The Society of Behavioral Medicine recently published a debate on the health implications of positive psychology. Positive psychology for health care has been a bit of a controversial subject since some feel that too much positivity or optimism can be damaging to health or cause people to be lax about their health.
There are those who feel that happiness is a “trivial nicety,” not capable of providing impactful health benefits and not worthy of serious research. Some caution against the “tyranny of positive thinking” prevalent in the “self help” genre from Norman Vincent Peale to “The Secret.” Teaching people to think their illnesses away could not only be deadly wrong advice, it could make sick people feel worse, pushing them to take blame for their own inability to conquer their maladies with positivity.On one side of the debate, Lisa Aspinwall and Richard Tedeschi argue for a balanced and cautious approach to the science, but show the research supporting the role of positive psychological constructs (“sense of coherence,” optimism, benefit finding, and post traumatic growth) on beneficial health outcomes.
James Coyne and Howard Tennen take a more critical view of positive psychology, and argue that, at least for cancer, the science is plagued with “bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine.” They look at research suggesting that the evidence supporting benefits of confronting cancer with a positive attitude, benefit finding and post traumatic growth is pretty weak and challenged by a severe publication bias (only articles that find a relationship are submitted and accepted for publication.)
Both sides of the debate agree that the science needs to be looked at critically and caution against misuse or exaggeration of the unique importance of the positive domain. Both sides agree that positive psychology is much more than just “positive thinking.” This is an area where I hear a lot of positive psychologists violently agreeing with each other.But Coyne and Tennen show research questioning whether post traumatic growth is even something that we can define and measure, given that people can’t really quantify their own growth and even if they could, they couldn’t really identify how much to attribute to their experience with trauma. They feel that interventions are being developed based on scant science.
Aspinwall and Tedeschi feel that this is a misinterpretation of the research. People’s memories of their growth and how they relate it to their trauma are valid things to study, even if they are more subjective than objective. And developing interventions around these issues allows people to test them out, and learn more about these complex relationships.
They also feel that Coyne and Tennen, by focusing on only cancer mortality, are neglecting to recognize the benefits of these positive aspects on a variety of health outcomes. Even if the research is not so strong on cancer mortality patients, they argue, positive psychology could help cancer patients in other ways such as quality of life and pain management.They show that most researchers do in fact caution against misuse of the research and the evidence linking support for benefit finding and post traumatic growth is stronger than they would have their readers believe.
Ultimately, this kind of debate is good for the science. Having people on both sides of an issue argue their points forces both sides to question their assumptions. Coyle and Tennen point out the challenges of not having these kinds of debates and allowing prevailing assumptions to guide science.
Aspinwall and Tedeschi remind us that we can’t let the limitations in the science stop us from studying and experimenting with new ideas that add to the positive side of health and of life.
Together, they show the spirit of scientific debate and inquiry. We don’t have all the answers, and so we must keep asking the questions.
Aspinwall, L. G. & Tedeschi, R. G. (2010). The value of positive psychology for health psychology: Progress and pitfalls in examining the relation of positive phenomena to health. Annals of behavioral medicine, 39:4-15.
Aspinwall, L. G. & Tedeschi, R. G. (2010). Of babies and bathwater: A reply to Coyne and Tennen’s views on positive psychology and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 3927-42.
Coyne, J. C. & Tennen, H. (2010). Positive psychology in cancer care: Bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Coyne, J. C., Tennen, H., & Ranchor, A. V. (2010). Positive psychology in cancer care: A story line resistant to evidence. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 39: 35-42.