a beautiful new morning. Today, when travelers and flight crews arrive at the airport, all the overheated rhetoric of the civil rights absolutists, all the empty claims of government career bureaucrats, all the disingenuous promises of the election-focused politicians just fall away. They have families. They have responsibilities. To them, this is not a game or a cause. This is real life.

Given that Islamic terrorists continue their obsession with turning airplanes into weapons of mass destruction, it is nothing short of obscene that these six religious leaders--fresh from attending a conference of the North American Imams Federation, featuring discussions on "Imams and Politics" and "Imams and the Media"--chose to turn that airport into a stage and that airplane into a prop in the service of their need for grievance theater. The reality is, these passengers endured a frightening 3 1/2-hour ordeal, which included a front-to-back sweep of the aircraft with a bomb-sniffing dog, in order to advance the provocative agenda of these imams in, of all the inappropriate places after 9/11, U.S. airports.

"Allahu Akbar" was just the opening act. After boarding, they did not take their assigned seats but dispersed to seats in the first row of first class, in the midcabin exit rows and in the rear--the exact configuration of the 9/11 execution teams. The head of the group, seated closest to the cockpit, and two others asked for a seatbelt extension, kept on board for obese people. A heavy metal buckle at the end of a long strap, it can easily be used as a lethal weapon. The three men rolled them up and placed them on the floor under their seats. And lest this entire incident be written off as simple cultural ignorance, a frightened Arabic-speaking passenger pulled aside a crew member and translated the imams' suspicious conversations, which included angry denunciations of Americans, furious grumblings about U.S. foreign policy, Osama Bin Laden and "killing Saddam."

Predictably, these imams and their attorneys now suggest that another passenger who penned a frantic note of warning and slipped it to a flight attendant was somehow a hysterical Islamophobe. Let us remember that but for their performance at the gate this passenger might never have noticed these men or their behavior on board, much less have the slightest clue as to their religion or political passions. Of course, that was the point of the shouting. According to the police report, yet another alarmed passenger who frequently travels to the Middle East described a conversation with one of the imams. The 31-year-old Egyptian expressed fundamentalist Muslim views, and stated the he would go to whatever measures necessary to obey all the tenets set out in the Koran.

The activist Muslim American Society (MAS) issued a press release within hours of the incident, demanding an apology and announcing a "pray-in" at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. Standing just a short distance from the Pentagon, where five years ago black plumes of smoke from the crash of American Airlines flight 77 could be seen for miles, the assembled demonstrators complained that African-American Muslims, accustomed to "driving while black," must now cope with the injustice of "flying while Muslim." This brazen two-step is racial politics at its worst; none of the imams are African-American. MAS, which teaches an "Activist Training" program with lessons on "how to talk to the media," must have been thrilled when one cable news outfit, suckered by the rhetoric, compared the imams' conduct to that of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat in the face of institutional racism. One wonders what the parents of the three 11-year-olds who died on flight 77--all African-American kids on a National Geographic field trip--would make of this stunning comparison.

Today, MAS Executive Director Mahdi Bray says his organization wants more than an apology. He wants to "hit [US Airways] where it hurts, the pocketbook," and, joined by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), will seek compensation for the imams, civil and federal monetary sanctions, and new, sweeping legislation that will extract even bigger penalties for airlines that engage in "racial and religious profiling." An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is under way. Not incidentally, it is the "fatwa department" of MAS that pushed for segregated taxi lines that would permit Muslim cab drivers at the Minneapolis airport to reject passengers carrying alcohol.

Here's what the flying public needs to know about airplanes and civil rights: Once your foot traverses the entranceway of a commercial airliner, you are no longer in a democracy in which everyone gets a vote and minority rights are affirmatively protected in furtherance of fuzzy, ever-shifting social policy. Ultimately, the responsibility for your personal safety and security rests on the shoulders of one person, the pilot in command. His primary job is to safely transport you and your belongings from one place to another. Period.

This is the doctrine of "captain's authority." It has a longstanding history and a statutory mandate, further strengthened after 9/11, which recognizes that flight crews are our last line of defense between the kernel of a terrorist plot and its lethal execution. The day we tell the captain of a commercial airliner that he cannot remove a problem passenger unless he divines beyond question what is in that passenger's head and heart is the day our commercial aviation system begins to crumble. When a passenger's conduct is so disturbing and disruptive that reasonable, ordinary people fear for their lives, the captain must have the discretionary authority to respond without having to consider equal protection or First Amendment standards about which even trained lawyers with the clarity of hindsight might strongly disagree. The pilot in command can't get it wrong. At 35,000 feet, when multiple events are rapidly unfolding in real time, there is no room for error.

We have a new, inviolate aviation standard after 9/11, which requires that the captain cannot take that airplane up so long as there are any unresolved issues with respect to the security of his airplane. At altitude, the cockpit door is barred and crews are instructed not to open them no matter what is happening in the cabin behind them. This is an extremely challenging situation for the men and women who fly those planes, one that those who write federal aviation regulations and the people who agitate for more restrictions on a captain's authority will never have to face themselves.

Likewise, flight attendants are confined in the back of the plane with upwards of 200 people; they must be the eyes and ears, not just for the pilot but for us all. They are not combat specialists, however, and to compel them to ignore all but the most unambiguous cases of suspicious behavior is to further enable terrorists who act in ways meant to defy easy categorization. As the American Airlines flight attendants who literally jumped on "shoe bomber" Richard Reid demonstrated, cabin crews are sharply attuned to unusual or abnormal behavior and they must not be second-guessed, or hamstrung by misguided notions of political correctness.

Ultimately, the most despicable aspect about the imams' behavior is that when they pierced the normally quiet hum of a passenger waiting area with shouts of "Allahu Akbar"and deliberately engaged in terrorist-associated behavior that was sure to trigger suspicion, they exploited the fear that began with the Sept. 11 attacks. The imams, experienced travelers all, counted on the security system established after 9/11 to kick in, and now they plan not only to benefit financially from the proper operation of that system but to substantially weaken it--with help from the Saudi-endowed attorneys at CAIR.

US Airways is right to stand by its flight crew. It will be both dangerous and disgraceful if the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation and, ultimately, our federal courts allow aviation security measures put in place after 9/11 to be cynically manipulated in the name of civil rights.