comments_image Comments

Barbara Ehrenreich: Why Forced Positive Thinking Is a Total Crock

Positive psychology -- forced optimism -- is actually quite Calvinist, putting happiness to work as a means to an end.

Continued from previous page


But just as he seems to be on the verge of embracing hedonism, or at least a kitschy version thereof, he pulls back sharply in a burst of Calvinist disgust, enjoining the reader to "strive for more gratifications, while toning down the pursuit of pleasure."

"Gratifications," it turns out, are "higher" forms of pleasure because they take some effort, and they include "playing three sets of tennis, or participating in a clever conversation, or reading Richard Russo." In contrast, things like "watching a sitcom, masturbating, and inhaling perfume" involve no challenge and hence are only "pleasures." This seems unnecessarily judgmental, and not only because Richard Russo is not exactly Marcel Proust, but the reader soon finds, to her complete confusion, that the whole category of "positive emotions," including both gratification and pleasure, is suspect: "When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of positive emotions, however, authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found," and without them, evidently, there can be no "authentic happiness."

Abandoning the positive emotions, Seligman's book goes off in search of character," which he admits is a Calvinist-sounding concept—"nineteenth-century Protestant, constipated, and Victorian." To get to the roots of character, he and his colleagues sift through two hundred "virtue catalogs"—including Aristotle and Plato, Augustine and Aquinas, the Old Testament, Confucius, Buddha, and Benjamin Franklin—out of which they distill "six virtues": wisdom and knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, spirituality and transcendence. Now, as we walked up the museum stairs to the Monet exhibition, I told him that he had lost me at this point in his book. Courage, for example, could take one very far from the "positive emotions," with their predicted positive effects on health and success, and into dangerous and painful situations, just as spirituality could lead to social withdrawal, fasting, and self-mortification. In fact, I blathered on, the conventional notion of "character" seems to include the capacity for self-denial, even suffering, in pursuit of a higher goal. To my surprise, he deflected the implicit criticism onto his erstwhile collaborator, Ed Diener, saying that Diener is "all about the smiley face" and just "trying to make people feel better," whereas he, Seligman, is concerned with "meaning and purpose."

Loyalty, I recall, did not make it onto the list of virtues.

Finally we arrived at the Monets, where after some preliminary gushing on his part we sat down on a bench and I settled my stenographer's pad on my knee for some serious interviewing. But just then a security guard bore down on us and announced that I could not use a pen in the presence of the Monets. It is true, I don't like the Monets, if only because they have been so thoroughly absorbed—along with lavender, scones, and "pictures of babies and young lambs"—into middle-class notions of coziness. I wanted to protest that I don't hate them enough to stab them with my felt-tip pen, but I obediently traded it in for one of the stubby No. 2 pencils available at a nearby desk. At this point, the interview seemed to have gotten completely out of control: Seligman was the psychologist; I was the mental patient, deprived of sharp objects.

I plowed ahead, focusing now on the "Authentic Happiness Inventory," a test available on one of his Web sites ( I had scored a less-than-jubilant 3.67 out of 5, and one of the questions that had pulled down my score asked the test taker to choose between "A. I am ashamed of myself" and "E. I am extraordinarily proud of myself." I am neither of these, and since we'd been talking about virtues, it seemed fair to ask: "Isn't pride a sin?" He answered that "it may be bad, but it has a high predictive value." Predictive of what—health? "The research is not fine-grained enough to say that pride predicts health." Frustrated and by now utterly baffled, I moved on to another question that had hurt my score, where I had confessed to being "pessimistic about the future," assuming that it was the future of our species at issue, not just my own. Now, in the museum, I mentioned the possibilities of specieswide disasters like extinction or barbarism, but he just looked at me intently and said that, if I could "learn" optimism, as in his earlier book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, which shows the reader how to reprogram his or her thoughts in a more optimistic direction, my productivity as a writer would soar.