• November 26, 2014

An Intellectual Movement for the Masses

10 years after its founding, positive psychology struggles with its own success

An Intellectual Movement for the Masses 1

Many scholars labor in obscurity, but the researchers presenting their work this summer at a meeting of the International Positive Psychology Association had no such problem: More than 1,500 people from 52 countries came to listen. They packed the ballroom of the Philadelphia Sheraton for the keynote speakers, Martin E.P. Seligman and Philip G. Zimbardo, whose talks were projected onto four giant video screens. They filled the aisles for a lecture by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, until hotel security arrived to dislodge them. Between panel sessions, they lined up to ask scholars like Barbara L. Fredrickson to sign books and pose for photos.

"To see this number of people here 10 years after Marty [Seligman] founded positive psychology is a remarkable achievement," Ed Diener, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the association, told the enthusiastic crowd. "We've made huge inroads."

No question about that. In the past decade, positive-psychology research has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars in grants. Studies of emotional well-being and its many facets, once next to impossible to find, are now routinely presented at meetings of the Association for Psychological Science and published in the discipline's leading journals. Dozens of colleges offer courses in positive psychology, and in 2007, Csikszentmihalyi founded a Ph.D. program in the specialty at Claremont Graduate University.

But the success of positive psychology has a flip side. The research has advanced alongside the mushrooming of a hungry popular market for guidance on what "happiness" really is and the tools—called "happiness interventions" in the lingo—that help people achieve it. Guides to happiness, many of them written by scholars, fill bookstore shelves. Membership in the International Coach Federation, one of several organizations that certifies life coaches (as well as career and executive coaches), has grown from just over 2,000 in 1999 to more than 13,000 this year.

Academic psychologists are ambivalent about this market, but it is a market that they helped create: The IPPA was formed in 2007 explicitly to share the science of positive psychology with a broad audience, and the bulk of attendees at the Philadelphia meeting were corporate consultants, coaches, and other people hoping to apply researchers' findings in their own professions.

The world of positive psychology is vast and varied. The term is not trademarked, after all. Google it and you can find links not only to Seligman's Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania but also to self-styled gurus describing their own "path of self-discovery" and to sites like Enlightenment Central, advertising neurofeedback and "consciousness exploration." A segment about positive psychology on National Public Radio in 2007 still makes researchers cringe: Its prime example of the field was the best seller The Secret, in which the television producer Rhonda Byrne argues that everything in the universe vibrates on a particular frequency; if people attune their thoughts to the same frequency as, say, money, they will attract wealth; ditto love, health, and unlimited happiness.

Researchers in positive psychology are constantly fighting its image as a New Agey, self-help movement, a reputation that has plagued it from its inception and that persists not only in the news media but also among many in the broader discipline. "The curse of working in this area is having to distinguish it from Chicken Soup for the Soul," Fredrickson told me.

Critics, and even some within positive psychology, are also concerned that the practices and policies developed in its name may not always be supported by the research, particularly as some of its leaders press psychologists to do more to shape the institutions—be they schools or government agencies—that help whole societies flourish.

"The mission of this congress," Diener announced at the Philadelphia meeting, "is to change the world." But when positive psychologists talk to the world, nuances tend to get lost in translation. At a time when university-based researchers are under increasing pressure to show why their work matters to everyday people, positive psychology offers a telling case study of the potential and pitfalls of "public scholarship."

Though some psychologists, including, notably, Ed Diener, had studied happiness beginning in the early 1980s, it was Seligman who adopted the term "positive psychology" and made it his platform as president of the American Psychological Association, in 1998. His early work on the "learned helplessness" that characterizes depression had led him to posit that optimism could also be learned, and he had data to prove it. In his presidential address, he argued that psychology had become one-sided, and urged his colleagues to give as much attention to human strengths—such as optimism, courage, and perseverance—as to mental illnesses and disorders. He was interested not just in helping people enjoy their lives but in fostering "authentic happiness," rooted in social and civic well-being.

"We can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound and, at the same time, understandable and attractive," he said in his address. "We can show the world what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, to flourishing communities, and to a just society."

