The Problem with Positive Psychology

Courtesy of paulcoxphotography

Courtesy of paulcoxphotography

Positive Psychology has a problem. This is difficult for me to say, as I am an enthusiastic proponent of positive psychology. I study the science. I apply it both personally and professionally. I write about it in my books, articles and blogs. And I teach it in my courses. But I have to admit, the field has a big problem.

The problem is not, by the way, as many of the critics of positive psychology would suggest, that the science is too biased towards the positive. At least not in the way that most people think.

It is not a problem, for example, that positive psychology emphasizes research on topics that are positive in nature (such as strengths, happiness, compassion, positive relationships, meaning, engagement, positive emotions, etc.) If anything, positive psychology should be lauded for delving into some of the most important facets of what makes life worth living and for bringing attention and focus to aspects of human psychology that had been previously neglected by scientists.

It is also not a problem that positive psychology emphasizes research on interventions that lead to positive outcomes (such as improving wellbeing, health, flourishing, vitality, accomplishment, success, etc.) After all, what is the purpose of science if not to help us improve the lot of human existence?

So the problem is not a bias towards positive topics and not a bias towards positive outcomes, the problem with positive psychology is when it exercises both of these biases at the same time.

A critically-thinking, rational-minded scientist cannot accurately research positive topics if they are starting with the presumption that positive things lead to positive outcomes. And likewise, they cannot accurately research positive outcomes, if they are starting with the same presumption.

If you are going to critically study positive topics (positive emotions, strengths, etc.) you have to be looking for cases where these elements are beneficial and cases where these elements are disruptive. And if you are going to critically study positive outcomes, you have to be looking for cases where these outcomes are brought on by positive aspects of life, as well as cases where they are facilitated by the more negative aspects of life.

Positive psychology, unfortunately, tends to attract two groups: the cheerleaders who are eager to prove that all things positive are good for you, and the self-proclaimed “negateers” who are just as biased in the opposite direction, looking for any excuse to shoot down anything that might give legitimacy to a positive branch of the science.

This polarization is human nature. But it makes it that much more interesting to notice researchers who are able to maintain a critical approach to the science and avoid the pull of one extreme or the other.

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, for example, are two researchers that don’t fall into either of the extremist camps. The best way that I can describe them is that they attack positive psychology from within. Unlike the negateers that would like to see it shut down, or the cheerleaders that are too eager to accept anything that promotes positivity, Kashdan and Biswas-Diener challenge the ideas of their own field and push it to be better.

Their recent book, The Upside of your Dark Side, is a perfect example of their attempts to keep the science in check. Consumer interest in happiness and mindfulness has gone too far, and Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are here to remind us that positive experiences and positive outcomes do not always go hand in hand.

They do not bash happiness (as some of the staunchest critics of positive psychology might do) but they remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront a challenge or a threat. Mindlessness can be just as important as mindfulness. Even narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy can give us an edge in certain situations.

Human experience is complex. Sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

These two researchers serve as important models for how to look critically at human wellbeing. And their work might even provide clues for solving the biggest problem with positive psychology.

References and recommended reading:

Kashdan, T. & Biswas-Diener, R. (2014). The Upside of your Dark Side. Hudson Street Press.

Photo Credit: paulcoxphotography via Compfight cc


by Jeremy McCarthy

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5 Responses to The Problem with Positive Psychology

  1. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) December 7, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    To criticize positive psychology for studying the positive things in life is like criticizing a fish for swimming – positive psychology was designed to study the positive things in life. It was created to study human strengths, positive institutions and the things that “make life worth living”. So let’s leave the focus of positive psychology alone – shall we? Instead, as Jeremy suggests, let’s focus on the methodology and incorporation of the “bad stuff” as well. Not all good things lead to good outcomes, it’s true. Not all bad things lead to bad outcomes as well. It’s well worth looking at the bigger broader picture to ensure that the science is being done methodologically. But I think we still do want to study “what makes life worth living” – no matter which side of the very blurred “good / bad” line it may fall on.

  2. Judy Krings December 7, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    Thanks for a pithy look at all emotions and even at the times the benefit of on first glance psychopathology. Rather than a dim view of negative emotions, Kashdan and Biswas-Deiner offer a spotlight to look at the relevance of and re-framing of so-called negative emotions, too often forgotten. Reading their new book is like adding new ingredients a beloved recipe, this time positive psychology. “The Upside of Your Dark Side” is a book to read and re-read. Well said, Jeremy.

  3. Chin Leng December 9, 2014 at 10:06 pm #

    Thank you Jeremy for the insightful read, for pointing out the difference between good and poor science. I like how you differentiate between positive topics and positive outcomes. Science investigates with neutrality, it is the human bias (maybe confirmation bias) that leads us to tunnel vision sometimes.

  4. Marcus February 6, 2015 at 7:19 am #

    Very good point.

    I am a big fan of positive psychology but I guess it’s important not to get carried away.

    I think Ben Goldacres’ ‘I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That’ phrase summarises PP quite well.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy February 7, 2015 at 5:00 am #

    Great quote Marcus! Thanks.

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