Meliorism is a derivative of Latin word ‘melior’ meaning better, plus ‘ism’ which is a noun suffix indicating a doctrine or belief. Merriam Webster dictionary defines Meliorism as:
“the belief that the world tends to improve, and that humans can aid its betterment”
In philosophy, Meliorism is an ontological concept which drives the human ability to improve the world through alteration, and thus produce outcomes that are considered better than the original phenomenon.
Leading pragmatists like James, Schiller, Dewey, and Ward (late nineteenth century) were the first to have transformative ideas considered to be melioristic. Consequently, Meliorism is now a distinctive feature of the pragmatic movement (Bergman, 2015), where it is believed to be the middle ground between optimism and pessimism with a focus on how a given situation can be improved (Bergman, 2015).
The Many Faces of Meliorism
Obama is considered a current example of a pragmatic meliorist, due to his strong belief that humans can change their lives for the better, and for his grand ideas for affecting such improvements (Koopman, 2006, 2009).
In the same way, meliorists in various disciplines believe that improvements provided by their discipline make the world a better place. An example of this from the field of education, is the widely held belief that improving peoples’ literacy is the key to a better society (Schantz & Zimmer, 2005).
The same is hailed by the advocates of modern medicine, or the people who fight for the eradication of poverty. Indeed, there is some truth in many of these examples. And since, the promise of a better future can be highly motivating, meliorism is regarded as a positive vision of human potential.
However melioristic ideas can quickly extend out of the bounds of rationality. When politicians, scientists, religious leaders or therapists see their ideology or method as the panacea for all human problems and promote it (or sometimes, force it on others) as THE solution for all of humanity’s problems. Perhaps that’s why Robinson (1924) considered meliorism inherently paradoxical and even aggressive.
I believe that most so called ‘meliorists’ are just ambitious people who want to find ways to somehow make life better. In doing so, most of them seek empirical evidence to support their theories, they remain open-minded, and seem to present their ideas for contemplation and support, rather than through the employment of coercive tactics.
Now can positive psychology be justifiably considered a melioristic approach?
And more importantly, is its melioristic stance unreservedly good?
The short answer to the first question is yes however the second is less clear cut. Let me explain.
Meliorism and Positive Psychology
According to McDonald (2011), the values we live by, the meanings we make of our experiences, and the innovative interventions that enhance our well-being, are melioristic improvements, as they are transformations of the ‘natural order’ by humans.
In contrast the beauty of the Grand Canyon (in the USA) or the Victoria Falls (in Zambia) happened purely by nature. And, if they make the world a better place, that improvement came about through no human intervention, and hence cannot be considered melioristic.
Positive psychology’s aim or its ‘true purpose’ as argued by Lomas, Hefferon and Ivtzan (2014) is ‘to make life better’. This is clearly a melioristic objective and a skilful intervention for creating ‘optimal human functioning’ (Linley & Joseph 2004). Positive psychology is thus melioristic at the core.
During the first decades of the twentieth century (before positive psychology), a group of psychologists (including; James, Jung, Rogers, Frankl, Maslow, Antonovsky, and Csikszentmihalyi) became advocates of a movement called fortology, which was the first strength based approach (Strümpfer, 2005).
They were interested in what creates health and strength (salutogenesis) rather than what causes illness (pathology). They believed that their melioristic approach should play a more central role in research and the promotion of public health (Lindström & Eriksson, 2005). And as we know, they paved the way for the movement of positive psychology.
You may have noticed that many of the names that I mentioned as fortology advocates are also the pioneers of humanistic and/or existential psychology. Their approach was highly positive, and they respected the subjective paradigm of the mind, free will, and the tendency of people to self-actualise and improve. (Resnick & Serlin, 2001).
Where these two concepts differ is that meliorism while aspiring to create positive, social improvements, also tends to have a socialist slant. Parts of positive psychology however favours individualism, and supports the specific modes of human functioning, strengths and virtues, that endorse neoliberal policies (McDonald & O’Callaghan, 2008).
In general however, positive psychology tends to be a melioristic approach which brings us to the second question.
Is Positive Psychology’s Melioristic Stance Unreservedly Good?
Going back to what I said earlier about the possibility of melioristic ideas being taken out of the bounds of rationality, I want to express my discomfort with the way positive psychology is sometimes used by government authorities and large corporations.
Of course, positive psychology interventions are designed to be constructive and useful, but what makes the outcome questionable is often the intention with which it is employed.
Those who want to generate more profit and dominance, buy better robots if they can. Otherwise, they may use positive psychology interventions to make their already overworked employees more resilient, or more obedient (grateful), to produce super soldiers or super employees who will work to “improve” the world the way that is most lucrative. With awareness of the destructive use of positive psychology interventions, the next questions seems to be:
What is the intention of your positive psychology intervention?
How are you ensuring that your intervention is truly honouring the essence of meliorism?
Problem Solving: Making the Choice to Flourish
No matter how successful we are at problem solving, as long as the organisations we work for and the communities we live in, are prone to faults, we will continue to keep moving from one crisis to another. In these situations, there is little or no room to prioritise flourishing and fulfillment. Life becomes a perpetual struggle of solving problems.