Critics said Seligman's proposal was too radical: He was overstepping the bounds of social science and trying to be a philosopher, telling people how to live their lives. Others said Seligman's proposal wasn't radical at all, just a rehashing of Abraham Maslow's notions of "self actualization" and "peak experiences." Maslow is probably best known for his "hierarchy of needs"—the idea that people seek fulfillment, for example, only after they have satisfied their basic physical requirements. Maslow's "humanistic psychology" was very influential on parts of the discipline, particularly clinical psychology, but many had written him off for the lack of quantitative data supporting his theories.

Seligman insisted that positive psychology be based on empirical research, and that psychologists' job would be to use that research to describe, not prescribe, what contributes to human flourishing—a distinction he often insists on today.

With financing from the Gallup Organization and working closely with Csikszentmihalyi—known for his concept of "flow," the deeply satisfying, unself-conscious state a person experiences when engaged in a challenging activity—Seligman established a network of promising young scholars who were studying positive emotions, and he nurtured the field with conferences and workshops.

The researchers asked questions like, What are the elements of well-being? Why do we feel good when we see people helping others? Does having a happy life mean experiencing more pleasure than pain, or does it require exercising one's talents and having a purpose? What is the role of community in our well-being? And what are the physical and communal benefits of feeling happy?

People credit a large part of positive psychology's success to the solid reputations of the field's leaders—and Seligman's ability to get science-supporting agencies interested.

"Marty knew that if he had money the smart scientists would come," Phil Zimbardo told those gathered at the IPPA meeting. Zimbardo, a Stanford University psychologist famous for his 1971 prison experiment in which undergraduates playing "guard" quickly began to abuse others playing "prisoner," has recently turned his attention from what makes good people do bad things to what makes ordinary people act like heroes. By changing his evil ways, he joked at the conference, he hoped to get the kind of research money Seligman and other positive psychologists had.

The figures are impressive. The National Institute of Mental Health has given more than $226-million in grants to positive-psychology researchers in the past 10 years, beginning with just under $4-million in 1999 and reaching more than nine times that amount in 2008. The John Templeton Foundation has long supported the work, and recently awarded Seligman a grant of nearly $6-million to encourage collaborations between positive psychologists and neuroscientists. Backing has also come from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, among others.

The bulk of the resulting research has shown that happy people form stronger social relationships, enjoy better health, are more creative and effective at work, and are more involved as citizens. And the effects flow in the opposite direction, too: Though studies done in the 1970s found that people adjusted to changing circumstances—like winning a lottery—and returned to being pretty much as happy or as unhappy as they had always been, new research supports the more-intuitive idea that people's circumstances do affect their sense of well-being. But what seems to matter more than wealth—the benefits of which Diener's work has shown decrease the more a person earns—is "psychosocial prosperity," characterized by the social support, public trust, safety, and tolerance in a society combined with individual feelings of being competent, learning new things, and being satisfied with one's job and health.

Such studies have been the basis for recent work in other social sciences, especially economics, where researchers have developed indexes of well-being meant to represent national prosperity better than gross national product does.

One of the most widely respected scholars in the field is Barbara Fredrickson, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tapped 10 years ago by Seligman, Fredrickson (then at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) was asking, If negative emotions like anger and fear evolved to focus our attention, so we could defend ourselves against threats, what evolutionary purpose was served by feelings like contentment and joy? She hypothesized that they allow us to broaden our attention and prompt us to think in new ways, over time building our skills. This "broaden and build" theory has since been borne out by research. Fredrickson and other scientists have shown that inducing positive emotions in subjects widens the scope of their visual attention, makes them more "mindful" or open to different interpretations of their experiences, and even improves their ability to distinguish faces among people of another race.

More recently, Fredrickson and her colleagues tested the "build" part of the hypothesis. They found that subjects who meditated daily reported more experiences of love, joy, gratitude, and a wide range of other positive emotions and—most interestingly—showed benefits over time: Three months later, the meditators reported greater self-acceptance, better relations with other people, and less illness. In a one-year follow-up, she writes in a paper now under review, the people for whom those gains lasted longest were those who had reported the biggest increase in positive emotions following the meditation practice.

