Does the World Need Positive Psychology?

The Difference Engine

The Difference Engine

One of the very first pieces I wrote for Positive Psychology News Daily back in 2007 focused on the application of strengths whether strengths as defined in positive psychology are always positive and how we know which strength to apply in any given situation. This was inspired by a great article by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe (see below) about ‘practical wisdom’, the nous we all need to help us navigate life’s trickier waters. What I like about Schwartz and Sharpe is that they remind us that context is king. Positive psychologists tend to define strengths as inherently positive characteristics, but that doesn’t mean they can be applied willy-nilly, hence the need for some practical wisdom to guide our choice of behaviour.

This month’s article for Positive Psychology News looks at a 2011 paper by James McNulty and Frank Fincham (details below) in which the authors argue that positive psychology needs to be more contextual. They have a point – most psychology research is carried out on convenience samples of psychology students in a  college environment, which is hardly representative of people in the real world. They chose 4 well-documented positive psychology topics (forgiveness, positive attributions, optimism and kindness), presenting research which counters the usual positive psychology claims that more of them is better for well-being. However, I found their conclusions more interesting, in particular:

  • The need to study the implications of various psychological concepts in the context of both happy and unhappy people. Perhaps some may benefit people in optimal circumstances, but may harm people in suboptimal circumstances. For example, some may not be suitable for people in therapy.
  • The need to examine the implications of psychological characteristics over a long period of time. Most of the positive psychology studies look at consequences over the short term, the assumption being that if the immediate outcome is positive, the long term result will be too.

Of course, we should not forget that positive psychology is a very young discipline (about 13 years old). Hopefully it will continue too grow and mature, and perhaps over time it may even acquire the scientific kudos that Seligman is so keen on.

To read the full article and readers’ comments, click here.

* McNulty, J.K. & Fincham, F.D. (2011). Beyond positive psychology? Toward a contextual view of psychological processes and well-being. American Psychologist. doi: 10.1037/a0024572.

* Schwartz, B. & Sharpe, K. (2006). Practical Wisdom: Aristotle meets positive psychology, Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 377-395.
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The Difference Engine by zachstern

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