Next year I am going to be studying at the University of Pennsylvania in an episode of “Missionary Kid Meets Ivy League.” I am very excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is the topic itself: positive psychology.
You probably have never heard of it. That’s fine. Positive psychology is a very new field which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s. He is widely seen as the father of the movement, but there are a number of other significant figures. The Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP program) that I am in is the brainchild of Seligman. Throughout the curriculum he brings in other leading positive psychologists from around the country. Students come from everywhere, from all disciplines, and so there is great cross-discplinary discussion of application and theory. Also, most of the students are already well into their professional careers. At 27, I expect to be on the younger side (and possibly the poorer side too). Finally, the books I am reading in preparation for my studies are already changing my life and making me happier. This is because positive psychology is fun to learn about—and it’s powerful shit.
I have heard it explained in many ways, but I think this is best: positive psychology is the neglected half of psychology. Since psychology’s inception with Freud, psychology has been mostly about psychosis—how to get mentally sick people tolerably functional and how to identify disease and understand how and why it arises. In truth, I suppose you could call conventional psychology “negative psychology,” because it focuses on the negative aspects of mental health. In contrast, positive psychology is the study of how to make mentally sick people, as well as normal, even high-functioning people, thrive and acheive optimal well-being, contentment, and meaning. Additionally, it aims to identify the symptoms of strengths and look at how and why they arise, and how they can be built on and expanded. Strengths might include resilience (the art of bouncing back), patience (why some people are more patient than others), positivity, gratefulness, etc.
You might say positive psychology is trying to put some science in the world of self-help books, or more accurately the vast world of self-help books is a response to a felt need that academia has, until recently, been neglecting. Not anymore. Positive psychologists are making progress and getting loads of funding for lots of studies. More and more, there are emerging simple strategies and exercises one can use to bolster and maintain high-levels of well-being. These strategies have been tested scientifically, with double-blinds, placebo-controlled groups, and all the rest.
Science is finally looking at joy and it is about damn time. I think it is quickly going to become a very very big deal globally.
Today, if I came up to you and said, “Holy nut buckets, I hate this toothache! I seem to have cavities all the time now,” you might ask me if I brushed my teeth regularly. If I said “no,” you would rightfully ostracize me a bit.
Brushing your teeth is an intervention that we have all come to accept as part of our routines and completely necessary for staving off important problems. Similarly, I predict that some interventions that positive psychology is identifying will someday become as normal for society as brushing our teeth. If someone is depressed, but is not “brushing their teeth” as positive psychologists would have us do, then rightly or wrongly it just won’t be culturally acceptable.
Over the next year, I will be describing some of those strategies and interventions. Perhaps even more interesting to me, I will be struggling with enormous ethical, political, economic, philosophical, and even theological implications of positive psychology. What is happiness? What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being? What happens when rich people, who previously have not been much happier despite their wealth, now have access to education which can make them happier? How do we apply positive psychology to my work in economic development and strategic planning? What does positive psychology mean for inner-city streets and community organizing?
As I ask these questions, I hope to post about them, and maybe you can help me sort them out and benefit from what I am learning too. I think you will find that my life is good for you. I know it will be good for me.
This is going to be a great year!
August 24th, 2012 at 7:09 PM
I’m very excited about your pursuits in this field….from where I stand, happier people are healthier people……and I don’t use ‘happy’ as a superficial substitute for the more ‘spiritual’ joy we should be having that rises above our circumstances….i mean happy as blessed, and recognizing that and rising above what could otherwise hold us down….so i’m looking forward to YOUR journey, knowing it will encourage mine. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite resources from the health field… Ja yo!!!
August 20th, 2012 at 12:54 PM
INdeed, there is need for some definition here. Positive psychology aims to improve overall well-being. It does not aim to turn people into little automatons who never feel anything but joy. For instance, when a someone is rejected, by say, a girlfriend. Positive psychology does not study resilience as an attempt to teach us how to be aloof to such setbacks. Instead it wants to see how people successfully, quickly, and healthfully can mourn and, finally, move on. There is indeed a very important place for sadness, mourning, unhappiness, etc…positive psych does not attempt to remove all unpleasantness. In fact, un-pleasantness can be crucial to happiness.
If positive psychology reminds you of a brave new world, I probably just presented it poorly.
August 21st, 2012 at 6:47 PM
Jer, your post oddly coincided with some other discussions I’ve been having about positive psychology, and I actually went ahead and read “The How of Happiness” over the weekend to bring myself up to speed on the subject.
It’s clearer now what is meant by ‘happiness’ and ‘over-all well-being.’ They don’t want to create automatons, they want people to feel better about life, the universe, and everything. Which is actually really cool. Needless to say, I’m very excited for your MAPP program and what you may accomplish wrt your economic planning work.
One question I recently posed was, ‘If you give the disenfranchised techniques to be happy, won’t that remove any motivation to change their circumstances?” Answer: Happier people generally make more money, so any positive psych techniques that would work in poor communities would enrich them in material ways too. The most obvious, immediate way would be in removing the sense of learned helplessness that is prevalent in such groups.
We also discussed your idea that these mental health preventative techniques will become as expected as brushing your teeth. That… is a bold idea, heh, and I would hope it becomes a reality. Maybe the best place to start would be with a constant applied positive psych course in K-12? “OK children, today we will be cultivating optimism! yay!!!” What an idea… I suddenly want to read or write an SF story where this is reality. xD
Anyway Jer, take care and thanks for your very interesting thoughts.
August 21st, 2012 at 7:01 PM
Sorry, reply fail.
Anonymous at August 21st, 2012 at 6:47 PM = Nick.
August 22nd, 2012 at 1:32 PM
Cool! Sonja Lyubomirsky is one of our textbooks. Looking forward to it. Was it good?
Yeah, positive psychology makes people more productive, not more complacent.
To be honest, long term, I cannot imagine how positive psychology will not enter the curriculum somehow. Our education system is fairly amazingly behind. For instance, perhaps the most important trait you can learn in school is determiniation and work ethic, which is nominally rewarded as a by-product of other tasks. You can bet your ass that, in the least, positive psychology will find its way into health classes at least. In fact, a prep school in Australia recently integrated it into every facet of their curriculum with the help fo Seligman and a bunch of other big shots. So far its been enormously successful.
This also scares me though. I fear that positive psychology will benefit the wealthy most definitely initially, and may drive inequality even further for years, even centuries to come.
Of course, I may be wrong about everything!
August 17th, 2012 at 7:53 PM
Positive psychology reminds me of Huxley’s Brave New World. Assume that Selegman et al refine and perfect methods to make humans happy. Is that even desirable? As odd as it seems, the idea of removing unhappiness wholesale is somewhat threatening. Isn’t it necessary, at least a little bit?
I’m probably taking the idea way too far. You will probably say that positive psychology doesn’t aim to make people like happy cows who could be led contentedly into the slaughterhouse. That would make me happy. : ]
August 17th, 2012 at 5:08 AM
Dude, how wonderful! I totally see how this is going to change America and make people so much happier, just like when we finally started pouring money, research, science and education into nutrition we saw that major drop in obesity.
August 20th, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Yeah, or just like the time when we poured money into polio immunizations.