Dec 6, 2013
Carol Tavris on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Crusade
Posted on Jun 4, 2010
By Carol Tavris
Ehrenreich is at full speed by the time she takes on positive psychology, a movement within academic psychology that investigates “the science of happiness”. She interviews one of the founders of the movement, Martin Seligman (an eminent professor at the University of Pennsylvania), who, perhaps aware of her scepticism, does his best to elude her probing questions. Ehrenreich gives him a hard time about his “Authentic Happiness” questionnaire, on which she scored a “less-than-jubilant 3.67 out of 5”, mostly because she didn’t feel “extraordinarily proud” of herself and confessed to being pessimistic about the future – “assuming that it was the future of our species at issue, not just my own”. Unlike many of the reporters who have interviewed researchers in the positive psychology field, Ehrenreich has done her homework, examining the data beneath the claims that are made and learning that many of them are tenuous or wrong. Optimism does not prolong life. Support groups do not affect the course of cancer. Among older people who lose a loved one, pessimists are less likely to become depressed than optimists. People who are grumpy and neurotic “do more complaining about angina but are at no greater risk of pathology than cheerful people”. Happy people do not have “feistier immune systems than less happy people”, as Seligman has stated. Many of the researchers in this field are careful in their professional writings, for example by noting, as one team did, “serious conceptual and methodological reservations” about the literature on positive emotions and health, the “inconsistent” findings, and even the “potentially harmful” effects of some of the research. Yet when most of them speak to reporters or to a general audience, or write popular books, they admit that they often get “ahead of the science”. They oversimplify, smoothing away the inconsistencies and negative findings. (Both the media and the major funder of research in positive psychology, the conservative Templeton Foundation, want positive results about positive thinking.) Seligman says that within a decade “we’ll have self-help books that actually work”. Given that he has already written one, this curious remark suggests he is practising some positive thinking himself.
Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 256 pages
Ehrenreich may be forgiven for not knowing the origins of positive psychology within the field, but Seligman and his colleagues should know better. They rarely acknowledge their debt to Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who, in the 1960s, argued that it was time for a “third force” in American psychology – humanism, an alternative to then dominant world-views of psychoanalysis and behaviourism. Humanists wanted psychologists to pay more attention to the positive aspects of life, including joy, humour, love and the rare moments of rapture caused by the attainment of excellence or the experience of beauty. The humanists were not scientists themselves, but they spurred research on such admirable attributes as empathy, courage, resilience, altruism, the motivation to excel and self-confidence. This was the kind of positive psychology Ehrenreich would welcome; as her own book Dancing in the Streets: A history of collective joy suggests – she is certainly not opposed to joy.
Like all warriors with a take-no-prisoners approach to a problem, however, she occasionally sweeps some innocent civilians into her net. For one thing, the basic premiss of “positive thinking” is neither new nor American: the Stoic philosophy that negative, destructive emotions are created by our thoughts and errors of judgement flourished 300 years bc. The modern practice of cognitive behavioural therapy is based on this notion, and it has been supported by hundreds of empirical studies. Further, decades of research in social psychology have shown that the attitude Ehrenreich finds so saccharine and typically American – the remarks that many cancer patients make to the effect that “I’m a different and better person now” – reflects a universal human need to make sense of negative experiences.
But what is uniquely American is the way that motivational entrepreneurs, religious hucksters and psychologists who are willing to jump “ahead of the science” have packaged and sold positive thinking as a commodity, as if it were a tonic that can bring us safety, security and health all on its own. “The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off selfabsorption and taking action in the world”, Ehrenreich writes. And that requires thinking critically as well as positively, as this fine book exemplifies.
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