The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Busting Myths about Positive Psychology

Busting myths is an important part of teaching psychology.

A recent Psychology Today blog entry by Christian Jarrett drew my attention to an interesting line of research and practice about the “myths” (false beliefs) that psychology students may have about the field and how to correct them; e.g., people diagnosed with schizophrenia have split personalities; most people use only 10 percent of their brains; memory is literal; opposites attract.

That students come into a psychology course with ideas about the field and its subject matter, some accurate and some inaccurate, can be a good thing. Students are obviously interested, and many have thought about psychology even before taking a course. Because some of their ideas may not square with what psychologists have established, teachers are provided many opportunities for actually teaching by encouraging critical thinking. No course should consist solely of busting myths, of course, but doing so is an important part of teaching psychology.

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To some degree, myths about psychology disappear when students are exposed to other (“correct”) ideas. But it may be more helpful to call out the myths explicitly and refute them. Even so, some beliefs persist, hardly surprising given what we (correctly) know about how sturdy belief systems may be.

Modesty and honesty are needed in teaching psychology, and a teacher should not brand an idea a “myth” just because he or she happens to disagree with it. Again, critical thinking is indicated, and part of critical thinking is recognizing areas of legitimate disagreement. Sometimes further research is needed!

These notions led me to consider some of the emerging myths about positive psychology: theory, research, and practice. Here are some of these myths, at least from my own perspective:

• Positive psychology is without precedent.

• Positive psychology is a renegade field.

• Positive psychology urges people to be positive in any and all circumstances.

• Someone can have it all (vis-à-vis positive psychology’s vision of the good life).

• Money can’t buy happiness.

• There are “secrets” about how to attain happiness.

• Perseverance necessarily trumps talent.

• The constructs of positive psychology (e.g., character strengths) represent a typology—either-or features of an individual.

• Lesser strengths of character are necessarily weaknesses

• Positive psychology interventions can ignore lesser strengths (and weaknesses).

• Psychological characteristics are stronger than the situation in terms of their effects on well-being.

• Positive psychology assessment is efficient and 100% valid.

• Positive psychology interventions are only for happy people.

• Positive psychology interventions are necessarily light-handed.

• Positive psychology interventions work without exception.

• Positive psychology interventions are one-size-fits all.

In my blog entries here, I have written about some of these myths, and I have tried to refute them with appropriate arguments and/or relevant data. How successful I have been, I do not know, but I will continue. I invite readers to appreciate that good science always entails the possibility of being wrong.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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