Book review – Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life
Itai Ivtzan, Time Lomas, Kate Hefferon, and Piers Worth
Published by Routledge 2016
ISBN: 978-1-138-81866-8 (pbk)
For hundreds of years, dualism was the bedrock of most philosophical and religious beliefs. So, we bundle everything into two conflicting groups, positive/negative, good/bad, black/white, angelic/devilish, and so on.
This dualistic thinking is so deep-rooted in our language and culture (Brewer, 2009) that it is very difficult to avoid constantly contrasting opposing aspects of every phenomenon in our lives. But, despite what our day-to-day language reflects, the reality does not exactly match such dichotomies and hence, we run the risk of making wrong judgements and losing rationality.
As Costall (1995) discussed, psychology was initially formed on the basis of dualistic thinking and hence positive psychology began on the same basis. Positive psychology started by contesting unwarranted focus of traditional psychology on the mental disorders (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Seligman, 2002). But soon, grew into the other extreme, advocating only positives (e.g. positive emotions, positive attitude, positive outlook, positive therapies, etc.).
Lazarus (2003) referred to the earlier claims of positive psychology as a delusion of finding “a magical elixir of health and wellbeing”. In an article called “Does the Positive Psychology Movement Have Legs?”, he launched a relentless criticism of positive psychology, which included some valid arguments.
Likewise, Held (2004), pointed to three negative sides of positive psychology:
- The adverse side effects of what she called “positive psychology’s separatist message”.
- The negativity within the movement that she divided into “negativity about negativity itself”, and “negativity about the wrong kind of positivity”.
- “The tyranny of the positive attitude”, a phrase that Held used to talk about the attitude of some researchers within the movement, who in her view, implied that people must think positively, must feel positive emotions, and must only act according to their strengths.
Nevertheless, even from the beginning, the positive psychology movement was mindful of what Ryff and Singer (2003) called “false dichotomies”. In fact, Martin Seligman (2011, p.292) warned against excessive optimism even before his famous APA (American Psychological Association) speech in 1998. He said, “optimism’s benefits are not unbounded, pessimism has a role to play, both in the society at large, and in our own lives”.
An important part of the criticism of the early periods of positive psychology was its stance towards the so-called “negative emotion”, what Held (2004) called “negativity about negativity itself”. People were led to think of negative emotions as unproductive, harmful, or bad. Therefore, they tried to suppress and avoid them.
However, since Darwin, scientists knew about the adaptive nature of all emotions. Nesse (1990) described emotions as, “specialised states, shaped by natural selection to increase fitness in specific situations”. He explained emotions in terms of how they prepare us to cope with adversities or take advantage of opportunities present in a given situation.
During the past decade, most of the criticisms on positive psychology have been addressed to varying degrees by a number of prominent positive psychology researchers who paid attention to the criticisms and appreciated the dialog (e.g. Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005; Peterson, 2006; Rowe, Hirsh & Anderson, 2007; Uchida, et al. 2009; Van Kleef, Anastasopoulou & Nijstad, 2010; Wong, 2011; Seligman, 2011; Hefferon, 2013; Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014; Lomas, Hefferon & Ivtzan 2014). These debates created an environment where the movement of positive psychology changed, grew, and developed into its present level of maturity. Held (2004) called this development, “the second wave”, and Wong (2011) subsequently, named the movement as “positive psychology 2.0”.
Kashdan and Biswas-Diener (2014a) who also contributed to the second wave, emphasised that positive emotions play an important role in our overall happiness and success (about 80%). But they advised their readers to tap into the whole range of their emotions which include the negative ones (the other 20%).
I do not fully endorse these arbitrary percentages (80/20), but I do agree with the message that Kashdan and Biswas-Diener sought to convey. In other words, we should feel; fear in situations where there is a possibility of harm, anger when there is a need for standing up for our own rights, frustration when things don’t go as expected or regret when we do something wrong.
Additionally, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener (2014b) asserted that all psychological states have adaptive benefits. As all emotions are useful even those that are known to be negative. Thus, they proposed that people who are able to tap into the whole spectrum of their emotional state can live a more fulfilling and a more meaningful life.
The argument of the second wave, clearly points to complex and somewhat unexpected effects of all emotions in varying situations and refutes the dualistic thinking which was prevalent in the earlier stages of positive psychology. The second wave also challenges common assumptions and traditional beliefs. And so, encourages critical thinking and the epistemic approaches that include “a metacognitive component”, i.e. thinking about our thinking, to ensure we can see what might be wrong with a claim or the inferences that we make (Sternberg, Roediger & Halpern, 2007, p.12).
Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life, is not the first positive psychology book that reflects the ideas of the second wave. But, it is the first book in this series that most thoroughly describes the second wave by explaining how positive psychology evolved to where it is today. It deals with the dialectic nature of emotions, as well as the dynamic interplay of opposing dispositions inherent in every event of our lives.
The book champions the position of positive psychology by stressing the fact that embracing the so called “dark side” of our lives, in the manner suggested by positive psychology, always yields positive outcomes (growth). The authors clarified this new vision and showed how the second wave has extended the frontiers of positive psychology to almost every domain of our lives. The book shows how positive psychology, in its search for meaning, transformation, and growth, investigates not just happiness and hope, but also the most difficult and painful aspects of our experiences in life.
As the authors (Itai Ivtzan, Time Lomas, Kate Hefferon, and Piers Worth) are all experienced educators and veterans of their field, this book is in fact, an informative textbook. Nonetheless, as it is well written and carefully designed, it is a charming read, and an invaluable source of information for professionals and the enthusiasts alike.
In its eight chapters, the book introduces the second wave and takes the reader on a journey of growth and meaning in life. It covers the transformational potential of adversities and discusses sensitives issues of suffering, spirituality, and mortality. The book concludes by portraying life as a metaphorical “hero’s journey” where we should embrace life in its entirety, if we want to live an authentically meaningful life.
I enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it to all positive psychology practitioners and those who seek to draw a deeper meaning from their unique experiences in life, regardless of the delightful or otherwise challenging nature of what happens to them.
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