What may be less well-known is that positive psychology also provides a comprehensive framework for morality and humanitarian progress.
In the current climate of recent terrorist attacks, it seems timely to review what positive psychology has to say about the progress of human morality.
First the uncomfortable part
As difficult as it is to consider, in their own twisted way, and immersed in unhinged fanaticism, suicide attackers can actually display some of the virtues proposed by positive psychology. For example, pursuing their own particular path to meaning and perversely displaying courage and valour.
This awful contradiction was recently addressed by Pury et.al. (2015) who proposed a distinction between good courage and bad courage. These researchers analysed the written statements of terrorists prior to committing atrocities and found significant overlap with their statements, and our normally accepted definitions of courage. The researchers thus proposed updated terminology where the term “bad courage” is used to better describe the suicidal audacity and nerve in harming innocent people.
The potential tension between audacity and morality has also been addressed by the father of “Flow” theory Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his classic book “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience”, he notes how teenagers involved in crime frequently have no other motivation than the excitement of stealing a car or destroying property.
He also notes how some battle-hardened war veterans admit how they never felt such exhilaration than when they were behind a machine gun on the front lines.
Csikszentmihalyi concludes by arguing it is not enough to strive for just any exhilarating goal. We must choose goals that build life-satisfaction without harming others, and hopefully add value to humanity.
“By the year 2051, 51 percent of the people of the world will be flourishing” – Martin Seligman.
In these confronting times perhaps the final word should go to the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman.
In describing the historic idea of the “Florentine Moment,” Professor Seligman noted that in the 15th century, as Florence became so incredibly wealthy, the city’s leadership decided to do more than just accumulate more wealth and conquest. Instead they invested in an unprecedented flourishing of culture and beauty, which we now know as the Renaissance.
“The wealthy nations of the world…are again at a Florentine moment. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?” (P. 237).
With regard to the current climate, in addition to being a worthy cause in itself PERMA 51 may prove to be one of our best weapons against terrorism. In order for organised terror groups to exist they need to attract disaffected youth, given older people, including those inside such groups, understand their own mortality and are less inclined to throw their own lives away.
And if there is one proven antidote to human disaffection and dysphoria it has to be the promotion of human flourishing.
So if we can promote genuine flourishing – happiness, engagement, meaning, and relationships across the globe, we can reduce the potential for young people to fall for the consolation prize, the dark attraction of extremist meaning and “bad courage”.
Professor Seligman suggests numerous ways this can be achieved. These include positive education, positive business (where relationships and meaning are just as important as profits), positive computing and prosocial video games, and positive journalism (where stories of virtue stand alongside stories of misery). Moreover, “it will be aided by a new politics in which government across the world will be judged by how much it increases, not just GDP but also the well-being of the governed.” (P.240).
Some final notes
Personally I am quietly confident we can do this. Positive psychology has the tools to increase human flourishing across the globe. And when we succeed, when we make life more worthwhile for people everywhere, perhaps the human race will finally stop cannibalising itself.
The positive psychology poster boy for meaning and purpose is, of course, Dr Viktor Frankl. I’m sure professor Seligman won’t mind if I give the final-final word to the great man. In his famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” Dr Frankl offers this quote of quotes, which is even more relevant today.
“Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
Csikszentmihalyi., M. (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man's search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
Seligman, M., (2011) "Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press
Pury. C., Starkey.C., Kulik. R., Skjerning. K., Sullivan. E. (2015). Is courage always a virtue? Suicide, killing, and bad courage. The Journal of Positive Psychology. Volume 10, Issue 5.