Making Positive Psychology Wiser
“Psychology without philosophy is blind, Philosophy without psychology is empty” (James Hume)
There’s a possibility that the 21st century could be the century when we finally get to understand more about how to lead happier, more fulfilling lives. Compared to our ancestors of just a century ago we enjoy better health, greater material riches and have a richer understanding of psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. But are we happier or more fulfilled? Perhaps not. As the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said “Everything has been figured out except how to live.”
There’s at least one reason for thinking that things might change for the better. Since 1998 American psychologist Martin Seligman has led the “Positive Psychology” movement which aims to put human well-being on a scientific footing. It has already uncovered some surprising facts , such as
Happier people are more creative, live longer and are more altruistic than unhappy people
Optimists have less heart attacks than pessimists
- People experience more absorption and engagement (“Flow”) at work than at home
Moreover Positive Psychology has developed simple practices which are statistically proven to increase happiness for most people. One of the easiest and most effective is the “Three Good Things in Life Exercise”.
Each night for one week, write down three things that went well that day.
In addition to writing three things that went well, provide a causal explanation for each thing.
In particular, try to pay attention to how your behaviour caused the positive thing.
You might like to try it. Most people find there are lasting benefits of doing it for just one week. Governments are beginning to take notice of Positive Psychology. Whilst Bhutan, a tiny nation in the Himalayas, has been using a National Happiness Index for years, other countries such as the UK have more recently supported the idea that National Happiness should be measured. Initiatives to enable children to develop important life skills such as optimism and self-control have been piloted in schools. In addition there are many books describing scientifically supported ways you can become happier, some of which are rather good.
The idea behind Positive Psychology is important and timely. When I run workshops in Positive Psychology , most students enjoy the classes and find that practicing its ideas on themselves makes them happier. In my life coaching and psychotherapy practice I routinely incorporate Positive Psychology techniques and have found them to be a useful addition to the therapist’s toolkit.
However, much as I enthuse about Positive Psychology, I fear that unless it broadens it perspective it will not fulfill its potential to bring about a fundamental transformation in human well-being this century. I will put my cards on the table straight away. I believe that psychology needs to be combined with philosophy. Science can help us understand and reliably change the world but it cannot tell us what to change. As author Jules Evans argues, “Philosophy ungrounded in social science is a brain in a vat. But social science unguided by ethical philosophy is a chicken without a head. “
It is to ethical philosophy we must turn if we want to reason about such questions as “What is the good life?”, “What is human flourishing?” and “How important is happiness?” . A lot of books on Positive Psychology focus on happiness and how to be happier. Yet a few moments reflection is enough to convince most people that happiness isn’t all there is to a good life. Would you want your tombstone just to say that you were happy? Many people agree with psychologist Joseph Ciarrochi who says:
” I think I want my tombstone to say something about me being a loving father, caring husband and someone who sought to improve this human condition. I bet you…have similar hopes and values”.
But if human flourishing isn’t just happiness, then what is it? Positive Psychology’s leading theorist, Martin Seligman, has proposed the idea that flourishing has five components, captured by the acronym PERMA, meaning:
- Meaning &
Unfortunately Seligman’s theory raises more questions than it answers. For example:
- What is the best balance of these five values in a good life?
- Are there other important values (such as health, autonomy and wisdom) missing from this list?
These are all good questions. The answers implied by Seligman ( “Don’t know”, “No”, “You just have to think you have them satisfied” and “Wisdom is just one of 24 strengths and you should focus on it only if it is one of your strengths”) are not very satisfactory.
These are not technical quibbles, these are fundamental issues. If Positive Psychology is going to guide us in our personal lives and public policy, it needs to have a solid conceptual basis. We need to be able to trust it. Yet Seligman himself has admitted that Osama Bin Laden could well have lived a PERMA life. Since PERMA is measured by the subject’s own estimate (see question 3 above) every psychopath, terrorist and criminal could be rated to have good lives according to positive psychology. Worse still, positive psychology’s methods could actually make them worse. Would you prefer your local criminals to be more or less motivated, more or less optimistic? Like nuclear fission, Positive Psychology’s tools can be used in the pursuit of good and evil..
The idea that you should transform human well-being without doing philosophy as well as psychology is too narrow. But Seligman’s own model of Positive Psychology also runs into more specific problems because it ignores key ideas commonplace to philosophers but less obvious to psychologists. Central to Seligman’s theory is the idea that we should all be more aware of our character strengths and use our strengths more often. But should we? Imagine that your next door neighbour, Fred has optimism as his top strength. Positive Psychology tells him to be optimistic in new situations. Suppose Fred’s optimism has so far worked very well for him at home, where his encouragement and positivity are greatly appreciated by his family. After reading Seligman, Fred decides to be more optimistic at work as well. Now cut to the day of your holiday. Unfortunately it’s extremely foggy. You arrive at the airport expecting a long delay to your flight. You are surprised to hear a familiar “How is it going?” from Fred, your optimistic neighbour, who – I forgot to mention – is an airline pilot and is due to fly your plane. “How long will the delay be?” you ask him anxiously. “No delay at all!”, he replies cheerily. “Today I’m going to practice my optimism strength a bit more. Air Traffic Control say we should wait an hour for the fog to clear, but the good news is I’m an optimist so I’m going to ignore them.”? The problem with Seligman’s strengths theory is we have to judge when and where to apply our strengths. Fred needs what philosophers have long recognised to be a key virtue – wisdom.
Many centuries ago, Plato, Aristotle and other ancient philosophers argued that wisdom was in fact the most important thing you need to live well. Without wisdom, all the other things in life could be misused. Money, good looks and health may seem to be good things, but to live well you have to know how to use them wisely. In our example, Fred’s lack of practical wisdom will him lead to use his optimism strength rashly. One of the most influential philosophers on the subject, Aristotle, argued that a wise choice involves choosing the golden mean between two extremes. Fred needs to find the golden mean between optimism and pessimism . In this situation, since there is so much to lose, he should err on the side of pessimism.
What can be done? Positive Psychology has great potential, but for it to be fulfilled it needs to take on a more philosophical perspective. My hope is that more philosophers become involved in Positive Psychology and more psychologists become involved in Practical Philosophy.. I would like them to work together to develop a multi-disciplinary approach to the question of how to increase well- being.
In the meantime, I suggest the interested reader combine their study of positive psychology with practical philosophy. A good place to start are two excellent recent books
Jules Evans’ Philosophy For Life and Other Dangerous Situations
Julian Baggini & Antonia Macaro’s The Shrink and the Sage.
I also would like to invite interested parties to contact me to help develop a more philosophical type of Positive Psychology. It’s a project I’ve already begun, and I will leave you with one – so far untested – practice, a philosophical version of Three Good Things, which I call “Three Wise Things.”
Each night for one week, write down three ways in which you or someone you know acted wisely that day. The things don’t have exhibit the wisdom of King Solomon – they just have to be things where someone showed good judgement.
In addition to writing down three wise things, write down what made these actions wise?
Live happily and wisely