Psychotherapists have sought other approaches as psychiatry, which uses medical and biological techniques to treat mental disorders, has largely overtaken psychotherapy, which relies on non-biological approaches such as conversation and counseling. One common approach is to focus on improving the wellbeing of mentally healthy individuals rather than relieving the mental suffering and trauma of those who are suffering.
Positive psychology is a term that has recently been expanded to encompass not only psychologists, but also social workers, life coaches, and new age therapists. However, there is evidence that the approach has a negative side.
Positive psychologists give us the opportunity to enjoy the moment. Doing so helps us stay focused on three of our most famous emotional states, which I refer to as the RAW emotions: regret, anger, and worry. Ultimately, it suggests that we avoid overfocusing on regrets and anger about the past or worries about the future.
It sounds like an easy task. However, human psychology is evolutionarily hardwired to live in the past and the future. Other species have instincts and reflexes to assist with their survival, but human survival is very dependent on learning and planning.
Regret, for example, is an indispensable mental mechanism for learning from one's mistakes and avoiding repeating them.
Worries about the future are equally essential to motivate us to do something that is somewhat unpleasant today, but which can save us a lot of money in the future. If we didnt worry about the future at all, we might not even consider enrolling in school, taking responsibility for our health, or grocery shopping.
In addition to regret and worries, anger is an integral emotion, which my co-authors and I have shown in several research papers. It protects us from being bullied by others, and motivates others to respect our interests. Research has even shown that a certain degree of anger in negotiations can lead to better outcomes.
Negative moods in general are useful for reducing our distrust and becoming more suspicious. In fact, studies have found that about 80% of people in the west have an optimism bias, which means that we learn more from positive experiences than from negative ones. This can lead to poor decisions, such as putting all of our resources into a project that has little chance of being successful.
Optimism is linked to overconfidence in believing we are generally superior to others in many areas, from driving to grammar. Overconfidence can also arise in relationships (where a little humility can save the day). It can also make us forget to prepare properly for a challenging task and blame others when we fail.
Pessimism, on the other hand, can assist anxious individuals in particular by setting a reasonable bar rather than panicking, making it easier to face obstacles calmly.
Capitalist interests are at play.
Positive psychology has made an impact on policymaking at the national and international levels. One of its contributions was in stoking debate about whether or not a country's prosperity should be measured by growth and GDP alone, or whether or not a more general approach to wellbeing should be adopted. This led to the misleading conclusion that one may measure happiness by simply asking people whether or not they are happy.
This is how the UN happiness index, which ranks countries by happiness level, is created. It is not happiness per se, rather the willingness of individuals to admit that life is sometimes difficult, or alternatively, their tendency to savor that they always do better than others.
The excessive emphasis on happiness in positive psychology, and its claim that we have full control over it, is harmful in other ways. Edgar Cabanas, the author of a recent book, claims that corporations and politicians are using this assumption to shift the responsibility for anything from mild dissatisfaction with life to severe illness from economic and societal agencies to the sufferers.
After all, how can we blame unemployment, injustice, or poverty for our misery? Unfortunately, our society can create adversity, poverty, stress, and unfairness that influence how we feel. To think that you can just think yourself better when you are in financial danger or have suffered severe trauma is at the very least naive.
Although I do not believe that capitalist corporations are spreading positive psychology, I do believe that we do have complete control over our happiness, and that striving for it can make people quite miserable rather than happy. In both cases, the person's mind can easily go in the opposite direction.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher, answered these questions more than a hundred years ago: Life isn't about being happy; it's about being useful, honorable, compassionate, and having it make a difference for you.
The Conversation has licensed this excerpt from the original article.