The clever and ironic title of this article in the current issue of First Things magazine, caught my attention. Paul C. Vitz, Emeritus Professor of Pyschology at New York University discusses “positive psychology”, a movement or approach identified by Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association. I borrowed Dr. Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness from the library. He started to promote positive psychology in 1998, in concert with Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the author of “Flow” and some others.
Dr. Vitz has been a self-confessed harsh critic of popular psychology and a firm critic of major trends within professional psychology. The relationship between religion and psychology has been one of the main themes in his work.
This article was published in a conservative Catholic magazine, and Dr. Vitz’s agenda and perspective are predictable. He is a socially conservative, orthodox Catholic critic of modernity. His technique is identifying and demolishing the cultural implications of modernity in therapeutic clinical psychology, popular psychology and areas of public discourse influenced by modern psychology. His analysis of the failing of modern psychology is interesting and useful. He deconstruct modern psychology as adeptly as an any of the modern post-structuralists. However his program is to restore the traditional values and virtues of the Hebrew bible, the early Christians, the neo-Platonists, and the medieval Scholastics. Catholics have centuries of practice deconstructing the beliefs of pagans, Gnostics, Jews,Muslims, heretics, schismatics, Protestants, deists, agnostics, atheists, secularists, humanists, Communists, socialists, liberals, modernists, post-modernists, feminists, and I could go on. The orthodox and traditional teaching of the Catholic church tend to call the value of psychology into question – it has specific ways of analyzing and judging behaviour that are inconsistent with Catholic anthropology and Catholic moral teachings. And the Church, for the orthodox, has to be right about everything.
His deconstruction of modern psychology is still creditable. He divides modern psychology into three main areas, experimental, test-and-measurement, and therapeutic, and looks at the coherence and scientific status of each area. Experimental psychology has two main parts. Physiological psychology or neuroscience is on solid ground as a biological science. Cognitive psychology has also evolved into a relatively hard science focussing on measureable, verifiable, empirically proven events. The second main area, test-and-measurement, has become a statistically oriented social science. Therapeutic psychology or psychotherapy, on the other hand, is not a science. He observes that the work of Freud, Jung and Adler, which had scientific pretensions, has fallen out of favour in American graduate schools. He says that the founders of psychotherapy made a serious categorical mistake in comparing psychology to medical science. He observes that psychotherapists have drawn various metaphors for the way the mind works from physics, chemistry, biology, computer science and literature, and that psychology has not been able to develop its own coherent theory of intelligence, emotion and the mind. The prevailing models of psychotherapy are based in the humanities, among other hermeneutic disciplines. It is a sub-discipline of philosophy or an applied philosophy of life, administered or taught by people who call themselves professional therapists.
This is a powerful critique. Modern psychology tries to define the cultural values of modern urban Western civilization, as interpreted by clinical psychologists, as “healthy” thereby privileging those values over other ethical values. It is an ethical, rather than a therapeutic program. Michel Foucault would agree with him, although perhaps Dr. Vitz would be horrified to find himself in Foucault’s company.
He discusses positive psychology favourably. It emphasizes working for happiness and well-being by developing positive character traits and virtues. It is a major step away from current models of therapy which are focussed on the client’s memories and feelings, and which disregard the way a person affects others. Modern therapy is based on a notion of recovery from trauma – and relatively few clients have had real traumas. Dr. Vitz is a severe critic of the idea that events that diminish self-esteem constitute trauma. They are painful, but that’s not trauma. He is a harsh critic of modern educational psychology and the pre-occupation with self-esteem. People who are anxious, uncertain and unhappy often believe that they are the victims of the actions of other people who are hurting their self-esteem. Depression, anxiety and unhappiness are serious concerns, and people with those feelings – and people with real illnesses – deserve to be supported. However Dr. Vitz feels modern therapy often just supports people in their beliefs that they are victims, and encourages them to blame other people for their feelings. Modern therapy is negative.
During his discussion of negative psychology, he touches on a topic that appears to have been central to his book Psychology as Religion. He says that ideas founded in negative psychology have become prevalent in popular culture. I think he is right, and I would go further. The ideas that bad feelings and bad actions can always be blamed on someone else, and that every person who acts badly or feels bad is the victim of bad parents and a bad society are so prevalent that it I would call the victim/recovery mentality meme, nourished by negative psychology.
Dr. Vitz finds that negative psychology mirrors popular culture in many ways. It validates and teach selfish values instead of values of altruism, personal responsibility and social justice. I agree with him again. Popular psychology – celebrates sex, toys and chocolate and it judges people occupied with moral issues to be repressed, angry, judgmental and controlling. It celebrates the feelings. It is a Romantic, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific movement.
He devotes a good part of his paper to describing therapeutic psychology’s limitations. Psychotherapy has been coming under pressure in America. Talking therapies have been superceded by medical psychiatry in the treatment of several major mental illnesses. Psychotherapy, even for prolonged periods of time, does not seem to be able to produce insights that lead to major life changes. Many therapists have incorporated meditation, spirituality and religious methods into therapy. While the methodology has been eclectic, there have been positive results. Dr. Vitz sees positive psychology as movement away from preoccupation with trauma, the self, and self-esteem, with some potential for building psychology into a “transmodern” movement that, unlike the negative psychology of hurt feelings and post-modern psychology (each patient deserves his or her own theory of life) focusses on character, virtue, and spirituality.
His support for positive psychology is ironic, for a couple of reasons. Positive psychology seems to be the latest play of the humanistic psychologists, and Dr. Vitz is a critic of humanistic psychology as such. (I linked to some information about humanistic psychology in my entry on Flow a couple of months ago). Positive psychology as taught by Seligmann has also been marketing itself as a popular, happiness oriented self-help program.
Dr. Vitz likes positive psychology better than humanistic psychology because it appears to be more accessible to people with religious beliefs, and its emphasis on character and virtue are compatible with his socially conservative world-view. He is probably wrong.