Fredrickson says happiness works something like this: It's not the frequency of good feelings in and of themselves that make for a good life, but the resources that those feelings allow people to build.

"Largely as a result of Barbara's work, you can't write about emotions anymore without talking about positive emotions," says Shelly Gable, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies close relationships.

But the standing of positive psychology within the discipline at large remains contentious. Citing work by Fredrickson and a handful of other researchers as a "rigorous, creative, and important" exception to the rule, Scott Lilienfeld, a psychology professor at Emory University, wrote in June on the Psychology Today Web site that it "remains to be seen whether positive psychology will mature into a legitimate scientific discipline."

Charles S. Carver, a psychologist at the University of Miami who has long studied both optimism and pessimism, says he regards the label as "a faddish social keyword."

"Of course, the financial support it has received is one important reason for the existence of the label," he writes in an e-mail message. "People do gravitate toward sources of money."

Perhaps, but some researchers also resist the label. "Many of us who called ourselves positive psychologists a few years ago don't need to anymore," says Stephen Joseph, a professor of psychology, health, and social policy at the University of Nottingham who studies trauma and resilience. Thanks to a better understanding in the discipline of work done on positive emotions, he says, "we can go back to publishing in the mainstream journals. Maybe that's why the term 'positive psychology' has fallen more into popular usage."

"A lot of people who do positive psychology don't say, 'I'm a positive psychologist' because of the connotation of the term—the idea that it's a movement," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside who, like Fredrickson, has worked to identify the cognitive processes that lead to enduring happiness.

Understandably, those researchers want to distance themselves from the breathless rhetoric emanating from more popular corners of positive psychology. After the Philadelphia meeting, one person posting on the Friends of Positive Psychology listserv gushed that Martin Seligman had started "nothing less than a specieswide cultural revolution." The very active listserv, run by the American Psychological Association, tends to be dominated by practitioners, including people advertising meditation retreats or hawking products. One example: A company called Innate Intelligence, which, citing Fredrickson's work among others, sells Resilience Builder software to "provide immediate feedback on your levels of realistic mindfulness."

"I question how a software could give you a shortcut to mindfulness," Fredrickson says when told about it, but after years in the field she's grown accustomed to seeing her research cited in unusual contexts. "Even when you publish a scientific article, it's in the public domain," she says.

Lyubomirsky, who was also besieged by autograph seekers at the meeting, says it felt a little "cultlike." "But just because people are interested in what we do does not mean we're not as rigorous as scientists," she says.

To the untrained eye, though, the line between the lab scientist and the layman can seem fuzzy. Like many positive psychologists (see box, below), Lyubomirsky recently published a book for general readers. Hers is called The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want—at least, that was the original title; on the paperback edition the publishers replaced the word "scientific" with the word "new" to attract a broader audience. Lyubomirsky herself freely describes it as a "self-help book."

"I'm not at all embarrassed about that," she says. "It's based on science. I get hundreds of e-mails from people who say, It's changed my life."

Lyubomirsky's work has focused on the control that people have over their own happiness, once their circumstances and genetic predisposition are taken into account. She has done studies showing that people who take time to count their blessings, perform acts of kindness, write optimistic visions for themselves, or express thanks, report greater happiness.

But she is careful to point to nuances in the research and evidence that the same practices do not work for everybody. For example, subjects who performed any of a list of 10 acts of kindness three times a week for 10 weeks reported increases in happiness; another group that performed the same three acts every time actually ended up feeling worse. That suggests to Lyubomirsky that the freshness of the activity may make a difference. In other studies, people who were told simply that they were doing a "cognitive exercise" did not show the same increases in positive feelings as subjects who were explicitly recruited to test the effects of their actions on their happiness—in other words, motivation mattered. "This showed us the importance of fitting the activity to the personality," Lyubomirsky says.

She has even worked with a company to develop an iPhone application, Live Happy, based on her research. Advertised as a "mobile happiness-boosting program," Live Happy gathers information about users' personalities and prompts them to do activities that her research suggests will make them feel better.

