The merits and shortcomings of positive psychology

Incidentally, what IS happiness?

Positive Psychology is a movement founded by Martin Seligman which aims to “increase the tonnage of happiness on the planet” by measuring, classifying, and increasing positive emotion and positive traits. It explicitly positions itself as the anti-DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; American Psychiatric Association, 2001), having created its own ‘diagnostic’ manual, the Classification of Strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004), encompassing 24 human strengths within 10 criteria. Its roots are in humanistic psychology, and positive psychology’s seeming reluctance to properly acknowledge this has been much to the chagrin of parts of the humanistic psychology movement and community. Additionally, positive psychology has positioned itself on the side of science, aligning itself with a reductionist, quantitative approach, and claiming this as superior to the anti-scientific methods used by humanistic psychology. However, there are a number of philosophical, cultural and empirical problems with positive psychology’s current position, which suggests it is still at a rather immature stage in its development. Positive psychology’s application to clinical practice is unsurprisingly also in its infancy, with only a handful of well designed studies, but even with these issues the potential benefits of the interventions are tantalising.

Three areas relating to positive psychology are considered, namely its Philosophy, Cross-Cultural issues and the efficacy of Psychotherapeutic Interventions so far developed.



There is an increasing rift between positive psychology and humanistic psychology proponents. Positive psychology claims superiority over humanistic approach because of a more scientific, research-based approach, something that is rejected the humanistic psychology movement, citing 40 years of research in psychology (e.g. personology), and suggest that Seligman is trying claim credit for work of his predecessors (Taylor, 2001).

Humanistic psychology might be annoyed at Seligman’s spurning of their contributions to positive psychology, although they may be quietly pleased of their influence, tacitly recognised or otherwise (Taylor, 2001). Possible implications of this may be an alienation of some parts of the humanistic psychology community and its audience (which Taylor argues positive psychology need), whereas others will join in with the research, either being relaxed about it, contributing positively, or from a more ‘negative’ perspective, going out of their way to undermine/disprove positive psychology. Although the latter two groups should contribute equally, one could argue that the ‘negative’ group embody a truer philosophy of science, with more of a desire to falsify positive psychology’s hypotheses and theories, and may ironically most forward the positivist agenda of positive psychology.

However, more recently Seligman (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005) both seems to recognise that his movement is standing on the shoulders of giants and that it may have to draw on disparate sources of knowledge, including philosophy and religion to progress; although he stops short of accepting or dealing with the sort of philosophical issues mentioned by Taylor (2001) and Held (2004), it seems encouraging that he is open to increasing the depth of the field he leads. It is impossible to say how far he will go to meet the objections of his critics, and indeed some (Richardson & Guignon, 2008) seem not to hold too much hope that he will.

Positive psychology can be accused of having the same definition issues as traditional, pathology-based psychology, in terms of its use of the word ‘positive’ to imply a simple dichotomy, and either has no objective meaning apart from the opposite of negative, thus being a relative term, or has a prescribed meaning by a controlling elite (Taylor, 2001), as could be seen in the case of the American Psychiatric Association’s development of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and their arguable hegemony over what is socially constructed to be ‘mentally ill’.

Taylor (2001) argues that positive psychology’s approach to science is too reductionist, verging on “quasi-religious fundamentalism”, with its theory lacking the depth and self-reflexivity of mature sciences. He suggests that unless Seligman pays more attention to the philosophy and history of the humanistic psychology psychology movement, and is generally more ‘positive’ towards it, positive psychology will not flourish as a movement or a proper science and will be doomed to the annals of history. Held (2002; 2004) agrees with this, pointing out that within the positive psychology movement there are voices of dissatisfaction at the simplistic, polarised message, and urges a more nuanced, integrative one, moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach (Norem & Chang, 2002). This point is furthered by Richardson & Guigon (2008) who suggest that when this approach is applied cross-culturally, it is “bordering on psychological imperialism”.

There is a clash between the value-laden agenda/ideology of positive psychology and the concept of science being neutral (Taylor, 2001). Science generally tries to test reality in an objective, detached fashion, and psychological science, in the context of positive psychology, should simply aim to provide an objective account of the strengths and weaknesses of positive and negative thoughts and behaviours in the totality of contexts they exist in (i.e. culture and society). Seligman has claimed that the scientific evidence supporting his movement is simply descriptive, but seems to endorse a number of cultural and moral outlooks and values (Christopher, Richardson, & Slife, 2008), and while these influences are ultimately inescapable for social psychology, it is surely possible for positive psychology to become more culturally and socially sensitive and nuanced.


Cross-Cultural issues

Christopher, Richardson & Slife (2008) argue that positive psychology is not fully cognisant of its cultural context, tending to overlook that all human activity is culture-bound, and seems to prescribe a Western, more specifically American set of ideals and values centred on individual autonomy and fulfilment, a position that, it can be argued, is no advance on the traditional psychology that positive psychology seeks to improve upon. After all, estimates suggest that collectivism, as opposed to individualism, is the dominant outlook in 70% of the world’s population (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008).

