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The Defenders of Negativity

written by Jeremy McCarthy 28 October 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

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Todd Kashdan 28 October 2011 - 12:07 pm

Jer, as always, I love your writing. However, I think you might have created a few red herrings in here.

In the book, we don’t simply say some people in PP dismiss the negative. We carefully point out the difference between a superficial vs. a deep approach to this topic. The common response, as in this blog post, is that the negative is important. This is the superficial approach. We find this everywhere in PP. But as for the deep, integrated consideration of how the healthy and unhealthy operate together, this is what is often missing. And this is not a strawman. This is about looking at synergy between worlds, not just adding mention of negative emotions and stressors.

This is captured great by your comment here:

“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.”

This is an example of a superficial discussion of the negative or better yet, the unhealthy. If you are writing about compassion, you simply cannot ignore the negative, it is built into the very definition of compassion. You don’t have a choice about adding it if you want to truly explore compassion. And of note, I don’t agree with Ken (if thats what he wrote in the book) because Keltner discusses unhealthy experiences in great depth in his book. He hits suffering, shame, guilt, etc.

I would argue for a very different thesis than what you have above. The negative vs. positive debate is overly simplified. Lets move onto superficial versus integrative perspectives. The integrative perspectives are here, but they are not coming in the camps that align a bit too much with the positive psychology moniker.

Exhibit #1: look at the number of posts to the PP listserv on studies showing positive is good. If unhealthy aspects of humanity and the world are mentioned, they are often in the superficial realm (e.g., optimism is negatively related to stress).

Exhhibit #2: look at the titles of talk at the IPPA conference. Rate them on no mention of the difficulties and existential issues of being human, superficial mention of them, or integrative approaches. Since I was there, I can tell you that many people came up to me to thank me for giving talks that integrate the two worlds because it was surprising to find it missing.

You get my point.
Would love to flesh this out one day to the MAPP students whenever that invite comes from Penn….if ever.


Don Fox 28 October 2011 - 1:59 pm

i am a trickerster by avocation, so of course my first word is s**t. Now that’s out of the way, the question arises, how positive or negative should we be? Dr. Barbara Fredrickson says rhree times as positive as negative in order to flourish. She also implies you can be too positive. Thinking the universe will protect you as you step out in front of a fast moving truck may be a little too positive, I’m thinking. Next question?

Jeremy McCarthy 28 October 2011 - 3:22 pm

Thanks Todd, Great comment. I accept this criticism of my thesis and I agree with your comments. I am looking at this from a perspective within a system which is somewhat “broken.” Our sciences have a way of looking at things piecemeal, which is not unique to positive psychology but causes cognitive researchers to look only at cognitive solutions, behavioral researchers look only at behavior, medical specialists look only at biology and psychologists fail to consider physical aspects, etc. etc. etc. You are looking at this with a much broader eye which I agree is the direction our science needs to go with a more complex and integrative approach.

I agree with your point (and that I think Kennon Sheldon makes in his chapter in DPP,) that we need to get beyond this superficial discussion of whether the negative is important to wellbeing and get to a more integrated approach. But I wonder what that integrated approach would look like. Is it incumbent on every researcher to explore all aspects of the constructs they study, or can research happen in nodes that are then woven together in a more integrated tapestry? This is closer to what is happening today. Granted there are holes in the tapestry, but is this the fault of those who are busy weaving their sections? (Asked with curiosity.)

Lisa Sansom 28 October 2011 - 4:32 pm

Thanks for this article, and how great to read Todd’s comments.

I *still* (after a MAPP!) struggle with the exact definition of “positive” psychology. Every psychologist with whom I discuss this topic is able to come up with a “positive” slant to his/her primary area of research, whether or not it falls into the common understanding of “positive psychology”. I’m thinking more and more that PP is a lens through which we can view all branches of psychology, rather than being a branch on its own. If so, this might be a different answer to the debate – rather than an either/or, the answer is “yes”.

Bob P 28 October 2011 - 5:51 pm

I am a layman who comes to Positive Psychology through a reference in David Goleman’s book Destructive Emotions. It seems to me this book handles the issue of positive vs. negative emotions quite well. For example, from a temperment of loving-kindness an event violating one’s expectations would be met with equinimity rather than anger, and would be handled better as a result.

Te Dalai Lama and the group of western scientists meeting with him covered by this book seems to say that it is desirable to replace destructive emotions with positive emotions (antidotes) for healthier living. Is that the missing argument you mention in your aarticle?

Morgan 28 October 2011 - 6:32 pm

I think this article/post from the Six Seconds website has room in this conversation.


It puts forth that rather than +/- we should look more toward yin and yang as representative of emotions.

