Daniel Horowitz Ph.D.

Our Subjective Well-Being

Positive Psychology: Across the Political Spectrum

Exploring the variety of political ideologies among happiness students.

Posted Feb 06, 2018

Critics of higher education point to evidence that the left dominates major scholarly endeavors. This is not true for positive psychology, a field that has in the last twenty years shaped not only the scholarship but also broader public pursuits of happiness. If critics outside the field rely on Marx or Foucault, it is possible to identify a spectrum of political posi­tions within the field.

At one end stands the British social democrat and economist Richard Layard. He pointed to Scandinavian nations that recorded high rates of happiness along with high taxes, a strong edu­cational system, and a culture of trust. The recommendations that followed from his analysis were clear: develop family-friendly social policies, support the development of community life, dramatically reduce unem­ployment, provide major funding to counter the emotional and economic costs of mental illness, use social policies that would counter the continual growth of wants, and foster education that emphasized engagement with the world outside oneself.

If Layard represents the social democratic left among happiness schol­ars, the cultural left appears most prominently in the work of Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and the Greater Good Science Center of the University of California. If when talking about character more conservative positive psychologists emphasize grit and resilience, Keltner underscored the importance of love and compassion. Moreover, if most positive psychologists were vague about how to move from the personalistic to the social and political, Keltner and his colleagues more fully explored such connections. Among the topics they focused on, but most positive psychol­ogists avoided, were the dynamics of racism, social class, moral behavior on a large scale, environmental degradation, peaceful reconciliation, and the exercise of power.

A free market, conservative perspective appeared in Arthur C. Brooks’s Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America— and How We Can Get More of It, which appeared in 2008, the same year that its author became president of the American Enterprise Institute and a few years before he joined the advisory board of Charles Koch’s Well-Being Initiative. Brooks argued that the data revealed that general conserva­tives were happier than liberals because of the quality of their marriages, the seriousness of their religious commitments, and the strength of their individualism. When it came to moral freedoms, such as control over whom we could marry or the conditions that made obtaining an abortion easy or difficult, it was not the government but “individuals, families, and communities” that should establish how we behave even if the rules were restrictive. Brooks noted that the “nanny state” eroded freedom and thus happiness. It undermined the ambition of poor people and depressed their spirits to tell them that because America was no longer a nation where equality of opportunity was possible, they should follow the Democratic Party in fighting for redis­tributive policies. Instead, charitable giving and success under capitalism were the most important providers.

Nonetheless, what shapes mainstream positive psychology is a cultural conservatism that relies on increasing people’s subjective well-being by emphasizing character traits such as grit and resilience. The key figure here is Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who in 1998 launched positive psychology as an organized effort and since then has vigorously fostered its development. Seligman’s emphasis on how the choice of character over personality as a counter to political correctness, relativism, and postmodernism provides the foundation for positive psychology’s impact on school systems, corporations, and the military. To him, self- control and grit were more important, and transformative, than political engagement or organization.

This analysis ends on an ironic note. Influential positive psychologists lament the fact that in a deeply divided America, people do not engage with those across the ideological boundaries of political life. Yet, having studied positive psychology for four years, what strikes me is that within the field there is remarkably little recognition or discussion that either acknowledges or reaches across the political spectrum. It is time for that conversation to begin.

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