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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.

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This is not to suggest that positive psychology, or positive anything, is part of a right-wing conspiracy. Pop positive thinking has a mixed political lineage: Norman Vincent Peale was an outspoken conservative, at least until his attacks on a Catholic candidate, John F. Kennedy, resulted in charges of bigotry. On the other hand, perhaps the most famous contemporary promoter of positive thinking is Oprah Winfrey, whom we normally think of as a liberal. As for positive psychology, Seligman himself certainly leans to the right. He is famously impatient with "victims" and "victimology," saying, for example, in a 2000 interview: "In general when things go wrong we now have a culture which supports the belief that this was done to you by some larger force, as opposed to, you brought it on yourself by your character or your decisions."

The real conservativism of positive psychology lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power. Positive psychologists' tests of happiness and well-being, for example, rest heavily on measures of personal contentment with things as they are. Consider the widely used "Satisfaction with Life Scale" developed by Diener and others, which asks the respondent to agree or disagree with the following propositions:

In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

The conditions of my life are excellent.

I am satisfied with my life.

So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

One could imagine positive psychology, or a more liberal version thereof, spawning a movement to alter social arrangements in the direction of greater happiness—by advocating more democratically organized workplaces, to suggest just one example. Instead, positive psychology seems to have weighed in on the side of the employers, with Seligman collaborator Chris Peterson telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2008 that business executives are particularly enthused about the new happiness science: "Hardheaded corporate culture is becoming interested in how to get more work out of fewer workers. They're realizing that if their workers are happy, they will work harder and more productively. So they're leading the charge." As for social action against societal injustice, the American Psychological Association's Monitor reported in 1998: "Seligman asserts that . . . those who reproach others and side with the underdog may feel better in the short term, . . . but such good feelings are transient." Why social activism should produce only fleeting good feelings—compared with performing other virtuous deeds, viewing Monets, or reading Richard Russo—is not explained.

Like pop positive thinking, positive psychology attends almost solely to the changes a person can make internally by adjusting his or her own outlook. Seligman himself explicitly rejects social change, writing of the role of "circumstances" in determining human happiness: "The good news about circumstances is that some do change happiness for the better. The bad news is that changing these circumstances is usually impractical and expensive." This argument—"impractical and expensive"—has of course been used against almost every progressive reform from the abolition of slavery to pay equity for women.

The next time I met Martin Seligman he was unexpectedly friendly and ­welcoming. The setting was the Sixth International Positive Psychology Summit, held in the majestic Gallup Organization building in downtown D.C. He invited me to sit down next to him and asked whether I had enjoyed the morning session's "energy break." This had been a five-minute interval embedded in a presentation on teaching positive psychology at the graduate level, led by some female graduate students. The audience was instructed to stand, do a few shoulder rolls and neck stretches, shake their bodies, and then utter a big collective "Aaaah."