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!
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.
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.
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: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/ & http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu for the outline and direct descriptions of the Positive Psychology movement.
All other comments are that of the writer, Dr, Stephen F. Myler (Psych)