Jeremy McCarthy 28 October 2011 - 7:25 pm

Thank you Morgan for posting the link to that article–very appropriate to the discussion. The article by Tamir and Gross that I mention above (also from Designing Positive Psychology) is called “Beyond Pleasure and Pain? Emotion Regulation and Positive Psychology” and it makes the same argument. They argue that emotions should be judged not for their hedonic value but for their instrumental value, I.e. Their ability to help us achieve “optimal functioning”. Using Bob’s Dalai Lama example of “destructive emotions” in this context would mean emotions that reduce our ability to function optimally (even though they may be “positive” subjectively.)

Jeremy McCarthy 28 October 2011 - 9:59 pm

Lisa, here is a quote from the Sheldon article that you will appreciate:

“An unfortunate implication of the term ‘positive psychology’ is that it suggests that some areas or eras of psychology may be ‘negative’ psychology. This can lead to an unfortunate dynamic: nobody wants to think they are a negative psychologist so they must either join the bandwagon (‘I too am a positive psychologist!’) or deny it (‘Positive psychology is wrong and harmful!’) My position is that all fields of psychology are positive sciences to the extent that the derived knowledge can be used to solve problems and to improve what is in need of improvement.”

Scott 29 October 2011 - 2:35 am

As always you create a good discussion. But I find all of this very funny. For a very long time the vast majority of focus in psychology has been on flaws, weakness, phobia, dysfunction, etc. Within my area of organizational development the vast majority of energy is still spent on weakness, challenges, problems etc. Very few voices were calling for a balanced approach when weakness was the focus and if they were there were given no credence. Along comes Positive Psychology and all of a sudden there is cry to protect the negative, as though we could possibly forget the negative.

Let me clarify that I am all for an “integrated” approach, but let’s look at reality. The pendulum has been stuck on one side of this discussion for a very long time. If there is a little bit of over-emphasis on the positive right now that is to be expected. We have to change our mindset to a broader one and that requires a little retooling. And we have to change the concept of most people toward psychology. Ask regular people what they think psychology focuses on (I do this all the time in my seminars) and almost 100% will agree that it focuses on dysfunction. We’ve got some work to do.

So, an integrated psychology is the goal and getting there will not be easy. The focus has been on dysfunction and weakness for so long that there needs to be a little push to get close to the center. Let’s face it, as humans we are wired to focus on the negative because that is how we survive. It’s not going away. It doesn’t need to be defended, but integrated. However, to do that someone has to study and promote the positive. Then the two can be integrated.

Lisa Sansom 29 October 2011 - 6:32 am

Thanks for the quote Jeremy – I definitely appreciate it! It seems like a false dichotomy has been set up with the introduction of the phrase “positive psychology”. Indeed, many will say that “positive psychology” and strengths existed long before Seligman called it into being with his APA presidency!

And glad to see that Scott’s strength of humour shines through – even online! 🙂

Judy Krings 29 October 2011 - 6:46 am

Thanks, Jeremy, Todd, Lisa, and all for this spirited and appreciated discussion. As a coach/psychologist, Scott, I love your pendulum metaphor. The tides go in and out and so does psychology mainstream. It is refreshing to coach with the assumption that my clients are minimally “creative, resourceful and whole.” As Lisa said, to see them through that lens. For psych clients, pathology rears, the clinical psychologist steps in. I still see that as positively addressing negative emotion. When I work/play, I don’t think positive or negative, as life is rarely all or nothing. Integration is a part of all life and history in my book. Not just for psychology. But it sure as heck takes time to open many books (as you all are doing here) to achieve it.

As an old timer, I want to take this opportunity to thank all you young and hungry researchers. It is a joy to watch you broaden the scope of psychology. Know that you are appreciated.

Dan Saint 29 October 2011 - 8:58 am

Coming from an organizational perspective, in the early days of appreciative inquiry (ai), much of the dialogue was framed dualistically as positive-good/negative-bad. Critical thinking and problem solving were dismissed disdainfully with labels such as deficit-based thinking, reductionist and world-destroying. Surprising was how so many positive, consciously social constructionist thinkers could have such a negative bias in their framing of the world.

I think having experienced that positivity-dominated negativity compels me to provide both perspectives somewhat in balance and let the reader or audience to arrive at the benefits of positive organizational behavior and change.

Recently, I presented a story of an ai-inspired organizational transformation to a global accounting conference in Kuala Lumpur and then taught an executive level positive transformational leadership course in Delhi. As I spoke about ai, I felt compelled to present it as an approach in balance with problem solving for two reasons.

First, These were audiences predominated by MBAs, many of whom were auditors. In that culture, problem solving is a key way of approaching life. If the audience heard that ai is the right way and problem solving is wrong, more energy would have gone into defending currently held beliefs instead of towards assimilating new information. My purpose in teaching is not to be right or threaten, but to provide an opportunity for transformational learning.

The second reason is that ai and the problem solving approach are both valuable in identifying, explaining and influencing organizational phenomena.