It is claimed that America has a culture permeated with the idea that positive emotions, attitudes, and thoughts are obligatory for a ‘good life’. There is indeed a large body of research linking positivity and optimism with health and longevity (Held, 2004), however empirical cross-cultural research exists which questions  the view that a positive attitude is needed for a sense of well being  (Held, 2002).

In Western culture, negative emotions and thoughts are generally considered to be something to be avoided and controlled (Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). One sees confirmation of this in some of the techniques of cognitive therapy, particularly those targeting negative thoughts and emotions (Held, 2004). However, even within Western cultures, there is room, and indeed, positivity in negative thoughts and emotions; for example defensive pessimism (Norem & Chang, 2002) and complaining (Kowalski, 2002). It seems positive psychology’s current emphasis on all things positive is somewhat misguided and a more progressive view, backed by some evidence (Held, 2002), would be one that not only recognises the benefits of both positive and negative thoughts and emotions of individuals, but also the related sociocultural context.


Psychotherapeutic Interventions

How much lasting change is possible based on genetic influence on happiness and hedonic adaptation? According to Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade (2005) we can affect up to 40% of our happiness through ‘intentional activity’. Seligman (2005) posits three distinct routes to happiness, namely positive emotion and pleasure, engagement, and meaning, suggesting that engagement and meaning are the largest contributors to happiness, and therefore would be the most suitable targets for interventions. Some of the more interesting efforts and their drawbacks are summarised:

Burton & King (2004) created a writing-based intervention, where participants were asked to write about positive experiences to see the effect this had on mood and health. While results were promising, participants were only followed up for 3 days for mood ratings, something corrected in their later study (2008), where follow-ups were carried out at 4-6 weeks, with similarly positive results.

Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson (2005) carried out a study testing 5 potential interventions for depression, and found that 3 of them, namely a gratitude visit, a writing exercise similar to Burton & King’s (2004; 2008) and ways to put their measured ‘signature strengths’ to better use. The biggest (but shortest, 1 month) effect came from the gratitude visit, with the latter 2 interventions having a 6 month effect. Analysis suggests that the reason the interventions were efficacious was due to participants’ continued participation. Though promising, the sample was not very representative in terms of socio-demographics or mood of participants.

Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) asked participants to perform 5 acts of kindness for 6 weeks, either 1 a day, or all 5 on one day. Both groups showed improvements, with the 5 on one day group’s well-being significantly out-performing the 1 day group, suggesting a possible dose-response or threshold effect. In another of their studies (2005) asking participants to count their blessings either once or three times a week, only those who counted their blessings once a week were happier after 6 weeks, suggesting a larger time between exercises prevented habituation.

Seligman, Rashid & Parks (2006) carried out a series of therapist-led interventions for depression against 2 treatment-as-usual groups and found that 6-12 weeks of positive therapy plus homework had significantly more positive outcomes and good maintenance (1 year follow-up). However, these trials have numerous methodological issues,  including sample representativeness and size, non-matched skill levels of therapists, and questions as to the choice (and effect) of therapy in the 2 treatment groups.

Certainly these trials are intriguing, even with the various methodological and sampling issues, but a key question that remains largely unanswered is whether the effects are long lasting, or whether hedonic adaptation and our ‘genetic’ happiness set-points will mean that the effects will fade over a relatively short time-frame –  longitudinal studies with regular follow-ups will help address and answer this. Additionally, the issue of the subjectivity of self-report measures of happiness could be to some extent addressed with neuropsychological, behavioural and experimental measures, which would enhance the empirical nature of the field.

According to Wampold (2001), specific techniques of a particular psychotherapy only contribute 15% to its efficacy, with extra-therapeutic (40%) and common factors (30%) accounting for the vast majority of the explained variance. However, it has been suggested by Duckworth et al. (2005) that many positive psychology strategies can be found within non-specific therapeutic factors, including developing ‘buffering strengths’ and instilling hope. If this is confirmed, and those factors can, through specific trials, be optimised, positive psychology could contribute much to psychotherapy at large.

Partly because of the relative immaturity of the field, positive psychology interventions using specific ordering and combinations of techniques have not yet been trialled, but it will be interesting to see if effects over and above the sum of the parts are achieved. Additionally, elements could be combined with pharmacological and/or already mature, evidence-based interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There is clearly much research to be conducted, and until studies of higher quality are implemented, one should be sceptical as to positive psychology’s longevity, both in terms of intervention outcomes and the movement itself. However, given the early positive results, it seems likely positive psychology’s efforts will be redoubled in order to try to ‘catch up’ with more established therapies.



Having examined three areas of positive psychology, namely its philosophy, cross-cultural issues, and psychotherapeutic interventions, we find positive psychology to be lacking. Firstly its scientific reductionism, combined with prescriptive tendencies are somewhat philosophically incompatible, and makes us wonder what sort of ‘science’ Seligman would like to be using, and what sort of ‘reality’ he wishes to test. Secondly its stance is rather Westernised, ethnocentric, and supporting an individualistic message, something the majority of the world’s population does not share, and something Seligman needs to be much more sensitive to and nuanced about in his approach if he wishes greater universal acceptance. And thirdly, there are still questions as to whether positive psychology’s psychotherapeutic interventions will lead to long-lasting outcomes, something that will no doubt be answered over time with the adoption of more rigorously designed and implemented trials.



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