The same way Psychoanalysis has been accused by a few to be outdated, positive psychology is criticized for being too new. From the time it was established, positive psychology has received many criticisms on its efficiency. Differing from other branches of psychology, which methods of treatment included converting negative states into neutral ones, positive psychology entered the field with a new, yet continuous, aim: moving from a neutral state to a more positive one. As positive psychology is still new, it is sometimes viewed by others as being infantile or lacking credibility.
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Happiness is not the ideal
The earliest criticism that positive psychology received until now is that happiness should not be the main ideal and that thinking positive is naïve. I do agree. Many people who have changed the world may not have been happy, but they had a meaningful life. In fact, some of them are quite depressed (Seligman, 2012). My response to this criticism is that positive psychology is not all about happyology or thinking positively. This misinterpretation might come from the titles of its books that come with a “Happiness” label attached to it, such as “Authentic Happiness”, “Happiness Hypothesis”, “Happier”, and “Before Happiness”. Perhaps people who are not familiar with the idea of positive psychology become confused by what its goals are. They read the title and judge from the cover, “Oh, I see the word happiness, so positive psychology must be about happiness.” What they see is just a piece of glass of the Louvre Museum; first they do not know what it was built for, and second, they do not know what is lying beneath. Aiming for the happy life is unhealthy. Even the founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (Tierney, 2011), stated that “If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago.”
Positive Psychology: Ignoring the Negative
“The good life cannot be found without recognizing the negative side of life and seeking relationships with the world as they are” (Lazarus, 2003).
Maybe because it is labeled as ‘positive’, people often mistakenly criticize positive psychology on the basis that it ignores the dark side of human beings: adversities, suffering, challenges, etc. But, that is not true. Before I divulge into why that’s not true, let’s examine why the creation of positive psychology was necessary in the first place. According to Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000),
“The exclusive focus on pathology has dominated so much of our discipline that results in a model of the human is lacking in the positive features that make life worth living.” Psychology was not originated to understand only the mental illness. That type of model was influenced after World War II, but before that the goal of Psychology was always to cure “mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identify and nurture high talent (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).”
Positive psychology is, therefore, the
“‘scientific’ study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology (Lopez & Snyder, 2009).”
Positive psychology does not undermine the negativity within us, as positive psychology practitioners “believe that a complete science and a complete practice of psychology should include an understanding of suffering and happiness, as well as their interaction, and validated interventions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness— two separable endeavors (Seligman et al., 2005).” Instead of stopping at the negative to neutral, positive psychology moves you further than that. For example, “ a positive clinical psychology [field] is concerned not just with identifying weaknesses and treating or preventing “disorders”, but also with identifying human strengths and promoting “mental health” (Maddux, 2008). Early research on negative circumstances that lead to a positive outcome in resilience was based on the question of why children who faced difficulties growing up develop more successfully as adults. The research showed that “positive development and mental health problems are distinct outcomes that interact in more complex ways (O’Connor, 2014).” In addition, positive psychology research found that many of positive factors contribute to resilience like sense of meaning, optimism, effective problem solving, close relationship, etc. (Reivich, Seligman & McBride, 2011). However, too much of either positive or negative experiences are harmful. While too much positive affect leads to risky behavior, extreme negative affect leads to mental problems, too (Oishi, 2007). To balance the negative with the positive to help people increase their wellbeing or flourish with a foundation of strength and virtues, Seligman established the PERMA model (Kern et al., 2015). Well-being can be defined as “the absence of mental disorder but also the presence of positive psychological resources, including components of hedonic or subjective well-being as well as components of eudaimonic well-being (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009).” In sum, we appreciate both negative and positive emotions, but we urge you to feel more positive than negative in response to everyday situations.