Lyubomirsky points out that she makes no money from Live Happy and plans to use all the data gathered from users for her research. The program is wildly popular, recently ranking 18th among health and fitness apps.

And what's wrong with that? One of Seligman's early goals, after all, was to make positive psychology "understandable and attractive." His colleagues say he believed that for his mission to succeed, nonexperts needed to be able to understand the research and make a living from it. In the early days he collaborated with a personal coach to offer "Authentic Happiness Coaching," and in 2005 he founded Penn's master's in applied positive psychology, a one-year program combining on-campus sessions with distance learning, for which professionals in business, law, medicine, and coaching pay roughly $45,000.

"Marty has always been dedicated to making sure that the science doesn't stay in the journals," says James Pawelski, director of the master's program and executive director of the International Positive Psychology Association. While Pawelski believes it is important that the research and application of positive psychology be kept distinct from each other, "it is crucial that they coexist."

Seligman says his main focus these days is to bolster the research. Positive psychology's popular reputation "is a concern for me," he says. "There's a danger of the publicity far exceeding the science."

Psychology in general is vulnerable to that, but positive psychology is especially vulnerable. "In our culture we have a presumption that people should be happy, and if they're not, they should be able to fix it," says Julie K. Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College who has been critical of the movement. "That goes back to Norman Vincent Peale", who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, "and maybe even to Horatio Alger," she says.

Ed Diener agrees. "There's a huge pressure to find happiness interventions. People rush out to do things," he says. "There's a constant risk of telling journalists or applied people more than you know."

Yet Diener is also one of the most vocal advocates for using positive psychology to influence policy. The research should be used to create "good societies," he told the crowd at the IPPA meeting, to teach people what will truly make them happy and to help create the circumstances that will promote that authentic happiness.

It is in moving from individual well-being to "good societies" that the tension between research and application becomes especially strong. Two contradictory messages were sounded again and again at the meeting in Philadelphia, sometimes by the same people: On the one hand, new research is finding nuances and contradictions in formulations of what makes people happy, and scientists must continue to mine those complexities. On the other hand, they must get a simple, clear message out to the public if they are to make a difference in the world.

Making a difference is clearly part of the agenda. Most positive psychologists aren't as concerned as Seligman says he is with drawing the line between description and prescription. At the Centre of Applied Positive Psychology, a British consulting firm, Robert Biswas-Diener (Ed Diener's son) has started a charity called the Strengths Project, which has worked with slum dwellers in Calcutta to help them identify, develop, and use their strengths to improve their circumstances. A group of recent graduates from the Penn master's program has just started the Positive Policy Institute, under whose auspices they hope to invite scholars to write position papers that will inform policy makers. "Science should be descriptive," says one of the founders, Sean Glass, "and applications can be prescriptive, with the idea that you want to go back and test them against the science."

"We're all prescribers," says Christopher Peterson, a former student of Seligman's who is now a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. "Marty thinks he's a natural scientist," he says. "I think we're all social scientists—what we do is infused by our values. But we can be confident in saying that a long, healthy life of happiness is better than a short, ill life of depression."

Seligman has in fact worked hard to see positive psychology applied on a large scale. He's behind a program called "comprehensive soldier fitness," announced by the U.S. Army in July. With the goal of preventing problems like post-traumatic stress, the program will evaluate the psychological strengths of all new Army recruits and, based on those evaluations, teach them resilience techniques.

Along similar lines, a "positive education" curriculum developed by Seligman and other researchers at Penn and tested in several pilot programs teaches character education and "skills for happiness," not simply as an add-on, but as a way to improve academic achievement. Citing studies from the past 15 years that show that a curriculum that promotes resilience and prevents depression also seems to improve students' learning—by, for example, broadening their attention—the researchers have begun to train teachers in Australia, Britain, and the United States to use it. Positive education could "form the basis of a 'new prosperity,'" Seligman and his colleagues write in a recent article, "a politics that values both wealth and well-being."

