Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.
In a recent research article called Beyond Positive Psychology, McNulty and Fincham give some specific examples of research on relationships where certain contexts cause apparent contradictions of Positive Psychology findings.
- Forgiveness, which is generally thought to be a positive trait that leads to greater well-being, can be damaging for people who are in abusive relationships. Too much forgiveness can cause people to stay in bad relationships longer than they should.
- Optimism can likewise be detrimental if it causes people to see bad situations with their partners through rose-colored glasses.
- Even kindness, seemingly the most benign of all constructs is not always beneficial. Sometimes unkindness is called for in difficult relationships and can lead to greater long-term satisfaction.
This research makes the valid point that context is important, but this is not really that surprising. All of our health sciences, not only positive psychology, are biased towards uncovering broad generalizations that don’t (or can’t) take into account the diverse complexity of individuality and context. Exercise, spinach, and sunlight are all good for people, but only in the right context.
The central premise of this article is that these contextual examples somehow contradict Positive Psychology, and that true understanding extends beyond its boundaries. But I disagree with the authors’ definition of Positive Psychology as a study of positive topics only when they lead to positive outcomes.
How Do We Interpret Positive?
The problem with Positive Psychology is that the label “positive” is confusing and leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Psychologist Kennon Sheldon describes several different interpretations of the positive label in Positive Psychology and the potential challenges with each in his article titled What’s Positive about Positive Psychology?
- Positive Science – If positive psychology is positive because it is designed to improve life, it becomes difficult to differentiate this from other branches of psychology and other sciences that are also improving life.
- Ideological Stance – If the subject matter of the research is determined to be “inherently good, desirable or valuable,” this introduces a bias that is downright unscientific. Referencing Dacher Keltner’s stance that humans evolved to be good, Sheldon says, “it is difficult to imagine a chemist or physicist saying that chemical or physical processes are ‘more good than bad.’”
- Appreciative View – A healthier perspective is an appreciative view in which positive outcomes are admired and appreciated, “and one is attentive to ‘what works’ more so than ‘what doesn’t work.’” The only concern that Sheldon has here is that too much appreciation may cloud perspectives.
- Positive Topics – The topics studied are positive in nature: strengths rather than weaknesses, flourishing rather than disease, and so on. This is perhaps the least problematic and the most clear of the connotations of positive psychology.
Going Beyond the Conundrum
It seems to me that Positive Psychology is the study of positive topics (e.g., strengths, kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness) and positive outcomes (e.g., positive well-being, life satisfaction, flourishing). But we cannot presuppose that positive topics necessarily lead to positive outcomes. That would be an ideological stance towards the benefits of the positive.
If we find, as Fincham and McNulty did, that anything that falls out of the “positive topics lead to positive outcomes” paradigm is “Beyond Positive Psychology,” then we have a truly flawed science indeed. Positive Psychology needs to study kindness even when it finds it detrimental to well-being. It also needs to study things that lead to flourishing, even when those topics are negative in nature, such as fear, pessimism, and healthy expressions of anger.
References and recommended reading:
McNulty, J. K. & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Beyond positive psychology? Toward a contextual view of psychological process and well-being. American Psychologist (Jul 25). Abstract.
Sheldon, K. M. (2011). What’s positive about positive psychology? Reducing value-bias and enhancing integration within the field. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Oxford University Press.