Martin Seligman: A pessimist who became an optimist
The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, was already famous before. A theory that made him quite well-known is learned helplessness. Still controversial to this day, his experiment was shown to be effective enough that it was implemented into the CIA torturing program for the CIA terrorist inspection. Some of the positive psychology criticism can come because of Seligman’s experiment on learned helplessness, but just because something is invented and was misused doesn’t mean the inventor is to blame. That kind of thought might as well make us blame the creators of nuclear weapons even though the original intention was to find an alternative energy for the world. Also, some may claim that he established the bright side of psychology to escape his dark childhood. In fact, Martin admitted himself that he was “pessimistic.” So, does that negate his new findings and theories? Does it make a difference if it was a positive or a negative person or wht their was intention behind it?
Positive Psychology: It is for the rich with an easy life
Let’s look at how positive psychology works in the real world. Some claim that our emotions are largely dependent on our socio-economic circumstances. Based on Maslow’s hierarchy of need, it is partly true that we could not reach the upper level, i.e. belonging or esteem, if we are still hungry, burdened by insecurity or poverty. But, the research also found that externalities influence less than 15% of life satisfaction (Seligman et al., 2009). This idea that positive psychology can only be for the rich is, as it’s still fairly new, comes from it being mostly being practiced and taught in universities and developed countries (Seligman et al., 2005). But, that doesn’t mean that a small group of people are only capable of learning positive psychology tools. It is not a matter of wealth, but of time. Positive psychology is spreading rapidly, it just needs its time to rest comfortably within different cultures in order to absorb its ideals. Many cultures find mental health to still be taboo, so positive psychology may also take some time to digest before its welcomed and sought after, too.
Positive Psychology: A self-help guide wrapped in pseudo-science
“The reason science should be included and research should be conducted regardless of field or name is because ‘research was a vital and important part of practice that could yield valuable insights and important implications for practice’” (Tilly, 2008). Another positive psychology criticism is its comparison with self-help books and guides. The difference is that most self-help books are written based on the writer’s experiences. It may be effective one, but there isn’t plenty of data to support it (Wood, Perunovic & Lee, 2009). We share different contexts of living, and one person’s experiences may not apply to the next. Conversely, positive psychology bases its research on what works for the general population. According to both Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), positive psychology “does not rely on wishful thinking, faith, self-deception, fads, or hand waving; it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity.” By implementing science, statistics, experiments and facts it helps us in knowing what is or is not applicable and efficient for the majority of the population. For example, we know, based on the research that the reasons why there are always some people who have more resilience than others is due to the chemicals in their brain that are in accordance with positive emotions (Tugade et al., 2004). It is required to apply the scientific method in not only positive psychology but indeed, to all the branches of knowledge out there. It needs to be questioned, tested, and applied until we could understand it. So that, as Martin Seligman said, “We can ask with rigor that when in her lifetime an individual is flourishing. We can ask with rigor if a charity is increasing the flourishing of its beneficiaries. We can ask with rigor if our school systems are helping our children flourish (Seligman, 2012).” All branches of psychology that deal with the human being, are all working for the same goal, but with different approaches. Cognitive Psychology helps you understand how you process information in your brain to know how to learn better and Behaviorism helps us understand the pattern of behavior based on reward, punishment, conditioned, unconditioned stimuli and response. Every branch serves its purpose and is unique, as positive psychology is as well.
Positive Psychology: What’s next?
So now we are clear that Positive Psychology is not a based on ‘happily ever after’ promise. Regardless of its name, it conducts research on our negative sides as well. Based on fair judgment and critical thinking, we have discussed the criticism of founder, application, and science of Positive Psychology. There are many changes positive psychology practitioners have made as a response to the criticism above. Lots of new and updated methods have been used to conduct research in the field. For example, the latest research shows that language that you use on Twitter, whether it’s positive or negative, can be an indicator of the risks to your health (Eichstaedt et al., 2015). We have developed a way to measure strength that includes all aspects of life as much as possible (Boniwell, 2012). Research points out various directions that positive psychology should further conduct i.e. factors of who, for whom, to what extent that these are associated with well-being, studies in both positive and negative context, studies in long-term implications, and so on (McNulty & Fincham, 2012). This not only pushes positive psychology forward, but it helps sharpen tools, theories, and techniques that will help the understanding of human beings as a whole.