It is almost 20 years since Martin Seligman inaugurated the field of positive psychology. The context was this: he felt that psychology tended to focus mainly on what is wrong with people, on dysfunction, disorder and distress. Of course, there were areas that did hold a candle for human potential and excellence, like humanistic psychology. Nevertheless, on the whole, he argued that concepts such as happiness did not attract much attention or credibility in mainstream psychology, with precious little research on the beauty and the promise of the human experience.
And so, he proposed this new subfield, focusing on processes and qualities that could be deemed ‘positive,’ from overarching constructs such as flourishing, to more specific concepts like hope. Although many of these topics had been previously studied by various scholars, the new field created a conceptual space where these diverse points of interest could be brought together and considered collectively. Thus, as a field focusing specifically and entirely on ‘the science and practice of improving wellbeing’, it was a welcome new addition to the broader church of psychology.
However, the new paradigm was not without its critics. One key concern was the very notion of ‘positive’ which underpinned the entire field. Essentially, positive psychology appeared to be suggesting a rather polarising positive-negative dichotomy. Certain phenomena were labelled as positive, and thus presented as inherently desirable. The flip side, of course, was that opposing phenomena were implicitly treated as negative, and positioned as intrinsically undesirable. For example, optimism tended to be championed as an unmitigated good, and pessimism as an impediment to wellbeing. It is true that Seligman himself cautioned that one must be ‘able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it’. However, in the broader enthusiasm for the field, this sentiment tended to be overlooked.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on positivity was problematic. Firstly, it often failed to sufficiently appreciate the contextual complexity of emotional outcomes. For instance, ‘excessive’ optimism can be harmful to wellbeing (e.g., contributing to underappreciation of risk), while pessimism may be beneficial, such as when it prompts proactive coping. Of even greater concern was Barbara Held’s suggestion that this emphasis on positivity contributed to a ‘tyranny of the positive,’ creating an expectation that one should be upbeat. This ‘tyranny’ contributed to a cultural climate in which negative emotional states are not simply seen as undesirable, but unhealthy. As Allen Horwitz and Jerome Wakeﬁeld suggest in their book The Loss of Sadness, negative emotions that were previously regarded as natural and inherent dimensions of the human condition have largely been re-framed as disorders, and certainly conceptualised as problematic. And positive psychology arguably had a hand, albeit unintentionally, in this process.
Such critiques could be regarded as undermining positive psychology. However, we take a different view, and feel that the field is responding receptively, evolving into what we are calling ‘second wave’ positive psychology (SWPP). If the ‘first wave’ is characterised by a championing of the positive, SWPP recognises that wellbeing involves a subtle, interplay between positive and negative phenomena. This recognition challenges the idea that wellbeing is necessarily associated with happiness per se; rather, wellbeing becomes a more expansive term, one that includes negative emotions if these serve some broader sense of ‘being/doing well.’ For instance, Elizabeth Pollard and Lucy Davidson define wellbeing as ‘a state of successful performance across the life course integrating physical, cognitive and social-emotional function.’ One could see how ostensibly negative emotions, like proactive anxiety, could subserve this larger goal.
More specifically, SWPP is underpinned by four dialectical principles: appraisal; co-valence; complementarity; and evolution.
The principle of appraisal means that we cannot appraise something as either positive or negative without taking context into account. For instance, James McNulty and Frank Fincham showed that pro-social emotions like forgiveness can be harmful if it means one tolerates a situation that one might otherwise resist; conversely, ‘anti-social’ emotions like anger can impel one to resist injustice, and drive progressive social change. As such, clear-cut determinations of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ become harder to make.
It's not just that such appraisals are difficult; the second principle of co-valence reflects Richard Lazarus’ idea that many situations and experiences comprise positive and negative elements. This is even so for arguably the most cherished of all human emotions: love. While there are many forms of love, all are a blend of light and dark: even while love contains pleasure, joy and bliss, it also harbours worry, anxiety, and fear. As C.S. Lewis reflected mournfully, ‘To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.’ Indeed, in a recent project on 'untranslatable words' relating to wellbeing sourced from across the world's cultures, I found many concepts that were thoroughly co-valenced and ambivalent, but which were nevertheless highly valued in their respective cultures.
However, this recognition of co-valence leads us to the third principle: complementarity. Essentially, the light and dark of love - and indeed of all such dialectical phenomena - are inseparable. They are complementary and co-creating sides of the same coin. Consider that the stronger and more intense one’s love for another, the greater the risk of heartbreak. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote, ‘to love means opening up to that most sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with joy into an alloy that no longer allows its ingredients to separate.’
Finally, the principle of evolution contextualises the very idea of SWPP, following Hegel’s notion of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. One might view mainstream psychology, with its apparent concern with ‘negative’ aspects of human functioning, as the thesis. In critiquing this and embracing ostensibly positive phenomena, positive psychology presented itself as the antithesis. However, critics subsequently detected flaws in this antithesis, as highlighted above. Crucially though, this does not necessarily mean an abandonment of positive psychology, a reversion back to the original thesis. Rather, the next stage in this process is ideally synthesis, in which the truths of both thesis and antithesis are preserved, while their flaws are overcome. SWPP is just such a synthesis, moving towards a more nuanced appreciation of the dialectical complexities of wellbeing.
It is these themes that we shall be exploring together throughout this blog. We hope that you will join us on the journey.
Tim Lomas, Dan Collinson, and Itai Ivtzan.