Positive Psychology
January 31, 2007 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Positive Psychology: Can psychology break away from its obsessive focus on the negative? Four decades after Abraham Maslow popularized the search for self-actualization, academics are bringing scientific vigor to our search for the fulfilled life. Evolutionary biologist Nancy Etcoff believes that our Hedonic Set Point can be raised. George Vaillant is less concerned with happiness than with the Neurobiology of Spirituality and Joy. Daniel Gilbert studies prospection, our search for happiness, and our ability to recover from tragedy. Meanwhile, Tal Ben-Shahar teaches the most popular class at Harvard, Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology (includes links to syllabus, reading list, powerpoints, and realvideo of full class lectures).
posted by alms (21 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a recent interview with the writer of this NYTimes story on teaching the science of happiness at colleges. (Googling "happiness 101" turns up all kinds of stuff on this, it turns out).

Thanks, alms, great post.
posted by ibmcginty at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You understand how a system works, and what each part of that system does, by examining the differences when it fails.
posted by Saddo at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2007

our search for the fulfilled life.

I don't need to search, I'm already fulfilled.

No, wait, that's gas. Never mind.
posted by jonmc at 9:58 AM on January 31, 2007

The way it's described in the wiki, self-actualization appears to be an extremely complex concept set of aspirations and experience which equite to nothing more than having a healthy mind, living actively in the present and being grounded/centered. Zen Buddhists probably have a one-syllable word for it. I think that's the essential failure of the western mind and not necessarily of the practice of psychology.
posted by psmealey at 9:59 AM on January 31, 2007

See, I'm so self-actualized, I can't be bothered to use spell-check :-s
posted by psmealey at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2007

that this post immediately follows the previous post is deeply psychologically satisfying to me.
posted by quonsar at 10:17 AM on January 31, 2007

That's the most popular class at Harvard? What a bunch of losers! The most popular class at my college was Human Sexual Behavior.
posted by brundlefly at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2007

Nice post, alms. The class readings contain some really interesting articles.
posted by vacapinta at 10:20 AM on January 31, 2007

Vaillant makes a huge leap: "spirituality (a.k.a. positive emotions)" - hardly a universally held definition of spirituality.
posted by twsf at 10:46 AM on January 31, 2007

Barbara Ehrenreich has an article in the February issue of Harper’s entitled "Pathologies of Hope", where she expresses her pessimism about all the optimism espoused by the pos. psych folks. (The article's not online)
posted by ManInSuit at 10:47 AM on January 31, 2007

Science should be the pursuit of truth, not the pursuit of other ulterior goals. There's nothing wrong with studying positive emotions and experiences, but the positive psychology movement strikes a sour chord with me because of its additional incentive to make us happy, and consequently it's surrounded with all this warm-n-fuzzy froufara.

Nancy Etcoff is a psychologist, not an evolutionary biologist.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 10:49 AM on January 31, 2007

Wow. As a psychology student, am I ever tired of hearing about Maslow. Particularly from people with no formal training in psychology (no offense). His research is barely that. It's not very well substantiated, delineated, or replicated. It's the softest of soft psych, but hey, it makes people feel good to make a list of the things they want and need. That's the real psychological value of the theory; it provides a warm sugar pill of comfort.
posted by Eideteker at 10:50 AM on January 31, 2007

What's most amazing is not that it's the most popular class -- it's an obvious gut, the way Linguistics 80 was -- but that people actually show up for it. Really, if a class begins with 10 minutes of meditation, lectures are probably extremely optional.

I somehow wound up on Marty Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" mailing list, and occasionally get emails with creepy subject lines that I delete without reading. Based on my (admittedly, very shallow) readings on the topic, it seems like this is just old-school depression studies with the focus turned around. We're still looking at unhappiness, still studying depression and anxiety, but instead of saying, "people are unhappy, here's how to fix it," we're saying, "people are capable of being happy, here's how to achieve that." Maybe I just don't get it.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:52 AM on January 31, 2007

Arthur, did you mean foofaraw? Not being pernickety, just trying to help out.
posted by Eideteker at 10:53 AM on January 31, 2007

Ive read this stuff before and its interesting and very appealing but the world I know remains skeptical if not completely against even anti-depressants for depressed people. This kind of thing is kinda like writing about what to do after the singularity. Its going to be a long time coming.

Insert armchair expert statements about anti-hedonistic attitudes, puritanism, etc here.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2007

Not to mention a secular positive movement collides with religion. Scientologists know this well.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:58 AM on January 31, 2007

I like a lot of what the positive psychology folks have to say, but anyone who thinks therapeutic psychology has an "obsessive focus on the negative" hasn't been paying attention.
posted by OmieWise at 11:17 AM on January 31, 2007

[Maslow's] not very well substantiated, delineated, or replicated.

Yes, that's what the current crop is trying to do differently.
posted by alms at 11:19 AM on January 31, 2007

I did a module on this for my psychology degree. Some of it is a little suspect and possibly vaguely anti-science (Seligman's gone as far as labelling all other psychology as "negative psychology", which isn't helping matters, plus the name's pretty unfortunate since it implies they think all other psychological paradigms are bad and that PP's part of the anti-psychiatry movement, which it isn't), but I think there is a place for it. The book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the other guy, along with Seligman, responsible for popularising the movement) is pretty much a classic in the area, and based on some decent science. The Psychologist magazine (the British Psychological Society's publication, aimed at a general audience) did a special issue a couple of years back, some of which is interesting reading.

It's a young field though (it was officially "launched" with Seligman's presidential address to the APA in 1998), and the struggle between those who want it to be seen as Legitimate Science and those who want to focus on the experiential, philosophical side might be its downfall. Psychology as a whole is currently so focused on the neuro/cognitive side of things, and so concerned with convincing people that it's Hard Science, that it's good to have another perspective from time to time that reminds us people are at the heart of all this :)
posted by terrynutkins at 11:34 AM on January 31, 2007

Are the lecture videos working for everyone else? I'm just getting an error "Communication with the Helix secure URL processor failed." Suggestions?
posted by jourman2 at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2007

I'm sorry, I should have also said that this is an excellent post.
posted by OmieWise at 11:40 AM on January 31, 2007

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