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Is Positive Psychology for Everyone?

Can positive psychology be negative?

As even a casual observer of the psychology scene is surely aware, the field of psychology has long had its share of fads. A handful of these fads mature into developed scientific disciplines, many die out entirely, and still others become full-fledged pseudosciences.

Over the past decade or so, one of psychology's foremost fads has undeniably been "positive psychology," an intriguing, sprawling, but at times inchoate movement that seeks to restore "positive" features of human nature, such as happiness, virtues, personal strengths, and altruism, to their rightful place within the field of psychology. Many advocates of positive psychology believe that the field of psychology has been too focused on mental illness, and insufficiently focused on mental health.

Although the term positive psychology was actually coined by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1964, the term — and the intellectual approach surrounding it — didn't really gain momentum until the American Psychological Association (APA) presidency of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman in 1998. Seligman made positive psychology the centerpiece of his APA presidency, and the field took off soon after. Some popular authors, like former New York Times writer Daniel Goleman, have since played a major role in fueling positive psychology's widespread appeal.

Without question, some positive psychology research has proven valuable, and some scholars in this domain, like Ed Diener, Daniel Gilbert, Jonathan Haidt, and Barbara Fredrickson, have conducted rigorous, creative, and important work on the correlates and causes of happiness and related emotions. In addition, positive psychology has helped to highlight a crucial point that popular psychology had neglected for far too long — namely, that most of us are far more resilient than traditional psychologists give us credit for.

In 1973, the brilliant University of Minnesota clinical psychologist Paul Meehl poked fun at what he called the "spun glass theory" of the mind — the notion that most of us are delicate, fragile, and easily shattered creatures who need to be treated with kid gloves. Since then, thoughtful researchers like Norman Garmezy, Ann Masten (both also at Minnesota), Camille Wortman of Stony Brook University, and George Bonanno of Columbia University have shown that most people are surprisingly resilient even in the face of extreme trauma. For example, even when confronted with horrifically frightening events, like wartime combat, earthquakes, or floods, the majority of trauma-exposed people (probably 70% or 75%) do not develop posttraumatic stress disorder. I suspect that a better understanding of resilience and the factors that buffer people from developing psychopathology in the face of stressors will prove to be among positive psychology's more enduring — and valuable — contributions.

All that said, I still worry about positive psychology. I worry especially about the all too frequent implication (which, in all fairness, a few of the more thoughtful exponents of positive psychology have not endorsed) that positive psychology is for everyone. Psychology must respect individual differences, and one-size-fits-all interventions are rarely helpful. In some cases, such as crisis debriefing for trauma-exposed victims, they can probably do harm (more on that in upcoming posts).

One potent strike against the "positive psychology is for everyone" assumption derives from the clever work of Wellesley psychologist Julie Norem on defensive pessimism, summarized nicely in her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. If you knew someone in school who drove everyone nuts worrying about how he or she would do on exams and who ended up getting an A+ on all of his or her exams, you probably knew a defensive pessimist. For defensive pessimists, worrying about upcoming challenges is a way of life. But it's also a healthy coping strategy that helps them prepare for adversity. Norem has shown that when defensive pessimists are deprived of their pessimism by being forced to look on the bright side of life, their performance on tasks plummets. For defensive pessimists, positive psychology has a decidedly negative side.

Last week, another article on positive psychology caught my eye and gave me further reason to worry (perhaps an indication of my own defensive pessimism?) about the uncritical "accentuate the positive" approach to life propounded by some positive psychology enthusiasts. In an elegant three-part study, Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo and two colleagues decided to have a systematic look at the effects of positive self-statements. Such affirmations are the bread-and-butter of much of the popular self-help movement, as anyone who recalls the hilarious parodies of Al Franken as Stuart Smalley ("I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!") on Saturday Night Live surely knows.

A quick peek at reveals a host of books and products devoted to daily affirmations, like "Affirmations —Your Passport to Happiness," "Positive Affirmations for Mind & Body Healing," "Unleash the Power of your Subconscious with Positive Affirmation," "Change Almost Anything in 21 Days: Recharge Your Life with the Power of over 500 Affirmations," and my favorite, a "Handcrafted Tiger-eye Gemstone Inspirational Believe Affirmation Message Bead Bookmark" (no, that's not a typo).

So, Wood and her colleagues wanted to know, do positive affirmations work?

The answer, it turns out, isn't so simple, and it again raises troubling questions about the mantra that positive psychology is for everyone. For participants with high self-esteem, repeating a positive self-statement ("I'm a lovable person") made them feel a bit better, but not all that much. But of course, people with high-esteem rarely need to repeat positive self-statements, as they already like themselves. What about participants with low self-esteem, from whom positive affirmations are typically intended? Here Wood and colleagues found that repeating a positive self-statement actually made them feel worse, probably because doing so underscored the discrepancy between how they feel about themselves and how they want to feel about themselves. In all likelihood, it just reminded them of how unlovable they really feel.

So although positive psychology surely has a useful role to play for some of us, it just as surely has its limits. And for some people, a purely positive approach to everyday life appears to backfire. As we psychologists have yet again learned the hard way, any cookie-cutter approach to human nature that cavalierly neglects individual differences is bound to fail. So if your defensively pessimistic friend wants to spend the weekend worrying about that Monday morning job interview, let him have at it, just so long as he doesn't overdo it.

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