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Positive psychology – the backlash begins. An article in the US Harpers in October takes a critical look at the positive psychology message

November 4, 2010

Positive psychology has a mission that is hard to disparage – to study the science of what makes us happy, rather than the science of what makes us miserable. However, the way that mission has been interpreted and carried out has seemed to be more about how to commoditise happiness and make it accessible to everyone for the lowest possible unit cost. As the movement gained visibility it has also attracted criticism.

I suppose the backlash was to be expected. As I pointed out in my last blog post, Positive Psychology has become so visible that even major brands such as Coke, Starbucks, BMW, and others appear to have incorporated themes of happiness, positivity, and joy into their advertising campaigns. Indeed, books, TV specials, and magazine/newspaper articles on positive psychology have appeared in such profusion, lately, that it occurs to me we might be seeing something of a "happiness bubble."

When movements become so large as to be co-opted by advertisers and the media there is almost inevitably a backlash.

In this instance, I’m seeing it in last year’s best-selling book by Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America and the lead article in the October 2010 issue of Harper’s by Gary Greenberg, "The War on Unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking."

Both authors caused me to question my own rush to enthusiasm over the "new science of happiness" touted by positive psychology. At the same time, I find myself in disagreement with some of their debunking.

I’ve known about Ehrenreich’s book for some time but was reluctant to read it, knowing that it would likely put a damper on my enthusiasm. Bright-Sided grew out of Ehrenreich frustration and outrage with facile assurances that she could overcome her breast cancer with positive affirmations. Not only did that not turn out to be the case but her research also found those assertions to be totally lacking in any scientific foundation. In fact, she found the whole subculture of cancer bloggers, cancer societies, cancer support groups, cancer survivors, and manufacturers of cancer-related tchotchkes riddled with denial and false cheer. She also tears into the fatuous, magical thinking embodied in such cultural artifacts as The Secret, which asserts we can have anything we want by simply wishing for it hard enough. Similarly, she goes after motivational speakers and personal-development coaches whose sole tool, she claims, boils down to the assertion that one’s mental attitude is totally responsible for their success or failure. The dark side of all this is the corollary that if one fails to recover from their cancer or to get their downsized job back, it’s their own fault for not having had a sufficiently positive mental attitude. In other words, hidden in all the inspirational blather is an insidious blaming of the victim and, even worse, an invitation to shame, guilt, and self-blame.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

Amazon has an extensive catalogue of books on Positive Psychology

The war on unhappiness: Goodbye Freud, hello positive thinking – by Gary Greenberg


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