Sunday, March 08, 2020

Seligman - Positive psychology… but at the cost of realism?

Martin ‘Marty’ Seligman, the Chair of the American Psychology Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the father of positive psychology. He attempts to rebalance psychology towards the positive study of the mind, as opposed to its traditional bias towards the negative and pathological.
His early research into ‘learned helplessness’ led him towards a redefinition of psychology that saw study of the mind not as the study of what is wrong but what can be right. It was also a reaction against DSM-led psychiatry (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), that had overseen a massive rise in mental disorders and drug use in the US population. His influence has extended beyond academia to the promotion of positive thinking and happiness as an indicator of well-being in society. Many politicians, business people and educators have seen in this work, a new way of looking at society and organisations, with more focus on the psychological health (happiness) of individuals.

Happiness debate

It is often forgotten that the ‘happiness’ debate goes back to the Greeks and was played out in detail with Bentham and Mill in the late 18th, early 19th century. ‘The Greatest Happiness Principle’ led to a definition of happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, Bentham’s ‘hedonic calculus’ proved too awkward to use in any practical sense. Mill opted for quality, not quantity, with a focus on higher pleasures, but there were still problems of definition, and measurability. The arguments that ‘happiness’ is simplistic, vague, difficult to measure and cannot be used as a guide for moral or social well-being, remain a serious, and fundamental, problem for the positive psychology school.

Smile or Die

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Smile or Die, wrote one of the most in-depth criticisms of the rise of positive psychology and thinking. She thinks the ‘happy’ movement replaces reality with positive illusions. You can think positively but “at the cost of less realism”. For Ehrenreich it is this optimism bias that leads to megalomaniac business leaders, failed projects, missed sales figures, unrepayable debt and failure. Seligman is seen as the pied piper of the positive psychology movement but Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness was been seen by Ehrenreich as a “jumble of anecdotes”.  She found his formula for happiness banal: H= S+F+C (Happiness = set range, circumstances and voluntary control). In the The Journal of Happiness Studies she reads study after study linking happiness to every conceivable outcome but it is a lop-sided view of the world, with no room for negative results.
The recent financial bubble, she claims, was built on the false optimism of being positive about everything. At the heart of the economic crisis was an epidemic of self-delusion. Bankers and advisors were coked up on a heady mixture of motivational speakers, motivational literature and coaches. Ehrenreich slates Tim Robbins, Chris Gardner and Chuck Mills for creating a ‘woo’ culture of high fives and leaders who became “megalomaniac, narcissistic solipsists”. Bankers and others built bubbles around themselves, all within a mega-bubble of debt. As Paul Krugman said “nobody likes to be a party pooper”.
Ehrenreich refuses to bow to “fake sincerity” and “retreat from the real drama and tragedy of human events”. She slams infantile books like; Who moved my cheese? Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Secret etc. for selling snakeoil solutions to vulnerable people. It is always happy hour for the “professionals who peddle positivity”, as they make huge sums of money from the selling these illusions.

Education and training

On the other hand, Seligman’s work has led to a re-examination of the purpose of education, training and social aims beyond their tendency to focus on deficit models. The well-being of the person and learner has been brought into the equation, with sensitivity around positive traits and the teaching of social and emotional skills beyond the academic curriculum. Just like Mill in the 19th century, who found the concept of happiness restricting, Seligman had to soften his position on ‘happiness’ in his 2011 book Flourish.


Even positive psychology had a positive and a negative side. On the one hand, it has rebalanced the science of psychology, traditionally weighed down by the psychoanalytic and psychiatric tradition of seeing the mind in terms of deficits, even in pathological terms. However, as a science in itself, it may have swung too far in the other direction producing an epidemic of false optimism and positivity in politics, business and education. Some Human Resources departments and educationalists are perhaps too eager to adopt this faddish narrative, using ‘’happiness’. positive’ and ‘good’ interchangeably, leading to megalomania in management and business practice. It may not be a matter of optimism versus pessimism, but realism versus illusions.


Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). What You Can Change and What You Can't: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1996). The Optimistic Child: Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Ehrenreich B. (2010) Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World Granta

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