Positive Psychology


Mental Health & Positive Happiness


This is really exploratory paper about the movement to make more people happy. In the USA and the UK efforts are being made by psychologists to encourage a more happy outlook in life in the belief that happy people are more productive, live longer, have positive health outcomes and over-all lead a better life. Sounds great - however I am sure the reader can almost sense the word - but!

The Idea

It is proposed that primitive man survived because his brain was wired to be pessimistic - in other words - look at the down-side of things and you are ready for anything that may happen. Such as a ferocious animal deciding you are dinner. However if you are the happy optimist thinking it is OK the animal will go away, you may not see many days ahead. Our biological brain is wired to survive and our endocrine system supports this function. Stress is the modern day alertness to danger that our ancestors survived by. Of course in his day, when you are stressed by something you can use up the hormones produced for "fight or flight" and carry on as normal. Today many stressors cannot be fought or run away from - you have to just cope with life. In the USA (where else) they believe this original wiring can be changed through positive meditation and positive happiness pursuance. They are calling this Positive Psychology. Like all fads, the idea is wonderful but the evidence for it is thin on the ground. While I do not mean to be cynical - let us look at the facts.

Background to the Science

The man behind this new fad is in fact a very famous psychologist, Martin E.P. Seligman based in the University of Pennsylvania. To understand how he has arrived at the new idea one has to look back at his distinguished career so far. Seligman is best known for his concept of "learned helplessness" (1975) in which he advocated that people defeat their own ambitions through depression, that they in fact talk themselves into failure through believing they cannot help themselves to cope. Seligman is also well known as a critic of Behaviourism, (America's favourite theory of learning); he believes that phobias for instance are mainly the result of natural brain wiring to protect ourselves from dangerous animals or situations. He went on in 1974 to propose that in fact the genes predispose us to certain behaviour and that given the right cues would express itself. He also looked at the emotion of anger and tried to show that in fact most anger in manifest in frustrations (1975) that we usually show anger when we are prevented from fulfilling our needs. (Like most research at this time they really were rediscovering that Freud was actually right all along in his theory of mind and much of the above can be found in the works of Freud in the 1920's). So for Seligman his most productive years were the 1970's era. It was not until the year 2000 that we start to see a change of direction or maybe a summation of what has gone before. At this point he started to call for a more positive psychology but called it "Optimal Human Growth" not quite as catchy as the now, "Positive Happiness" (Again a return to Freudian principals - the, "Pleasure Principal", that if you allow your base desires to rule your life you can always be happy). It is this very reason Freud recognised that when the pursuant of happiness is thwarted by real life then mental breakdown and unhappiness is the result.

Positive Psychology

It is not my purpose in this paper to be overly critical of the new wave of thinking by Seligman and his followers but merely to put in perspective what may be a false premise, that being happy will, as Seligman claims (2006), help you live longer, be more healthy, learn new things more easily and over-all even if you are living in the most dire circumstances, you can overcome all these things by just learning to be happier. Sounds great does it not? These claims then are being tested out as we write in a nation wide experiment by Seligman in Scotland with the support of the Scottish Government.

Scotland can be a very hard place to grow up in and live. It has much abject poverty, high rates of drug and alcohol usage, HIV infections, poor quality housing for many city inhabitants and a low income per capita. In fact without the support of England's tax paying population Scotland would never survive independently without taxing its lucrative alcohol business into the ground. While many parts of Scotland have improved dramatically it is still full of crime and unemployment at all levels. So this is the scene where Seligman is hoping to create an atmosphere of happiness through positive psychology and solve everyone's problems. We will have to see in a year's time if his marketing ideas to the public of Scotland actually change anything. I have to admire his self-promotion to even have a government think they can overcome poverty with a smile or two. I think the BBC (2007) while making a documentary about Seligman and Scotland put it best, the reporter simply said, "Well maybe they just need better housing"

Who is it for?

This type of thinking is squarely aimed at the middle-class, high income, I feel sad because I want more and cannot get it, give me the quick solution and can I get it from a self-help book? This is the audience that buys millions of those books telling you how to make it in the world, be rich, be happy, and be successful and the rest. As one cynic put it - if you read all these books you learn one certain thing, come up with a new fad
Positive Psychology Positive Psychology Reviewed by MOSTAFA on 08:17 Rating: 5

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