“We live in an age consumed by the worship of the psyche. In a society plagued by division of race, class, and gender we are nonetheless bound together by a gospel of psychological happiness. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, we share a belief that feelings are sacred and salvation lies in self-esteem, that happiness is the ultimate goal and psychological healing the means.” Eva S. Moskowitz, In Therapy We Trust
The Positive Psychology movement was founded in 1998, and since then has attracted a large following, influencing business leaders and politicians across the world. At the heart of this theory is the claim that external circumstances make almost no difference to our happiness.
To become happy and flourish as a human being you are only to a small degree determined by your circumstances, such as where you live and how much you earn, and to a very large degree dependent on your own intentional activities (specifically, whether you’re positive or not).
According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor at the University of California, Riverside, and one of the more respected proponents of Positive Psychology, circumstances only account for 10% of our happiness.
Deliberately avoiding how politics might affect us, Positive Psychology puts all the focus on the individual and asks whether or not we are ready to take ownership of our own lives and stop seeing ourselves as powerless victims.
Positive Psychology carries a similar message to positive thinking: to think positively will have positive consequences. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, (the term itself was coined by Abraham Maslow), would loudly protest the apparent similarity. While positive thinking is about “boosterism”, Positive Psychology is about “accuracy”, Seligman writes in his 2002 bestseller Authentic Happiness. The science of happiness has to be morally neutral, he continues, adding that it is not “the job of Positive Psychology to tell you that you should be optimistic”, but only “to describe the consequences”, such as “being optimistic brings about less depression, better physical health, and higher achievement”. What Seligman seems to say is that you have no obligation to be optimistic. You should, however, be prepared to face the consequences if you’re not.
Over the last couple of decades, in the name of “accurate science”, Positive psychologists and other happiness researchers have discovered that “happiness is associated with a longer life”. But then it has also been discovered that “happiness and unhappiness have no direct effect on mortality”. It has been found, moreover, that “the more cash people have, the happier they are”. And a “global study”, meanwhile, has shown that “money doesn’t buy happiness”. As for relationships, “single people are more fulfilled”, although, according to Harvard researchers, “relationships are the key to a happy life”. Finally, “couples who drink together are happier than those who don’t”.
This list of conflicting research on happiness could be extended indefinitely, which is by no means strange because happiness is not a quantifiable entity, contrary to what Seligman has claimed in the past (even advancing a happiness equation), but a philosophical concept that has meant different things at different times.
Professors Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz, authors of the 2019 book Manufacturing Happy Citizens, have accused Positive Psychology of advancing a Western, ethnocentric creed of individualism. At its core is the idea that we can achieve well-being through our own efforts, by showing determination and grit. But what about social and systemic factors that, for example, keep people in poverty? What about physical illness and underserved tragedy, are people who are miserable in these circumstances just not trying hard enough?
“Positive Psychology gives the impression you can be well and happy just by thinking the right thoughts. It encourages a culture of blaming the victim,” said professor Jim Coyne, a former colleague and fierce critic of Seligman.
Then there are Positive Psychology’s financial ties to religion. The Templeton Foundation, originally established to promote evangelical Christianity and still pursuing goals related to religious understanding, is Seligman’s biggest private sponsor and has granted him tens of millions of dollars. It partly funded his research into universal values, helped establish the Positive Psychology Center at Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania, and endows psychology’s richest prize, the $100,000 Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology. The foundation has, cultural critic Ruth Whippman wrote in her book America the Anxious, “played a huge role in shaping the philosophical role Positive Psychology has taken.”
We should find this scandalous, Coyne says. “It’s outrageous that a religious organization, or any vested interest, can determine the course of scientific ‘progress’, that it can dictate what science gets done.”
Despite the criticism, Positive Psychology remains incredibly popular. Books with “happiness” in the title fly off the shelves, and people sign up for seminars, courses, and lectures in droves. We all seem to want what Positive Psychology is selling. What is it that makes this movement so compelling?
Sonja Lyubomirsky said in an interview that Positive Psychology was born at a time of peace and plenty. Many today “have the luxury to reflect and work on their own well-being,” she says. “When people are struggling to get their basic needs met they don’t have the time or resources or energy or motivation to consider whether they are happy.”
The 2008 financial crisis, though, seems to challenge this hypothesis. Suddenly, the luxury to reflect evaporated for vast numbers of people. But an analysis by social scientists shows that the number of academic papers published on Positive Psychology and happiness continued to rise.
That’s led skeptics such as Coyne, Cabanas, and Illouz to suggest that Positive Psychology’s popularity today is less a question of demand than supply. There’s so much money in the movement now that it is propelled by the energy and entrepreneurial vim of the coaches, consultants, writers, and academics who make living from it.
“The fundamentalist religions simply seem to offer more hope for a brighter future than do the more liberal, humanistic ones.” Martin Seligman
It’s also possible, however, that Positive Psychology’s entanglement with religion may contribute to its popularity. We are, psychologists such as Bruce Hood say, hard-wired for religion. Positive Psychology’s spiritual orientation makes it the perfect receptacle for our displaced religious impulses. Critics such as Coyne claim this is by design. The missionary tone is all part of Seligman’s vision for Positive Psychology. “Seligman frequently makes claims of mystical intervention that many of us dismiss as marketing,” says Coyne.
“I believe it is within our capacity that by the year 2051 that 51 percent of the human population will be flourishing. That is my charge.” Martin Seligman
But does marketing matter if Positive Psychology helps people lead better lives? Skeptics, once again, question whether the benefits of Positive Psychology are really as great as claimed. Cabanas said that there “is no major conclusion in Positive Psychology that has not been challenged, modified or even rejected.” Yet the fact of Positive Psychology’s meteoric rise cannot be ignored; Seligman and his colleagues are very clearly doing something right, something that gives hope, optimism, and perhaps even happiness to millions of its consumers.
We certainly need hope, but we need it without the numbing, tyrannical, conformist, and almost religious optimism that comes with happiness, as Terry Eagleton points out.
Cabanas and Eva Illouz write in their book: “We need the kind of hope based on critical analysis, social justice, and collective action, that is not paternalistic, that does not decide what is good for us on our behalf, and that does not aim to spare us from the worst, but that places us in a better position to confront it. Not as isolated individuals but together, as a society.”