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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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At the time of the "summit" meeting, in October 2007, positive psychology had a lot to celebrate. It was gaining ground at all levels in academia, with more than two hundred colleges and graduate schools offering courses in positive psychology, sometimes dubbed "Happiness 101," in which students reflected on their happier moments and engaged in exercises like writing "gratitude letters" to people in their lives. At Harvard, the introductory positive psychology course had drawn 855 students in 2006, making it the most popular course on campus, surpassing even economics, and a similar undergraduate course at George Mason University was the subject of a New York Times Magazine article in early 2007. Graduate-level courses, like those required for the master of applied positive psychology degree at the University of Pennsylvania, were popping up all over the world. According to one summit speaker, Ilona Boniwell of the University of East London, "rapid growth" of postgrad programs could be expected in Argentina, Australia, India, Israel, Mexico, Spain, and Singapore.

Moreover, attractive careers seemed to await those who earned higher degrees in positive psychology. The University of Pennsylvania program claims as one of its alums a coauthor of the business self-help book How Full Is Your Bucket? and two other alums have founded a consulting group to bring positive psychology into the public schools, through workshops on such topics as "measuring and nurturing character strengths and virtues" and "learning tools for building optimism and resilience." Another alum, David J. Pollay, is a business consultant and columnist for the Happy News Web site. Mostly, the opportunities seemed to lie in applying positive psychology to organizations and businesses, through consulting and coaching.

Yet even at this self-congratulatory "summit," there was some anxiety about the scientific foundations of positive psychology. In her description of the "challenges" facing the master's program in positive psychology at her London university, Ilona Boniwell had included "healthy British skepticism." This struck me as odd: Wouldn't a physics or sociology professor be delighted to have skeptical, questioning students? When I put this query to her during a break in the proceedings, she told me: "A lot of results [in positive psychology] are presented as stronger than they are; for example, they're correlational, not causative. The science of positive psychology has not necessarily caught up with the promise of positive psychology." The "promise" was lucrative careers in business coaching, and the science would apparently just have to catch up.

In fact, the publicity received by positive psychology in the preceding year had been less than 100 percent positive. The 2007 New York Times Magazine article on Happiness 101 courses had complained about "the sect-like feel of positive psychology" and suggested that "the publicity about the field has gotten ahead of the science, which may be no good anyway." The article went on to report that "the idea that whatever science there is may not yet be first-class troubles Seligman, too. ÔI have the same worry they do. That's what I do at 4 in the morning,' he says."

These worries finally surfaced at a late afternoon plenary session on "The Future of Positive Psychology," featuring the patriarchs of the discipline, Martin Seligman and Ed Diener. Seligman got the audience's attention by starting off with the statement "I've decided my theory of positive psychology is completely wrong." Why? Because it's about happiness, which is "scientifically unwieldy." Somehow, this problem could be corrected by throwing in the notions of "success" and "accomplishment"—which I couldn't help noting would put the positive psychologists on the same terrain as Norman Vincent Peale and any number of success gurus. With the addition of success, Seligman went on, one was talking no longer about positive psychology but about a "plural theory" embracing anthropology, political science, and economics, and this is what he would be moving on to—"positive social science."