Be Happy

This entry is 2005 review of a 2002 self help book. I co-published original review at Blogcritics. I wrote it to follow up on my entry about Pyschology in Recovery and look at some ideas in modern psychology. It includes some ideas on fighting depression and pessimism and leading a happy life. I also noticed this review by Daniel Pick, at the Guardian Online in March 2005, of books about happiness.

Updating in 2019, a long read on Positive Psychology in Vox.

Martin Seligman is the principal advocate of Positive Psychology. In 1998 he took on what he describes as a mission of creating a scientific movement for Positive psychology. In 2002 Simon & Schuster published his self-help book “Authentic Happiness”, which is subtitled “Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment”.
It is written in a congenial, conversational style, and it is full of personal anecdotes and stories. There are tests in the book and at the companion web site for readers to assess their positive and negative affect, happiness, personal strengths and personality traits. There are rules for happy living. There are platitudes and inspirational lessons. It is an average self-help book by any earnest and cheerful person who happen to a successful and a psychologist. It is much better than most of the books on the market. It is well-grounded in empirical research and moral philosophy and it has some useful advice about responding to success and failure and maintaining balance and perspective.

Dr. Seligman explains his tests and his rules in some detail by reference to various academic work, and he seems to be using those parts of the book to explain and promote positive psychology. He strongly believes that psychology is a scientific pursuit as well as a therapeutic process. He only hints at some of the profession’s challenges and problems. Psychology tries to be a learned profession, with high educational and professional standards. It is subject to strong economic forces. It is unpopular with insurers and HMO’s and there is increasing competition from all kinds of counsellors and therapists – many of whom have not had an expensive education – willing to indulge clients who expect a meaningful and emotional course of therapy. He mentions popular psychology indirectly a few times, noting that the American public has become attuned to the idea that therapy should be intense and emotional and produce strong feelings.
He presents Positive psychology as a new idea, although it seems more accurately to be and effort to reform humanistic psychology. The terminology of humanism has become somewhat controversial, and has no promotional traction. Like humanistic psychology, popular psychology surveys the way people report their emotions and tries to generalize into a system of moral rules. Like humanistic psychology, the system brings into play classical philosophical ideals of right living and modern existential philosophy. Dr. Seligman generally presents himself as a rational and scientific thinker, and avoids emotionalism.   He believes that emotions are real, and that psychology’s role is to help people live with them.

Positive psychology presents nicely to people sensitized to the power of positive thinking in business and advertising. It plays very well with people who like to dream about unlocking their human potential for bliss. Its emphasis on optimism, happiness, religions and spirituality will play well with fans of popular psychology and eclectic spirituality, although Dr. Seligman is essentially hostile to many trends in popular psychology. On the other hand, its emphasis on religion, character and the virtues will appeal to social conservatives. Dr. Seligman walks an intellectual high wire through this book, and it’s quite a show. He talks like the pc liberal academic he is, but he comes back repeatedly to some classical moral ideas.

Dr. Seligman spends several pages on the history of academic and clinical psychology in American since World War II. He sees it as a counselling profession that became tied to a disease-and-cure model of mental illness, which has paid too little attention to the helping people to be happy. He suggests that it has reached its useful limits and needs to focus itself on helping people feel better by being better, stronger, more virtuous people.
He criticizes Freudian and other psychodynamic theories of the emotions on several grounds. He thinks those theories aren’t scientific or supported by evidence. He thinks the methodology of sifting memories of the past to find the source of present feelings is essentially negative and fruitless. It encourages people to dwell on their feelings instead of working to change how they feel, it tends to let people blame others, and it can create a sense of pessimism and hopelessness. In some cases it seems to reinforce the emotional problems. He feels that emotion and cognition work together, and that people probably have a limited emotional range, with some people being naturally more optimistic, pessimistic and emotionally charged. He also feels that people can adapt.

He suggests that cognitive psychology has helped to discredit Freudian theories, and that several techniques for maintaining positive emotion have come out of the cognitive approach. He is generally critical of behavioural, social and environmental ideas about happiness. He covers some of the research on emotions and happiness and the social factors that promote happiness – he suggests that money, health, age, education, race, climate and gender are not that important. The factors that are more important are social connections, romance or a good marriage, membership in a religious community – and optimistic beliefs about the self and the world, including religious beliefs.

He has three chapters on optimism and pessimism regarding the past, the future and the present. He says that people can help themselves be happy by not dwelling on past hurts and grievances, and by working to forgive past trespasses. He rejects positive thinking and happy self talk as basically useless in increasing happiness. He thinks that people should assess successes and setbacks realistically. What is important in reacting to a setback is to recognize that the failure is not pervasive or permanent, and to reason through and around it, to adapt, and to react in a positive and resilient way. He says that depressed people interpret setbacks as pervasive and persistent, which handicaps them from responding and moving on.
In dealing with the present, he points out that people get used to pleasure and become desensitized. He suggests various strategies to help savour an experience and to ensure that good experiences hold their reward. He implicitly rejects the idea that we can find pleasure or happiness in seeing the latest movie with the best special effects or most tragic romantic entanglements or by shopping for the newest and the latest. Pleasure fades. He favours finding things you like and things that are good and useful, and holding on to them. He favours using the principles of Flow to find and hold the rewards of the moment and to be happy. He is against being absorbed in your feelings, or worrying about your self-esteem. He says self-absorbed thinking is a sign of depression.

He devotes a large part of the book to discussing character and virtue. His history of the rise and fall of these notions in American culture is probably shaky, but he has a useful chapter on cross-cultural research into behavioural attributes that are valued universally. He refers to the key strengths as wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and spirituality. He suggests that psychology’s real work lies in identifying ways to help people achieve these strengths.

At the beginning of the book, positive psychology sounds like a lot of other self-help systems to help people identify and “fulfil” their “potential”, but Dr. Seligman’s emphasis is on working with real strengths that have a real connection to individual happiness and social justice. He really does go back to the ideas of the classical philosophers – living the examined life, enjoying the experiences of life in moderation, cultivating the virtues.
He has a few chapters on applying positive psychology in the workplace, in relationships, and in child care. These chapters are somewhat general, and tend to be more fluffy than they need to be. Dr. Seligman recognizes that religion is important, but he doesn’t have much to say about it. He acknowledges the research that shows that religious people tend to be healthier and happier, and he recognizes that most people hold many kinds of beliefs on faith. He seems to have a hard time with the anti-intellectual tendencies of American fundamentalism. He seems to favour a personal and speculative approach to spirituality. He seems to reject the Freudian perspective that religion is necessarily a sign of emotional or intellectual weakness.

He is engaging in revisionist history about culture and ideas, and promoting and monetizing his theory. The idea that there is more to psychology than validating feelings and blaming the world for problems is appealing. The idea of that happiness lies in restraint, civility and virtuous behaviour is, coming from a modern psychologist, almost revolutionary.

Overall, and looking back from 2019, Seligman is just another author-guru selling books into the market.


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