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Busting myths in positive psychology

By Sophie Francis | 13 November 2012

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Positive psychology is a flourishing field. It has positively altered the direction and language of mainstream psychology, opening career opportunities in coaching, counselling and organisational consulting for practioners to enhance wellbeing in ever increasing ways. The science of positive psychology has brought evidence-based approaches to help people and organisations cope with stress and build positive and sustaining relationships, engagement, meaning and vitality.

Positive psychology has not been without critics. In recent months an escalation of debate has seen articles by Australian academics highlight ignorance about positive psychology’s core precepts, countering negative reports in mainstream press (30 March and 1 September). A new book by Oliver Burkeman (2012), controversially titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, broadsides simplistic advice of putting on a smiley-face and pursuing short-term gains in favour of mindful acceptance of negative emotions in an uncertain world. Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestseller Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009), earlier voiced a backlash against Western culture’s positivity bias and a tendency to deny negative outcomes that likely contributed to the GFC.

Scholars of positive psychology and educated professionals are concerned that the science they research and promote is often co-opted by self-help advocates and misrepresented by poorly trained practioners. Even among field leaders, the “tyranny of positivity” (Held 2002) is an attitude some feel has gained too much attention, feeding into discomfort with and avoidance of negative experience and realistic appraisals of life challenges.

So does positive psychology urge us to accentuate the positive and ignore the negative? No. Let's bust that myth.

 

Myth: positive psychology is about being happy all the time

Self-help promoters and the media often give the impression that people “should” be happy all or most of the time. This can lead people to feel pressure to achieve the impossible or like a failure for feeling negative emotions, moods and experiences. This in turn can increase negative self-talk, rumination or depression. A recent study (Bastian et al 2011) highlighted the impact of social expectation on happiness: when people believe others think they should feel happy and not sad or stressed, they feel worse. Offering a supportive space where people can express emotions and honestly share what they are experiencing is far more helpful and authentic than simply telling people to “be positive” and “look on the bright side”.

The science and practice of positive psychology is not about promoting “happyology” or ignoring the realities of negative experience or ups and downs of life. Positive psychology does not prescribe specific levels of happiness. It provides meaningful insight, analysis and strategies to help people leverage positive emotions, build resilience to learn from and manage negative emotion and experience, and raise levels of wellbeing and effectiveness over all.

The science and practice of positive psychology is not about promoting “happyology” or ignoring the realities of negative experience or ups and downs of life.

With roots in humanistic psychology and the study of human health, positive psychology evolved to better understand what is right with people not just what is wrong. It is designed to complement the treatment and prevention of mental illness by identifying and celebrating what makes life worthwhile, productive and fulfilling. Launching positive psychology as a modern discipline in his inaugural Presidential Address to the American Psychological Association (APA), Martin Seligman (1998) declared:

Psychology is not just about illness or health; it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, Positive Psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, self-deception or hand-waving; instead it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity.

Understanding and working with the complexity of life and emotional experience in totality, is where positive psychology is increasingly directing it’s efforts. Cautioning against simplifying and overstating positive psychology’s early role in promoting the positive as distinct from psychopathology, APA fellow Paul Wong (2011) advocates a balanced approach. Positive psychology needs to move towards integrating the “complex interactions between negative and positive to optimise positive outcomes” across situations and cultures. Researchers and field leaders are now taking stock of the field (Sheldon et al 2011), examining biases, evaluating gaps, stretching perspectives and integrating evidence from areas such as mindfulness and posttraumatic growth.

Positive Psychology...tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity.

Part of the assumptions and myth making around positive psychology stems from meaning we commonly ascribe to “positive” and “negative”. Positive psychologists such as Alex Linley (2006), founder and director of the UK’s Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, are careful to describe these as poles on the spectrum of the human condition rather than implying or promoting an inherent dichotomy or split.

At the same time, we need to be wary of supposing mental illness and human flourishing exist as two ends of the same continuum. Corey Keyes (2007), studying the relationship between mental health and mental illness, concluded that the absence of mental illness does not equate to the presence of mental health. Treating or preventing mental illness will not by itself result in greater mental health. Mental and physical illness, in conjunction with flourishing—and it’s opposite “languishing”—need to be understood and addressed holistically.

Part of the positivity bias may have to do with the way we tend to label and often judge emotions. It is important to understand that emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; behaviours that may result from emotions may be viewed as good or bad depending on the situation.

Emotions contain data about ourselves, other people and the world around us. Whether scientifically classified “positive” (eg happiness) or “negative” (eg fear, anger, sadness), they give us early data points that help us think and act more intelligently.

Part of the positivity bias may have to do with the way we tend to label and often judge emotions...emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; behaviours that may result from emotions may be...depending on the situation.

Emotions occur quickly and automatically, usually without conscious thought. To ensure our survival, negative emotions are often faster, stronger and longer lasting. Their primary function is to promote actions and mobilise us to deal quickly with interpersonal or threatening events. For example, fear can motivate us to leave a dangerous situation, anger can give us energy to rectify a social injustice or get out of procrastination, while sadness elicits empathy and enables us to draw on support.

On the other hand, positive emotions, according to Barbara Fredrickson (2001), help broaden and build our repertoire of thoughts and action. Joy creates the urge to experiment and play; interest increases curiosity to explore and engage in experiences and self-development; contentment stimulates savouring and integration of experiences into self- and worldviews. Importantly, the internal and external resources developed by experiencing positive emotions, outlast transient emotional states, propelling us in ‘upward spirals’ toward optimal performance, wellbeing and growth.

When we teach individuals and organisations how to leverage the benefit of positive emotions and be more intelligent in managing emotions, we explain how positive, negative and neutral emotions can be applied to achieve better outcomes in different situations. Positive emotions encourage open-mindedness, flexibility, creativity, feedback learning and goal attainment, while neutral or slightly negative emotions help us focus, correct errors, assess risks and evaluate plans. Excitement and enthusiasm create high-energy idea-generating states; serenity and even sadness are low energy emotions that encourage reflective states.

To give ourselves the best chance of success we need tools at our disposal to increase the duration and intensity of our positive emotions and decrease the intensity and duration of our negative emotions. We also need tactics to build emotional and physical health and wellbeing into our lives through relationships, community, strengths, engagement and meaning.

References:

Bastian, B., Hornsey, M., Koval, P., Kuppens, P., Parke, J., & Uchida, Y. (2011). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectations in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12(1):69-80.

Burkeman, O. (2012). The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. New York: Faber and Faber.

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3):218226.

Keyes, C. (2007). Promoting and protecting mental health as flourishing: A complementary strategy for improving national mental health. American Psychologist, 62(2):95-108.

Linley, A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. (2007). Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(10):3-16.

Seligman, M. (1998). The president's address. American Psychologist, 54:559-62.

Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T., & Steger, M. (2011). Designing Positive Psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wong, P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, Vol 52(2):69-81.

 

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About the Author: Sophie Francis

Sophie Francis

Sophie writes about positive psychology, emotional intelligence and neuroscience for the Langley Group. She is an accredited R2 Strengths practitioner with a Master of Business Coaching from University of Wollongong, and co-author of Working with Strengths in Coaching, in the SAGE Handbook of Coaching (in press).

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