Positive Psychology – science or psychobabble?

In Wednesday’s HARDTalk programme, BBC journalist, Stephen Sackur, interviewed Professor Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, about such questions as whether positive psychology is truly scientific or mere psychobabble, whether or not well-being should be a political issue, and whether it would be better to put our efforts into alleviating mental illness instead.

If you have 30 minutes to spare this is an excellent introduction to the background and current issues in positive psychology. Sackur’s argument that helping mentally ill people is a more worthwhile pursuit for psychologists than increasing others’ happiness is one which many in the first MAPP cohort have wrestled with. Seligman’s response is interesting – getting rid of depression and anxiety does not in itself lead to well-being because the skills you need to fight these conditions are not the same as the skills you need to experience positive emotion and find engagement and meaning in life.

Asked whether his ideas can live comfortably with ‘ruthless capitalism’, Seligman says no; his point is that there is bad consumerism (material goods to which we habituate) and good consumerism which creates engagement and meaning.

I’m wondering whether Seligman would have come out of the argument quite so well had Jeremy Paxman been interviewing him. Sackur doesn’t ask, for example, why the schools Resilience project that Seligman is spearheading in South Tyneside (and Hertfordshire and Manchester) is aimed at helping kids combat depression; surely what the project should be focussed on, if you buy the whole happiness argument, is increasing kids’ well-being?

For me, there are two important points. Firstly, no-one in positive psychology is asking why depression levels amongst school-kids (and adults for that matter) in the UK are increasing in the first place*, and what we are doing to address the causes. I’m sure Seligman would have had an answer for that.

The other point is that ‘people muddle through’ is not a very sound argument with which to criticise positive psychology! Not only does depression impact life-chances negatively e.g. it affects ability at school, attendance at work and your immune system (all of which are huge costs to society), research shows that happiness brings benefits such as increasing health, longevity and productivity. I think these seem like very good reasons for taking positive psychology seriously, don’t you?

* But see child psychologist Oliver James’ work “Affluenza”.

Thanks to Thanos Karanatsios for the link

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