Martin Seligman - What Are Your Thoughts On Positive Psychology Critiques?

By Sophie Archibald | 2 October 2018

In April, Sue Langley and The Langley Group team were invited by the Happiness and Its Causes team to participate in a special event: An Afternoon with Martin Seligman.  The event started with a keynote presentation by Dr Seligman, followed by an interview and Q&A session, hosted by Sue.

In the eighth video of our series covering the interview with Sue Langley, Dr Martin Seligman shares his candid thoughts and knowledge around Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.

What Are Your Thoughts On Positive Psychology Critiques?

Sue:

A phrase that we use all the time (at Langley Group) is “treat yourself as a scientific experiment”. Test it on yourself, go and apply it, do it, and then see what happens.  I’m definitely with you on that one.

 

There are lots of critiques about Positive Psychology and I personally believe there needs to be critiques, because that’s how the science builds and grows. There have been some interesting critiques lately that have been not very positive psychology framed, some very negative attacks on people; Barbara Fredrickson, Marcel Losada, and there was another one that came out a couple of weeks ago. There was a new research paper attacking it (positive psychology) again, and Amy Cuddy got hammered in the research. I’m intrigued to know your thoughts around the language of that critique.  Because it’s quite shocking sometimes.

 

Martin:

Like you, I think criticism is crucial. Unlike a broadway show, in which criticism shuts you down, in science, criticism is what you respond to, it refines science. (Yet) there is constructive criticism that fuels the science, and then there’s straw-man criticism, and then there’s auto hominem criticism, and so let me just give you a couple of things that are really good critiques of positive psychology that it needs to respond to.

 

One, is that Positive Psychology is selfish. And that it needs to be about other people as well. And that’s a very important critique.

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Second, is forget all the psychology stuff, all we need to do is make a better world. Kind of, if you will, the socialistic view of the human future. That if we throw money at things, when we create economic equality, somehow things will get better. I think that’s a very serious critique, and we need to think about that.  That psychology is just an epiphenomenon of prosperity, (yet) then there are sorts of straw-man critiques… which is, what is this smiley faced, happy stuff? And that’s a critique you and I often see. And what that ignores is that we’re not about smiley faces, we’re about meaning and purpose, we’re about virtue, we’re about accomplishment and the like.  So there’s the straw-man stuff, and then there’s pretty awful ad hominem stuff, that really gets under your skin. And interestingly, I don’t know if you have the same reaction to criticism, (yet) it’s the ad hominem stuff that wakes me up to at four in the morning. And not the really good critiques.

 

Sue:

I’m the same. If it’s a good critique it’s important, because it encourages people to respond and Amy Cuddy has just responded quite beautifully to her critiques. (Yet) the critique bothered me because even the person afterwards who made it, he said, I probably should have picked up the phone and spoken to her before I just attacked her. So I agree, when it’s done well it’s great.

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Martin Seligman's latest book 'The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism' is available in our online shop - find out more here.

About the Author: Sophie Archibald

Sophie Archibald

Sophie manages marketing for the Langley Group, helping people around the world use positive psychology, neuroscience and emotional intelligence to flourish. She holds a BSc in Psychology from the University of Exeter, is accredited in the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and is currently studying the Langley Group Institute’s Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.

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