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 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 practical wisdom to guide our choice of behavior.
Context is King
I was reminded of practical wisdom when I came across ‘Beyond positive psychology? Toward a contextual view of psychological processes and well-being’ this week. In this article James McNulty and Frank Fincham challenge a key assumption of positive psychology, that certain psychological traits and processes are inherently beneficial for our well-being. They say that context, so often ignored in positive psychology research, is paramount. They suggest that well-being isn’t determined solely by certain psychological characteristics but jointly by the interplay between those characteristics and qualities of a person’s social environment.
Taking four characteristics (forgiveness, optimism, positive attributions, and kindness) associated with well-being, McNulty and Fincham present research which suggests that there are circumstances (and fairly common ones at that) in which these attributes are associated with lower well-being and relationship satisfaction or even increases in the negative behaviors, all of which you’d want to avoid.Forgiveness
In one study spouses who were more forgiving experienced lower self-respect over time if their partners were low in agreeableness. This would seem to suggest that whether forgiveness is beneficial or harmful depends on the characteristics of the relationship in which it occurs.
In another study of married couples, positive expectancies were associated with higher levels of relationship satisfaction initially, but led to lower satisfaction among husbands and wives who carried on criticizing each other.
Longitudinal studies suggest that even though giving your partner the benefit of the doubt is linked with marital satisfaction in the short term, over the long term it is the severity of the relationship problem you’re facing that matters. Believing that your husband or wife isn’t responsible for an undesirable behavior only works if the problem is relatively minor.
The same can be said of kindness. McNulty and Fincham list several pieces of research suggesting that kindness can have harmful implications and that unkindness can be beneficial. Personally, this was the least convincing of their arguments. That wives’ tendencies to be unkind (criticism or rejection are cited as examples) rather than kind during problem-solving discussions with their husbands predicted more stable relationship satisfaction over four years is interesting, but not enough is known about the characteristics of the husbands and the roles they played in the problem-solving discussions! Without this information, it’s hard to believe that this is a constructive approach to take for a healthy, happy relationship.
Interpersonal vs Non-interpersonal Contexts
Of course, you might say that this is all common sense anyway. Relationships are not black and white, even though it would all be a lot easier if they were. In the real world (the one outside of research laboratories), no relationship can thrive if one partner is always forgiving or giving the benefit of the doubt while the other partner is always transgressing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows of people who treat their partners like human doormats and people who put up with being treated this way. These relationships may be quite long-lasting, but in no way could we say that they’re thriving. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
You might also say that these findings are pretty irrelevant because most empirical positive psychology interventions are applied to the individual. However, McNulty and Fincham argue that non-interpersonal contexts appear to play a similar role. For example, optimism is associated with better immune system responding in people facing more acute stressors and worse immune system responding among people facing chronic stressors.
A different approach to studying well-being?
Regardless of whether you’re swayed by the research, their conclusions are worth considering. What is needed, they say, is a different approach to studying well-being, with three underlying features:
- We need to move beyond examining the main effects of traits and processes which may promote well-being on average, and study the factors which determine when, for whom, and to what extent, they are associated with well-being.
- We need to study the implications of various psychological concepts in the context of both happy and unhappy people. Perhaps some benefit people in optimal circumstances, but can harm people in suboptimal circumstances. For example, some may not be suitable for people in therapy.
- We 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.
Some researchers have been vocal about points 1 and 3 ever since positive psychology got off the starting blocks, but it’s point 2 that I think is new. Many people seek the rewards that positive psychology interventions promise precisely because they’re in sub-optimal circumstances, such as unhappy relationships.
James McNulty and Frank Fincham remind us that psychological traits and processes are not inherently positive or negative, they have positive or negative implications depending on the context in which they operate. Their rallying call is that positive psychology needs to be thought of as just plain psychology before psychologists can have a fuller understanding of the complete human condition, because psychology is not positive or negative – psychology is psychology.
So, now that the field is in its teenage years, are positive psychologists ready to renounce the ‘positive,’ I wonder?
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.
Schwartz, B. and Sharpe, K. (2010). Practical Wisdom. New York: Penguin Group.