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Is positive psychology positive?

According to Seligman (2008), psychology has three main missions: curing mental illness, contributing towards ensuring all individuals have a productive and fulfilling life, as well as being able to identify and nurture talent. The focal point until 1998 was to treat mental illnesses; psychologists became victimologists and pathologists forgetting their other two missions (Seligman, 2008). Introducing positive psychology allowed the neglected missions to be re-discovered; it created a new lens focused on increasing a normal person’s happiness, fulfilment and flourishment: “it helps us savour living rather than just survive in a stressful world” (Pearsall, 2003). As enthusiastically as it was welcomed, it was also critiqued, being labelled a bogus science and a marketing tool for modern society.

Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, promoted his research; yet, the validity and authenticity of positive psychology has been challenged. It has been argued positive psychology does nothing but promotes victim-blaming culture for unhappiness and may lead to a lack of well-being (Smith, 2019; Cederström, 2011). Coyne (2013) argued thinking positively and being well is the biggest misconception sold by positive psychology and he discounted Seligman for commercialising the field. The field is an effective marketing tool which can be applied to all aspects of life: work, relationships, and life in general claimed Smith (2019). The ease of selling positive psychology is demonstrated through the success of self-help book sales; almost anything with the word happiness on the cover has potential to become a top seller. While research shows that positive words and affirmations are sometimes of little help to those who need it, Wood and Lee (2009) found repeated positive affirmations made people with low self-esteem feel worse. However, this is not the fault of positive psychology. Authors who brand their book under positive psychology often provide readers with copycat and perhaps simplistic advice. Moreover, the notion of self-help books may be great for those who just need a bit of a push; yet, for many it takes more than reading about mindset shifts and positive thoughts to make impactful and lasting changes.

The criticism of positive psychology may not a bad thing as most research can be contradicted, if you search hard enough (and most research is) and misinterpreted. Swartz et al. (2002) found trying to maximise happiness can lead to more unhappiness. What Swartz meant by this, however, was the need to focus on satisfying our happiness, like how when we eat a meal we enjoy, we eat till we are satiated, instead of overeating. Nonetheless, positive psychology is not solely focused on happiness; it embodies the well-being of individuals in society and their ability to thrive (Seligman, 2008). For example, studies have shown optimism improves life expectancy and it protects people from mental and physical illness (Danner et al., 2001; Conversano et al., 2010). Research has exemplified happiness increases potential whether of productivity, creativity or athletic ability. When levels of positive emotion are raised, cognitive abilities and success rates increase. They open a gateway within the brain. Studies show that, for instance, dopamine, a neurohormone which is core to the brains pleasure centre, has an ancillary benefit (Anchor, 2011). As it activates the learning centre of the brain, it allows the brain to become better at learning and cognitive processes.

So far, despite the strong opposing views, research supporting the science of positive psychology has been validating it and it has been progressing. It is not to be confused with untested self-help claims as it is a psychological science concerned with making the lives of normal people happier. After all, being able to consciously and purposefully flourish, create meaning, change and overcome challenges is what makes us human and if there is a science to help with those, we may want to trust it and let those who do celebrate its achievements.

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