Our brain is a powerful machine, it will direct its incredible energy and effort toward wherever we focus our attention. Our brain gets emotional and motivational cues from the sensory events and responds accordingly depending on what we choose to engage in (Pourtois & Vuilleumier, 2013).
In other words, our brain will deploy our resources to achieve what we choose to obtain, either moving from one problem to another, or towards flourishing and leaving our problems behind.
An immediate result is the difference in how we see, think, and feel about a situation. This will then form the basis of our actions for going forward and the possibilities that open up to us. To illustrate this, let’s try doing a mental exercise introduced by Clawson and Bostrom (2003).
An Exercise: The Impact of leaving your problems behind
Think of a problem that you may have at work or home (e.g. finding that your computer is broken). For the purposes of this exercise, choose a problem that has been disconcerting, but not overwhelming. I don’t want you to finish this activity and end up needing to see a therapist! On an emotional scale of 1-10, make the problem a 2 or 3.
Using the problem you have just selected, answer the following first set of questions, either in your mind or on a sheet of paper.
- What caused this problem?
- Who is to blame for the problem?
- What are the negative consequences of it?
- What are the roadblocks to solving the problem?
Now, take a few seconds to remember and write down how you felt and what you thought while answering the above questions.
Then take a couple of deep breaths to quieten your thoughts and emotions and with the same problem in mind, answer the second set of questions in your head (or on a sheet of paper).
- What do you want instead of this problem? (Your response will be your desired outcome.)
- What will you see, hear, and feel when you get this outcome?
- What resources (e.g. friends, knowledge, or money) do you have that can help you achieve this outcome?
- What is the first step you will take to reach this outcome?
Again, take a few seconds to notice and write down how you felt when you were answering this second set of questions.
Now take a couple of deep breaths, clear your head and compare these feelings to those you felt when you were answering the first set of questions. What are the differences?
In my workshops, most people report negative feelings such as anger and disappointment arise on answering the first set of questions. Whilst answering the second set of questions however, they report positive feelings, optimism, and motivation. This is just the beginning, the long-term consequences are much stronger, and significantly effect our lives.
How to move from damage control to flourishing
Throughout history, scores of bright-minded thinkers warned us against the so called “problem-focused” way of life and in the last few decades a number of scholars have offered alternatives to this.
For example, Locke and Lantham (1990) explained a “goal-directed” approach, Clawson and Bostrom (2003) discussed “outcome-directed” thinking and Srivastva and Cooperrider (1987) developed “appreciative-inquiry”.
Appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987) is, the most comprehensive of the positive approaches mentioned. It can transform an undesirable situation to an environment of sustainable growth and development.
The process starts by picturing the desired outcome, and discussing the existing strengths and best practices already present. The appreciative deliberations then lead to the planning of necessary changes, actions, commitments, and contributions (by each person) that help the organisation to achieve its vision. Appreciative inquiry can be used in a multitude of personal and professional situations to keep the focus moving forward.
Goal oriented or outcome focused approaches have one principle in common. They all shift our attention away from the problem solving mentality, which is often our predominant focus, and toward our desired outcome. Appreciative inquiry is just one example of how asking a different set of questions, will move us toward a compelling desired state. With a shift in our attention we can finally move toward (rather than away from) a positive and thriving life.
Become mindful of the unintended consequences of even the best interventions by watching this TEDtalk:
Have you seen the impact of outcome oriented thinking? Share your story with in the comments section below.
Share your opinion with us in the comment box below.
Bergman, M. (2015). Minimal Meliorism: Finding a Balance between Conservative and Progressive Pragmatism. Action, Belief and Inquiry, 2.
Koopman, C. (2009). Pragmatism as transition: Historicity and hope in James, Dewey, and Rorty. Columbia University Press.
Koopman, C. (2006). Pragmatism as a philosophy of hope: Emerson, James, Dewey, Rorty. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 20(2), 106-116.
Lindström, B., & Eriksson, M. (2005). Salutogenesis. Journal of Epidemiology and community health, 59(6), 440-442.
Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Applied positive psychology: A new perspective for professional practice.
In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 3– 12). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Sage.
McDonald, M., & O'Callaghan, J. (2008). Positive psychology: A Foucauldian critique. The humanistic psychologist, 36(2), 127-142.
McDonald, H. P. (2011). Creative Actualization: A Meliorist Theory of Values (Vol. 224). Rodopi.
Resnick, S., Warmoth, A., & Serlin, I. A. (2001). The humanistic psychology and positive psychology connection: Implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(1), 73-101.
Robinson, D. S. (1924). A critique of meliorism. International Journal of Ethics, 34(2), 175-194.
Strümpfer, D. J. W. (2005). Standing on the shoulders of giants: Notes on early positive psychology (Psychofortology). South African journal of psychology, 35(1), 21-45.
Second part of the article:
- Clawson, V., & Bostrom, B. (2003). Outcome-Directed Thinking: Questions that Turn Things Around.
- Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2001). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. Public administration and public policy, 87, 611-630.
- Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
- Pourtois, G., Schettino, A., & Vuilleumier, P. (2013). Brain mechanisms for emotional influences on perception and attention: what is magic and what is not. Biological psychology, 92(3), 492-512.
- Srivastva, S., & Cooperrider, D. L. (1987). Appreciative Inquiry into Organizational Life. Research in organizational change and development, 1.