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


Seligman's statement created understandable consternation within the audience of several hundred positive psychologists, graduate students, and coaches. It must have felt a bit like having one's father announce that he found his current family too narrow and limiting and would be moving on to a new one. In the Q&A session, some picked up on Seligman's admission that the scientific basis of positive psychology is all too thin, with one asking, "How do we balance the empirical side of positive psychology with the applied stuff ," like coaching? Diener responded, in part, that "people doing things that there isn't good evidence for" are at least "meeting a need." Seligman agreed, saying that positive psychology was under pressure to produce practical results because "people want happiness." If that sometimes means that the applications, like coaching, get ahead of the science—well, "science follows from practice," he said, invoking the Wright brothers, "who flew when scientists didn't know how birds fly."

The idea of moving on to "positive social science" provoked even more anxiety. Diener defended the phrase "positive psychology," saying, "It's a brand." Besides, he said, he "hates" the idea of positive social science, since social science includes sociology and sociology is "weak" and notoriously underfunded. The subject seemed to have veered away from science to naked opportunism. When one audience member proposed renaming positive psychology "applied behavioral economics," because "it's popular in business schools and goes with high salaries," nobody laughed.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine. She lives in Florida.