In a draft article making the case for psychology's central policy role, Diener cites Gallup research conducted in 145 nations that showed that psychosocial conditions like public trust and tolerance are important all over the world, even if they are emphasized to different degrees depending on the culture. And while he acknowledges a slew of additional candidates for the list that researchers still need to understand better—spirituality, resilience, meaning, and purpose, to name a few—he writes, "If psychologists become engulfed in endless debates about the components of psychosocial well-being, a golden opportunity will surely pass us by. Psychology needs to speak with a clear consensus, and continuing doubts and debates about psychosocial prosperity will doom our profession to secondary status in the policy arena."

Richard Layard, a British economist and a life peer in the House of Lords who has promoted the idea of psychosocial prosperity in Britain, issued the same warning in Philadelphia. "I would like us to agree that we are concerned only about happiness and misery as people experience them, not how people judge their life satisfaction," he said. Moreover, he said, researchers should stick with the notion that positive feelings and negative feelings are two points along the same scale, and that the first drive away the second. "Otherwise we will lose our appeal to policy makers by making it too complicated."

But one of the frequent criticisms of positive psychology is that it oversimplifies happiness. "I would just want to argue for increased nuance and complexity," writes Julie Norem in an e-mail message, "not just in the research reports published in scientific journals (and read by a vanishingly small percentage of the consumers of positive psychology) but in the rhetoric emanating from the positive psychology movement (including the M.A. students and the coaches it produces)."

Norem, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, says "positive education" is an example of policy recommendations getting ahead of the science. "I don't think there is enough evidence of the long-term effects and corollary effects to support large-scale programs like that," she says.

She has also been critical of positive psychology's emphasis on optimism. She says that for certain people, whom she calls "defensive pessimists," thinking about what could go wrong spurs them to take more-effective actions. "Research I've done has shown that you can cheer defensive pessimists up, but their performance suffers. You have them do mindful relaxation exercises, and their performance suffers."

Seligman acknowledges that "it's clear there is some psychological benefit from pessimism," but, comparing optimism to antibiotics, he says that only a small minority are hurt by it. "We need to try to identify who is going to be helped," he says.

"I don't think you can so easily dismiss the pessimists," says Norem, whose research shows that 25 to 30 percent of people fall into that category.

Lilienfeld makes a similar critique. "I worry especially about the all-too-frequent implication (which, in all fairness, a few of the more thoughtful exponents of positive psychology have not endorsed) that positive psychology is for everyone," he wrote on Psychology Today. He cited new research that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse, rather than better, after repeating positive statements like "I'm a lovable person."

Positive psychologists say that research is entirely compatible with their findings. "Merely mouthing invocations is useless or worse than useless," says Seligman. "I've been saying that and so has Aaron Beck," the founder of cognitive psychology, "for years." Fredrickson, too, has repeatedly said that trying to force oneself to feel positive is a recipe for "toxic insincerity."

"It's just not true that we want to impose the same thing on everybody," says Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies emotions and morality across cultures. "The idea of fitting interventions to individuals is a tenet of positive psychology."

Indeed, much of the work presented at the IPPA meeting defied Diener's and Layard's calls for simplicity. Joar Vittersø, a psychology professor at the University of Tromsø, in Norway, presented studies he had conducted showing that people who were highly satisfied with their lives over all reported only slightly more happiness during working hours than people who were dissatisfied with life. "Flourishing" means both feeling well and functioning well, he argued, and functioning well may require struggle as we try to overcome intellectual challenges. He also pointed to surveys in which Danes reported more experiences of enjoyment and Americans reported more of pride. "We can't just lump them together," he said.

By the same token, "whether people say life is 'meaningful' means quite different things," said Dmitry A. Leontiev, a psychology professor at Moscow State University, and future research will need to find a way to get at the question of meaning that goes beyond simply asking people if they find life meaningful.

At session after session, researchers told attendees of the IPPA meeting that scientists need more cross-cultural studies, more behavioral studies to complement subjects' own reports of whether and why they are happy, and more longitudinal data to show how people's satisfaction with life changes over time.

"In the large majority of areas there's not enough data to be certain" of what practices or policies would be good, Gable told me.

Lyubomirsky points to the same risk. "I'm very open in [The How of Happiness] about where there are holes in the literature," she says. A few years ago, school principals in Compton, Calif., asked her to work on a curriculum that would include happiness interventions. At the time she declined, thinking the research was not ready for large-scale interventions.

