On being “positive”

I made a few comments elsewhere, that these are nice instructions for living but are not psychology. I wanted to say more, but it would not have been polite, as it was on the author’s sister’s Facebook page and she is a colleague. The author holds a chair and is famous and powerful, but his work is superficial.

For instance, the fourth chapter of his book emphasizes that your mental health will improve if you can see your own faults. People do not do this, says the author. They do dishonest things and try to get away with them, and they blame others for their problems. I, on the other hand, find that only immature people behave this way.

I also find that when one is dealing with immature people, or abusive people or criminals for that matter, especially if they have legal or institutional power over you or seek to harm you, seeing your own faults is not to your advantage: you must insist on your rights. They will only take your balanced view as a sign of weakness.

I find it disturbing that major figures in psychology make pronouncements like this, and I think it is the height of condescension to assume the kind of unconsciousness and immaturity on the part of the audience that the author does. Yet many admire this kind of dictum. Does it really seem so wise to them … how is it that they, adults, are surprised to hear they might have any faults at all?

Also problematic is this author’s love of the cognitive-behavioral hypothesis. You are to recognize an irrational thought you have, and replace it with a rational one.

However, if you are in an irrational state it is hard to see this, and replacing an irrational thought with a rational one is not an easy procedure. In fact it is virtually impossible to do without analysis. You can exercise self-discipline and control behavior at a superficial level, for a limited amount of time, yes — but you will not solve your problem.

I am in fact not sure the author has ever met anyone committed to their irrationality. If he had, he would know that they will defend this, and that suggestions of more rational ways of looking at things will increase and not decrease their frenzy.

It is true that that some of the people who are most severely self-critical are also the most defensive and entitled. This can be seen a a cognitive distortion, but it has to do with egotism and rigidity and is not a mere error in logic. This condition requires a far deeper kind of treatment than our author is willing to countenance.

I really do not know what to say about all of these books. It is as though they had been written by and for people from another planet. I was born happy. I lived by the sea and was not baptized, so I never joined the circle of guilt and sin that seems to circumscribe the lives of so many. (My guilt complex comes from somewhere else, as we know, and it is not this religion and perfectionism based one most people appear to have.)

It seems to me that much of the “positive psychology” (see also discussions of “resilience”) that is touted now is:

(a) a reaction to the kind of faux analysis I once underwent, where one was asked to be unnecessarily negative;
(b) a throwing-in of the towel: people have given up on the treatment of mental illness but are not admitting this, but rather saying they have discovered it can be cured with vitamins;
(c) a cultural manifestation: have Americans, or “Westerners,” really never received basic instructions for living?

What do you think?

There is more I disagree with. For instance, that on my deathbed I will wish I had spent more time with family and less time at the office. I have always been encouraged to work less. There is so much I wanted to do, that I have not done, because I have tried to obey the kind of heartfelt instructions the author, who has allowed himself to achieve at high levels, purveys.

That is to say, I have sacrificed a great deal for the sake of some of the tiresome, mainstream ideas this author repeats. For me to be happier I need to work more, and think more deeply. I am glad I have the longevity genes I need to make up for the time I lost trying to fit in with the life strategies of people who do not have a life’s work or major projects they really love.

The fifth chapter of the Happiness book seems the most interesting. It appears to recognize that material conditions do contribute to happiness, and that adversity and even trauma can lead to wisdom (or to destruction, depending).

The sixth chapter says love is companionship and not passion, a commonplace I have decided I disagree with utterly. And all of the author’s writings, like those of so many other Americans, appear to be riddled with the idea of work: you “work on” your marriage, “work on” your happiness, and so on.

I find it ironic that all these psychologists who say one should not work so hard, not dedicate oneself to a life’s work, also think that daily life, relationships, connections and pleasure must be thought of as work.

Finally, I am completely convinced that most psychological problems have to do with sociopolitical issues (e.g. heteronormativity, racism, more), material deprivation (we do not live on air), and various forms of abuse. You cannot wish these things away with positive thinking, although living as well as one can is important.

Once again I will repeat that I am not against this author’s general advice for living. I myself was raised to decide to enjoy the days. Many appear not to have been.




Filed under Banes, Bibliography

7 responses to “On being “positive”

  1. Jonathan Mayhew

    (I know the sister since she was my colleague at a place I used to teach, never met her brother.) I do agree with you about a lot of the positive psychology movement. He seems to want to throw everything at the effort to be happy, from prozac and hypnosis to earnest advice. I wish I had done more work, written an extra book or two. I’m also with you on the passion front.

    • Z

      What I don’t understand is why you are supposed to be “happy” all the time. I mean, I am naturally so but I am sure that setting happiness as a goal rather than recognizing it as a byproduct of doing interesting things is a recipe for disaster.

      Also: you can feel happy, do things so as to feel happy, all the time but this is just controlling emotional weather, like turning on air conditioning, perhaps. Feelings, outlook, soul, etc., are deeper. Yes, good habits are good for you, and regular meditation will change you at a deep level. But this guy seems to be utterly terrified of pain and it is to be noted that he works at a B school — is he paid to tell us to not worry, be happy, in the face of impending ecological disaster, permanent war, and the various related things the 21st century is bringing?

  2. In general, I’m in favor of improving mental health via philosophical practices rather than psychology, but you’re right that sometimes circumstances make this impossible. I am totally with you on passion/companionship; that is, companionable company is very nice, even essential, and I do not denigrate it, but passion is the primary component for a good romantic relationship. And that “less time at the office” thing is so stupid. I think anyone who has a real passion for their work wants to achieve more. On their deathbeds, did Picasso and Mary Cassat, Edith Wharton and Philip Larkin, wish they had painted or written less? I don’t think so. Many people just don’t see scholarship as the same sort of creative effort, but I do.

    • Z

      Philosophical practices over psychology, yes, but this guy does not reach the level of psychology, even let alone reach above that to philosophy.

      • Z

        (Although he does sprinkle quotations from philosophers around, of course, like other pop psych authors.)

  3. Pingback: Postscript on “positive psychology” | coldhearted scientist وداد

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