Goodbye Happiness, Hello Well-Being
Positive psychology has been misperceived as being all about hedonism.
Posted Jun 14, 2011
Kudos to Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, for being big enough to publicly change his mind. The canon of science asserts that all theories are open to revision. It's been my observation, however, that in actual practice it is all too rare for someone who has staked out a significant portion of their career and reputation on a certain theoretical position to give it up without a fight. I'm reminded in this regard of Thomas Kuhn's observation in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that scientific paradigms tend to yield only after the founding dinosaurs have died off.
In a previous blog post, here, I noted that a number of national brands seemed to have picked up on ideas from the positive psychology movement (Coke's "Live Positively... Open Happiness" and BMW's "We Don't Just Make Cars... We Make Joy" among others). At the same time, I observed in my last two posts that there has also been something of a backlash against positive psychology's perceived emphasis on happiness and "positive thinking."
Indeed, Seligman himself recoils from the way the culture at large seems to have latched onto these ideas, reducing the undertaking of thousands of serious scientists to a kind of "Happiology." Seligman made a cameo appearance in a video on happiness that aired last year on PBS and he remarked with what I thought was some despair that the popular press had run away with these notions, ahead of what could actually be supported by the research. Of course, his own heavy marketing of Positive Psychology, might have had something to do with that.
In his new book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman reveals that he was less than keen on the title of his earlier book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. Seligman reports that he wasn't pleased with either the word "Authentic" or "Happiness" in that title. He wanted to call the book "Positive Psychology" but the publisher thought "Authentic Happiness" would be much more marketable and they were probably right. However, an unfortunate side effect, Seligman observes, is that the hackneyed smiley-face image is used whenever positive psychology makes the news [mea culpa!]. He notes that he's never won a tug-of-war with a publisher over the title of a book which, of course, makes one wonder if this latest title has his whole-hearted support!
In fact, I can certainly identify with the issue about titles. I had some similar reservations about naming this blog series The Happiness Dispatch, fearing that it would lock me into having to always post cheery, up, positivity-boosters. The editors and I wrestled over a number of alternatives and, for better or worse, this one won out. So, Dear Reader, I hope you won't box me in too narrowly.
Speaking of titles, I recently interviewed Russ Harris, MD for my Shrink Rap Radio podcast about his book, which is titled, The Happiness Trap: How To Stop Struggling and Start Living. This title would seem to support my earlier contention about the positive psychology backlash. In the interview, I specifically asked Dr. Harris about this title and he shared that it is very much intended to play against the success of Authentic Happiness. In other words, it was a canny marketing decision to more or less ride on the coattails of Seligman's book. And, to Seligman's earlier point, The Happiness Trap even features a smiley face on the cover. The Happiness Trap also confirms Seligman's worst fear that positive psychology has been misperceived as being all about hedonic pleasure. In our interview, Harris emphasized that a full, meaningful life is not all about happiness, that pain and suffering come to all and must be dealt with. I suspect Harris knows he has set up a straw man here but, once again, it's good for marketing. My own reading of the positive psychology literature in no way suggests a denial of the many challenges life throws our way. Rather, I think, positive psychology has been interested in the factors that lead to resilience in the face of life's slings and arrows. And, Seligman, himself, has written about the futility of what he calls "the hedonic treadmill." By the way, aside from my carping about the title, I think The Happiness Trap is an excellent self-help book, based on Dr. Steven Hayes Action Commitment Therapy (ACT) which, in turn, is rooted in more than 30 years of research.
In Flourish, Seligman confesses that his initial conception of positive psychology was too narrow, based primarily on the single concept of happiness. In that earlier version, happiness rested on three legs: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning. And, in that version, he saw the goal as increased life satisfaction. He states the goal of his new theory as Well-Being, by which he means increased "flourishing by increasing positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment."
So we see that he's added two new elements: positive relationships and accomplishment. Positive relationships were already recognized as playing a pivotal role in long-term life satisfaction but he's given that element a more explicit role in his new theory.
The new element of "accomplishment" is one that particularly resonates with me. The concept of "mastery" has been around in psychology for some time. It helped to unseat the long dominant theory of motivation that had been based on "drive reduction." Drive Reduction asserted that all behavior is motivated by the urge to reduce need states such as hunger, thirst, the need for attention, the need for affection, and so on. Later, psychologists came to realize that some activities are gratifying for their own sake, that motivation can be intrinsic. There is a natural delight in growth, in learning for it's own sake, in mastering a new skill or domain for it's own sake. In fact, the idea of activities pursued "for their own sake" becomes a sort of mantra that runs throughout Flourish.
According to Freud, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." It looks to me like Seligman has come to a fairly similar conclusion. I think Seligman's emphasis on positive relationships more or less corresponds to Freud's "love." Were he alive, perhaps, Freud would concede that "work" encompasses more than vocation. Discovering our unique "work" or mission in life and having the courage to live it, I think, is central to the well-lived life.