Since then, she says, the research has advanced. Still, she remains more at ease fitting strategies to individuals.

"There is always a tension between basic research and its application," she says. Researchers must simply focus on "doing our science and doing it well."

Fredrickson sounds the same note when asked about Layard's call for researchers to simplify their findings. "It makes sense for an economist to tell psychologists how to be heard by policy makers," she says. "But science doesn't proceed that way. Science is about pulling things apart and finding out how they work."

She is mulling the idea of starting a group specifically for positive-psychology researchers and their graduate students, where they could share findings in all their complexity, perhaps in conjunction with one of the major disciplinary conferences.

But increasingly, she says, she thinks positive psychology must come to terms with its different, overlapping audiences. The public's craving for the research is unavoidable, and in the end Fredrickson says it's a good thing.

"This is not a 'nobody's listening' experience," she says. "It's much better than if nobody were listening."

Jennifer Ruark is a deputy managing editor of The Chronicle.

Comments

1. sigpat - August 03, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for mentioning the happiness-boosting Live Happy iPhone app that we developed w/Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of "The How of Happiness." We've already gotten great feedback from people who are seeing some real benefits from using it. As you stated, it's based on Sonja's work, and provides a unique method to create a personalized program to increase your happiness. You can learn more about it at http://www.LiveHappyApp.com - Signal Patterns

2. janice_h - August 04, 2009 at 02:02 am

The problem with wanting to always be happy is that it discourages aspiring for greatness. Hard things require you to be in the trenches for a while, digging and digging. Positive psychology can maybe teach you how not to be too dipressed during that time, but it might also discourage you from even attempting such feats. In a very interesting discussion on How to be happy on Pandalous: http://www.pandalous.com/topic/how_to_be_happy this point comes up. Can aspiring for greatness, with the high possibility of failure, be consistent with the happy life?

3. ilevine - August 04, 2009 at 07:59 am

Beautifully reported, balanced, and thought-provoking article! Irene S. Levine, PhD Freelance Journalist & Author Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine Chappaqua, New York

4. ramesh1 - August 04, 2009 at 11:32 am

A lifetime happiness no man alive could bear it, would hell on earth. --- Bernard Shaw Happiness nothing more than good health and bad memory. -------Schweitzer To stupid, selfish and have a good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking all is lost ------ Flaubert French Novilist

5. wjencke - August 04, 2009 at 04:43 pm

Jennifer - In your article you mentioned my Resilience Builder software and quote Barbara Fredrickson as saying "I question how a software could give you a shortcut to mindfulness" I followed up with Barbara Fredrickson and she infomed me that you you gave her minimal information on the software and the context in which I reference her. If you look at my website you will note that I mention that many experts (Barbara being one) are starting to suggest mindfulness might be a useful intervention. That is the extent of the connection. If you had bothered to research the software you'd find that Barbara has been exploring parallel research with the concepts behind the software. So at the end of the day I'd have to say sloppy journalism for the sake of a story. Something that I wouldn't think appropriate in a chronicle of higher education.

6. aguest2 - August 05, 2009 at 06:22 pm

Interesting article, and reasonable overview. Anyone interested in a more extreme critique, however, might want to look at Chris Hedges new book "Empire of Illusion." In a chapter in the middle of the book Hedges offers a scathing perspective on positive psychology, essentially arguing that by incessantly promoting the idea of happiness as an individual responsibility available through the "right" products, brands, and lifestyles positive psychology tacitly endorses corporate values and allows for the massive inequalities and injustices of modern America. I'm oversimplifying Hedges argument here, and I'm not sure I fully agree with him personally. But I do think that broader social perspective is worth considering when thinking about the implications of the positive psychology movement--to me the fundamental question is whether focusing on amping up individual happiness distracts us from a focus on crafting the "good" and just society.

7. samuelf - August 17, 2009 at 07:26 pm

Simina,
Here is a long article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed. that describes the growing popularity of the positive psychology/happiness field. Maybe markething would be interested in it.

Best wishes,
Sam

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