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Popping The Happiness Bubble: The Backlash Against Positive Psychology (Part 1)

Is the "science of happiness" overrated?

I suppose the backlash was to be expected. As I pointed out in my last blog post, Positive Psychology has become so visible that even major brands such as Coke, Starbucks, BMW, and others appear to have incorporated themes of happiness, positivity, and joy into their advertising campaigns. Indeed, books, TV specials, and magazine/newspaper articles on positive psychology have appeared in such profusion, lately, that it occurs to me we might be seeing something of a "happiness bubble."

When movements become so large as to be co-opted by advertisers and the media there is almost inevitably a backlash.

In this instance, I'm seeing it in last year's best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America and the lead article in the October 2010 issue of Harper's by Gary Greenberg, "The War on Unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking."

Both authors caused me to question my own rush to enthusiasm over the "new science of happiness" touted by positive psychology. At the same time, I find myself in disagreement with some of their debunking.

I've known about Ehrenreich's book for some time but was reluctant to read it, knowing that it would likely put a damper on my enthusiasm. Bright-Sided grew out of Ehrenreich frustration and outrage with facile assurances that she could overcome her breast cancer with positive affirmations. Not only did that not turn out to be the case but her research also found those assertions to be totally lacking in any scientific foundation. In fact, she found the whole subculture of cancer bloggers, cancer societies, cancer support groups, cancer survivors, and manufacturers of cancer-related tchotchkes riddled with denial and false cheer. She also tears into the fatuous, magical thinking embodied in such cultural artifacts as The Secret, which asserts we can have anything we want by simply wishing for it hard enough. Similarly, she goes after motivational speakers and personal-development coaches whose sole tool, she claims, boils down to the assertion that one's mental attitude is totally responsible for their success or failure. The dark side of all this is the corollary that if one fails to recover from their cancer or to get their downsized job back, it's their own fault for not having had a sufficiently positive mental attitude. In other words, hidden in all the inspirational blather is an insidious blaming of the victim and, even worse, an invitation to shame, guilt, and self-blame.

I'm thinking of my own mother who died of colon cancer. She went through a period of thinking she had been miraculously healed by a well-known evangelist. Later, when her cancer symptoms flared up again, she ate herself up with anguished self-blame that she had not held her faith strongly enough.

The overall thrust of Ehrenreich's book is that Americans have long suffered from a characterological flaw, seeing ourselves as a "positive people." We smile a lot compared to people from other countries. On various international surveys our kids report higher self-esteem than their performance would justify. Many of us think of ourselves as the heroes of the planet, champions of democracy, even as we rain down unparalleled death and destruction on those whom we would save. Ehrenreich points out: "... when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third..." She also points to the massive consumption of anti-depressants in this country and to the fact that on something called The Happy Planet Index, we rank 150th among the world's nations.

Ehrenreich goes on to specifically target positive psychology, devoting an entire chapter to an attack on "the science of happiness." In my opinion, her attack is somewhat flawed. For one thing, a large portion of the chapter is an ad hominem assault on Martin Seligman, the person who kicked off the positive psychology movement in his 1998 APA presidential address. Among the points she makes about Seligman are:

  • He created a moneymaking online course to train happiness coaches
  • His creation of positive-psychology coaching may have been a response to the over-production of new psychology Ph.D.s
  • He has been a paid consultant to corporations, offering exercises designed to make employees happier (ignoring the possibility that working conditions might be such that employees should NOT be happy)
  • He gave her a bit of a brush-off when she tried to interview him for the book
  • He solicited millions of dollars from the Templeton Foundation, which according to Ehrenreich, is politically a very right-wing organization whose agenda includes putting religion on an equal footing with science
  • He gave a presentation to the Department of Defense on his research on Learned Helplessness which was subsequently used to refine torture techniques in Iraq. (Seligman says this was not his intention and was carried out without his participation.)

This sort of argument ad hominem is considered logically fallacious. Ideas should be evaluated on their own merits rather than on who proposes them. Despite this, I must confess these points did have some impact on the emotional centers of my brain, and they dovetail with some of my own reservations about Dr. Seligman.

Ehrenreich critique is not solely a reaction to Dr. Seligman. She is also critical of the fact that (1) so much of the research on happiness is based on self-report questionnaires, (2) is extrapolated from correlational rather than experimental data, (3) is based on short-term rather than longitudinal research and (4) is being marketed beyond what can be legitimately supported by the science. She also cites specific research that contradicts some earlier widely reported findings.

I would have loved to dismiss Ehrenreich's critique of positive psychology on the grounds that she doesn't understand science. However, she lets us know that she has a Ph.D. in cell biology which pretty much undercuts that argument.

At the same time, I think she goes too far. Clearly, the overall thrust of her book is an attack on the "positive thinking" movement and I think it's a mistake to equate that movement with the discipline of positive psychology. A very large number of well-trained psychologists are studying a very wide array of phenomena that go well beyond "positive thinking." For example, research on behavioral economics, gratitude, generosity, forgiveness, mindfulness, brain plasticity, are just a few areas that immediately come to mind.

Ehrenreich is an astute social critic. I certainly agree with her central premise that unquestioned allegiance to "positivity" runs the risk of blinding us to injustice and other social and personal ills that need our concern and attention. She even goes so far as to suggest that it was unrealistic optimism that led the near collapse of our financial system.

Positive psychologists are aware of the pitfalls of blind optimism. Indeed, some have conducted research showing that pessimists are better at certain sorts of tasks than optimists. Also, from an evolutionary point of view, our pessimists have contributed much to the survival of our species. We have needed those who suspected a saber-tooth tiger behind the bush, those who expected and prepared for the worst.

At the same time, I believe there is something to be said for positive thinking, when it is not taken to the sorts of extremes described by Ehrenreich. In Part 2 of this series, I'll spell that out in greater detail and also respond to psychotherapist Gary Greenberg's article, "The War on Unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking."