Warning: Positivity May be Harmful

Today’s article is featured on Positive Psychology News Daily.

“Context matters” for understanding human wellbeing.  This has been a recurring theme of this blog in recent months.  It was one of my key takeaways from the International Positive Psychology Association conference in Philadelphia, and it was the topic of a new book called “Situations Matter” by Sam Sommers that I wrote about here.

In a recent research article, called “Beyond Positive Psychology,” authors McNulty and Fincham give some specific examples of research on relationships where certain contexts cause apparent contradictions of the findings of positive psychology.  

Forgiveness, which is generally thought to be a positive trait that leads to greater wellbeing, can be damaging for people who are in an abusive relationship.  Too much forgiveness can cause people to stay in a bad relationship longer than they should.

Optimism can likewise be detrimental if it causes people to see a bad situation with their partner through rose colored glasses.  

Even kindness, seemingly the most benign of all constructs is not always beneficial.  Sometimes unkindness is called for in difficult relationships and can lead to greater long term satisfaction.

This research makes the valid point that context is important, but this is not really that surprising. All of our health sciences (not only positive psychology) are biased towards uncovering broad generalizations that don’t (or can’t) take into account the diverse complexity of individuality and context. Exercise, spinach and sunlight are all good for people, but only in the right context.

The central premise of this article is that these contextual examples somehow contradict or extend beyond the boundaries of Positive Psychology.  But I disagree with the authors’ definition of positive psychology as a study of positive topics only when they lead to positive outcomes.  

The problem with positive psychology is that the label “positive” is confusing in this regard and leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation.  Psychologist Kennon Sheldon describes several different interpretations of the “positive” label in positive psychology and the potential challenges with each in his article in Designing Positive Psychology, “What’s Positive about Positive Psychology?”

1. Positive Science – If positive psychology is positive because it is designed to improve life, it becomes difficult to differentiate this from other branches of psychology and other sciences that are also improving life.

2. Ideological Stance – If the subject matter of the research is determined to be “inherently good, desirable or valuable” this introduces a bias that is downright unscientific.  Referencing Dacher Keltner’s stance that humans evolved to be good, Sheldon says, “it is difficult to imagine a chemist or physicist saying that chemical or physical processes are ‘more good than bad.”

3. Appreciative View – A healthier perspective is an appreciative view in which positive outcomes are admired and appreciated, “and one is attentive to ‘what works’ more so than ‘what doesn’t work.’  The only concern that Sheldon has here is that too much appreciation may cloud perspectives.

4. Positive Topics – The topics studied are positive in nature: strengths rather than weaknesses, flourishing rather than disease, and so on.)  This is perhaps the least problematic and the most clear of the connotations of positive psychology.

It seems to me that PP is the study of “positive topics” (e.g., strengths, kindness, gratitude, forgiveness) and the study of positive outcomes (e.g., positive wellbeing, life satisfaction, flourishing.)   But we cannot presuppose that positive topics necessarily lead to positive outcomes.  That would be an ideological stance towards the benefits of the positive.

If we find, as McNulty and Fincham did, that anything that falls out of the “positive topics lead to positive outcomes” paradigm is “Beyond Positive Psychology” then we have a truly flawed science indeed.  Positive Psychology needs to study kindness even when it finds it detrimental to wellbeing.  And it needs to study things that lead to flourishing, even when those topics are negative in nature, such as fear, pessimism, and healthy expressions of anger.

References and recommended reading:

McNulty, J. K. & Fincham, F. D. (2011).  Beyond positive psychology? Toward a contextual view of psychological process and well-being.  American Psychologist (Jul 25).

Sheldon, K. M. (2011). What’s positive about positive psychology? Reducing value-bias and enhancing integration within the field. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.

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6 Responses to Warning: Positivity May be Harmful

  1. Louisa Jewell November 22, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Jeremy, once again you offer such a well-rounded view of your topic. Sorry I have been absent from your discussions for a while!

    This reminds me of the concept of the Aristotilean Mean. For example with kindness, if we use it too little, we may be outcast from social circles. If we use it too much, we are a doormat in situations when we are being abused. I think context is absolutely important – and negative emotions are also important in context. Anger might absolutely be the right response to someone who is abusing you and may be the only thing that stops an abuser. Anger might be the the very thing that gets you passionate about doing something to support a worthy cause. I think the word ‘positive’ does confuse people. I think negative and positive things that support a healthy, productive and good outcome are what positive psychology is all about. For example, I may not like the hard work, but in the end, is it good for me? Absolutely – as long as I feel a good balance while doing it.

    I don’t know why people always have to put certain thinking into ‘buckets’. Why can’t we just have shades of grey?

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar November 22, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Another great thought-provoking article, Jeremy!

    When I was in MAPP, Marty used to say that PP is “the scientific study of what makes life worth living” – hence, focusing on positive outcomes. And his goal of 51% of flourishing people by 2050 is also definitely outcome-oriented. He also insists that PP is descriptive not prescriptive (which I’m really not sure is the case, to be honest), so a focus on describing outcomes would again seem to work better with his definition than a focus on topics that would bring about these outcomes (which would be more prescriptive in nature). So my point is that the founder of PP seems quite focused on positive outcomes. As you cleverly point out, somehow on the journey many of us researchers and practitioners assumed that we needed positive topics and positive interventions to get there – and as Louisa points out, this assumption isn’t helpful.


  3. Lisa Sansom November 22, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Recently saw this: optimism might be better for girls to achieve rather than boys: http://www.sciencecodex.com/read/optimism_helps_females_achieve_higher_grades_males_score_lower_when_overconfident_bgu_study-81951

  4. Heather Blankinship November 24, 2011 at 4:04 am #

    It seems to me that the authors, McNulty and Fincham do not really understand the essence of the principals they are referring to.

    Forgiveness is one of our most powerful and transformational healing tools… It does not translate to: ‘stay in a relationship which causes you pain and suffering simply because you can forgive it over and over’. But instead, forgive yourself and your partner for allowing an abusive and unhealthy relationship to take place and end the relationship.

    Optimism is not intended to be used to view negative relationships for something they are not. That comes from ignorance, denial and fear, not optimisim. Seeing the beauty in all things is optimism, seeing the potential for growth, healing and transformation, no matter how dark a situation may seem, that is healthy optimism. It stems from a deep sense of trust and faith in the process and evolution of life.

    We all know the old rule, “if you don’t love yourself, you cannot love some one else”. This also applies to Kindness. The act of loving kindness is a precious gift we first give ourselves and only then can we experience it with another. Kindness is not an act intended to keep us in relationships which are harmful for us and allow us to be victims to them…

    These three principals are all positive for us, so I agree, it is important to communicate them in the “right context” so that their intention and meaning can be properly understood and be of greatest benefit to us when applied correctly, enhancing our well-being and state of mind.

  5. Jeremy McCarthy November 24, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Thanks Heather. Great comment. This article was also published on Positive Psychology News Daily and some of the readers had a similar critique of the way these constructs were defined in the research. You can see some interesting discussion on this as well as my response here: http://positivepsychologynews.com/news/jeremy-mccarthy/2011112219889

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  6. Charlie Wills November 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

    How far down the “Rabbit Hole” do we really want to go using words instead of Love, Passion, Compassion, Empathy, Kindness, etc.?
    Which are words as well but not meant to be more then simple basic Humanitarianist feelings..

    Your Cardio Electric Magnetic Field should if your here reading this by now be strong enough to make you aware of those in your field…To stay or go is at that point your choice, to decide consciously (you) not unconsciously which is really not you.

    I feel that if we look to much into the words the effort which keeps the awarness active and the universal comprehension from expanding ts Lost..


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