By framing stories around ai and other positive theory, practice, and tools, my hope is to help them be able to access the positive in leading and interacting.

Jeremy McCarthy 29 October 2011 - 11:47 am

Thanks Scott, for bringing some perspective to the discussion. Some would argue that Positive Psychology attempts to correct the existing bias in psychology by introducing a new bias, rather than eliminating biases altogether in favor of a more holistic approach to wellbeing. But your point is well taken and I do think some intentional nudges towards the positive are helpful to correct our tendency toward the negative.

Jeremy McCarthy 29 October 2011 - 11:50 am

Judy, I have a feeling you were practicing “positive” psychology before anyone gave it a name. You emanate the positive in everything you do and it is infectious and inviting!

Jeremy McCarthy 29 October 2011 - 11:54 am

Hi Dan, Great comment. I also present AI in exactly the same way that you do. I teach our teams about the negativity bias and tell them the negativity bias needs to be considered for two reasons. 1) personally, we need to make sure we don’t ignore the lessons we can learn from our strengths and successes (AI) and 2) we need to remember that our customers and employees will all be pulled towards the negative if we dont’t solve their problems (Problem Solving). The balanced approach is the way to go and your eloquent comment gives me some new language to help describe the value of this approach. I love your comment about both being “valuable in identifing, explaining and influencing organizational phenomena.” Well said.

Amanda Horne 30 October 2011 - 5:13 am

Jeremy, one of my favourite articles for definitions is Positive Psychology in Practice (Duckworth, Steen, Seligman – 2005). PP is defined as being concerned with wellbeing and optimal functioning. “…a “build-what’s strong” approach …may usefully suipplement the traditional “fix-what’s-wrong” approach.” The authors say that both are effective. Their point was that not much empirical evidence was available for the “build-what’s strong” approach, yet much evidence for “fix-what’s-wrong” approach. Hence, PP is “the scientific study of strengths, well-being and optimal functioning”. The article further provides a balanced, integrative perspective.

The problem is not with what the field is concerned with. As you point out in your article the word ‘positive’ leads to the wrong impression.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have suggested to me that they think that Positive Psychology is all about positive thinking. Arrrgh!

Thank you for your article 🙂

Judy Krings 30 October 2011 - 6:38 am

Hi, Jeremy and deep bows of appreciation for your kind bouquet of words. Yup, I love “characters” and people from all walks of life. Hearing anyone’s story fans the flames of my curiosity. Then the possibilities shot up like fireworks. To see folks soar and travel to new horizons is my greatest passion. Vicarious pleasure and an honor, too. A negative wart often looks like an art form to me. Thanks bunches, Jeremy.

Jeremy McCarthy 30 October 2011 - 4:51 pm

Hi Amanda, Thank you for your comment. I also like that definition and it is probably the one I most often use when explaining Positive Psychology. In a broad stroke, this definition quickly gets at the distinction between posive psychology and traditional psychology.

But if you dig a little deeper, there is still a challenge with this definition. It presumes that you can divide the world into two categories: the strengths that we want to have more of, and the problems that we want to fix (or have less of.)

The reality is a bit more complex than this since it is possible to have too much of the things we want more of. Or certain contexts and situations where those strengths work against us. And likewise, there are times when the things we generally think of as wrong (egs. stress, anger, fear, sadness, etc.) are beneficial to creating a flourishing life.

I don’t think this means the definition is wrong, by the way, just that we need to be aware of these complexities and the research needs to not shy away from these areas that don’t fit as neatly into the “box” of positive psychology.

Jeremy McCarthy 30 October 2011 - 4:54 pm

BTW, I just wrote about that popular misperception that positive thinking and positive psychology are one and the same on my blog here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201110/the-secret-really-works.html.

Todd I. Stark 30 October 2011 - 5:20 pm

When I see some confusion over a topic in psychology, I like to fall back on a tactic that has often served particularly well, trying out a biological frame on the subject.

Emotions seem to me to arise as a key feature of organisms that rely heavily on elaborate internal homeostasis and use speciallized internal receptors and representations of their own body to regulate themselves. Emotions seem to be an outcropping of that kind of regulatory mechanism. Creatures with emotions can use the way they feel as a kind of dashboard to size up their situation and lean them toward different kinds of behaviors. This links their prior understanding of the situation, their internal needs, and their perception of the cues in their environment rather than just relying on procedures based on external cues. It allows them to have a richer biological context for evaluations what is happening than if they didn’t have a way to sense their own body state this way.

