Home The Defenders of Negativity

The Defenders of Negativity

written by Jeremy McCarthy October 28, 2011

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.

Sometimes I feel as if the entire field of positive psychology is embroiled in a massive, one-sided debate. I hear many psychologists arguing vehemently for the importance of not turning our back on the negative: That it is still important to focus on weaknesses as well as strengths. That negative emotions are still as important as positive emotions. That great happiness happens in the context of a meaningful life which may be equally filled with great challenge or great suffering.

In one corner, we have…

Many psychologists argue that a more “integrated” approach that blends aspects of positive and negative would yield the most useful applications. For example, see Blending the Good with the Bad by Ingram and Snyder and Building an Integrated Positive Psychology by Maddi. Robert Biswas-Diener (who literally wrote the book on Happiness,) also wrote about the value of negative emotions such as fear and anger in “What positive psychologists won’t tell you about negative emotions” on his Psychology Today blog.

In Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward , the most cutting edge compilation of thinking about the science, a recurring theme seems to be the importance of not neglecting the negative in the study of the positive. For example, Maya Tamir and James Gross argue for a study of emotion regulation that does not emphasize the pursuit of pleasure but rather fulfills people’s motivations, which can vary from person to person and from situation to situation.

In another chapter called The Positive Psychology of Positive Emotions, researchers Sigehiro Oishi and Jaime Kurtz are careful to dedicate an entire section to the idea that “more is not always better.” Sara Algoe, Barbara Frederickson (of Positivity fame) and Sy-Miin Chow include a section in their chapter arguing that “negative emotions are relevant to positive psychology too.” Another chapter in the text, provocatively titled The Dog Woman, Addie Bundren, and the Ninth Circle of Hell by Jennifer Hames and Thomas Joiner Jr. argues that “Positive psychology should be more open to the negative.”

In the other corner, we have… who?

  Who's on the other side?

These are compelling arguments, and I agree with them. But who is arguing the other side of the debate? Who is suggesting that positive psychology should ignore these areas? Are positive psychologists violently agreeing with each other? Or is there a (quieter) subsection of positive psychology that is fighting to keep the negative out?

The authors of “The Dog Woman” chapter seem to think there is. They explicitly mention that “At least in some positive psychology circles, there exists an inflexible insistence that only the positive be studied,” and they go on to list the cautions of such an approach. Yet the citation for this comment is conspicuously absent, suggesting either the authors’ desires not to offend by identifying the guilty parties, or perhaps to the mythological nature of this overly positive caricature of what positive psychology is about.

One of the book’s editors, Kennon Sheldon cites “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” Dacher Keltner’s book on the evolutionary benefits of positive emotions and relationships as an example of an oh-so-rosy hypothesis that could that could lead to a “self-serving illusion or an ideological bias that clouds or completely blocks our view of half of human nature (i.e., the not-so-good part).” I wonder if Keltner would volunteer to take up the fight on behalf of ignoring the negative in our science of human wellness. Or would he simply say, “the negative is important too . . . but it wasn’t the thesis of my book.”

Where does the debate come from? Where is it going?

Boxing Referee
Breaking Up a Clench

In his summary chapter, Sheldon gets at the heart of the debate, by identifying the word “positive” as the source of all of this tension. After all, what is meant by defining the field as “positive” and how can we be objective by already applying an evaluative label to either the items we wish to study or the outcomes we hope to achieve? There is a challenge here, especially when we try to apply the positive label to topics and outcomes at the same time, i.e. presupposing that good characteristics lead to good outcomes.

Sheldon’s chapter also gives us clues to how this debate needs to evolve. We should debate how we can move towards an integrative model of human functioning and clarify the boundaries of positive psychology within that model, starting “’above’ the body-mind boundary,” Sheldon suggests.

Perhaps the easiest first step forward is to all agree (if we aren’t already) that the negative is important too, and shouldn’t be abandoned or forgotten. Perhaps we can call this element of debate “resolved” and move on to other issues. Unless of course there are any objections . . . anyone?

References and recommended reading:
Ingram, R. E. & Snyder, C.R. (2006). Blending the good with the bad: Integrating positive psychology and cognitive therapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 20, 117-122. Abstract.

Kashdan, T. B. & Steger, M. F. (2011). Challenges, pitfalls and aspirations for positive psychology. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward (Series in Positive Psychology) Oxford University Press.

Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton.

Maddi, S. R. (2006). Building an integrated positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(4), 226-229. 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 (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.

In the one corner courtesy of Lisa Creech Bledsoe
Question Mark courtesy of No real name given
Breaking the clench courtesy of Melissa Jonas

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.