If that’s what emotions are about, then the practical (as opposed to hedonistic) reason we are so interested in feeling good is that that it tells us, like a full gas gauge, that we are ok. We are in the right place doing the right thing. If so, perhaps that’s one reason why tricking or drugging ourself into feeling good is something some people are so opposed to, it is like tweaking the gas gauge when it nears empty rather than filling up the tank. I’ve heard the same argument made for self-esteem as well. It might be seen for example as a valuable gauge of how we think we are doing socially. Efforts to boost our sense of esteem directly would again be like sticking our hand in the gauge and tweaking it rather than addressing the aspects of our social life that are causing the low self-esteem.

From this perspective, we want to use the valuable sense of positive feelings to guide us, to earn the good feelings that come with doing the right thing and being in the right place, not for their own sake, but because they help us navigate and improve our world.

kind regards,


wayne 31 October 2011 - 6:41 pm

Jeremy – the issue is not positivity versus negativity – that’s a superficial argument that misses the real weakness of PP (and traditional psychology) – the inability to accomodate the complexity

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 31 October 2011 - 7:52 pm

Hi Todd thanks for your comment (and love your blog by the way.) I like the way your mind works. In another chapter in Designing Positive Psychology (Algoe, Fredrickson and Chow) they cite Randy Larsen who refers to the emotion regulation system as a kind of thermostat that seeks homeostasis. I think your analogy of a dashboard actually works a little better since a thermostat eventually settles into a stable state while a dashboard on a car has to constantly respond to changing conditions and forward progress.

Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 31 October 2011 - 7:57 pm

Hi Wayne, I’m wondering why you think psychology is “unable” to accomodate complexity. In the case of positive psychology, it may have something to do with how we define the field, in which case the debate around positive vs. negative is relevant. Either way, I agree with you and think this is a weakness of all our health sciences. Worse than the fact that our science doesn’t accomodate the complexity of the human condition is the fact that we embrace science as if it does.

Amanda Horne 1 November 2011 - 1:34 am

Hi Jeremy

Yes, I agree with you: “But if you dig a little deeper, there is still a challenge with this definition. It presumes that you can divide the world into two categories: the strengths that we want to have more of, and the problems that we want to fix (or have less of.)”

My earlier comment (on reflection) was not very helpful when I added in “build-what’s strong” …supplemented with the traditional “fix-what’s-wrong” approach. The authors say that both are effective. Their point was that not much empirical evidence was available for the “build-what’s strong” approach, yet much evidence for “fix-what’s-wrong” approach.

If we consider this definition “the scientific study of optimal functioning” could this not allow for complexity and an integrative approach?

Wayne, do you have examples of complexity that would and would not fit with this definition?


Oz 1 November 2011 - 3:08 am

Jeremy – as psychology is a pseudo science most psychologists are more influenced by their values than hard facts – not that their are many hard facts.

Psychology is probably where medicine was 50 years ago. Personally I find this whole discussion amusing as both sides are equally lame

Todd Kashdan 1 November 2011 - 8:38 am


Besides being a good writer, you are incredibly responsive to feedback. Two of many qualities I really appreciate about you.

My view tends to coincide with my fellow Todd.

To answer the question you posed me, I don’t expect each scientist in each of their projects to handle an integrative approach in their questions or design. However, they should always be thinking and writing about it in their discussion sections. Here’s the deal: you can’t parse out humanity as cleanly as psychological scientists make it seem.

Morality can’t be divorced from sense of self.
Meaning in life can’t be divorced from the givens of existence: threat of death, absence of meaningfulness in the grand scheme, the pain of social isolation/loneliness, and the challenge of freedom.
Creativity can’t be divorced from challenging the status quo and the tension/anxiety/stress that brings.

you get the point.

too many research takes a new construct or questionnaire and simply looks at how it correlates with other positive questionnaires. Just open an issue of the J of Happiness Studies. This kind of work simply does not capture people within the contexts they live in. This kind of work makes an implicit assumption that people are static entities. This kind of work misses the links to decades of theory and research (as well as commonsence, intuition, and literature from great minds) on how people are influenced by what they bring and the situations they enter (interactionism).

After 10 years and 1000+ articles on this thing called positive psychology, we can’t keep claiming that its a new phenomena to focus on healthy aspects of functioning and the unhealthy is a given so it can be ignored/neglected/diminished in our work. This line of thought simply doesn’t fly by me. My perspective is that we should try our best to understand people and what works best. This means taking a mindful, objective step backwards to look at what can be done, what makes most sense, not to be tied to trends.

For those that say PP deals with the imbalance in psychology over the past few decades, my response is when will you decide to embrace the complexity of human behavior? When will be enough time for you to stop saying that PP is a new lens and it needs more time to incubate before integration? A little courage, a little creativity, a little introspection (get out of the lab and observe and interact with the world), and a lot less attachment to what other people are doing (even big names that you want to be linked to like Seligman).

If you are in this biz as a scientist, practitioner, consultant, coach, or teacher, you have to ask yourself whether you want to attempt great work or simply follow the herd. Question the assumptions being tossed around. Keep what works and experiment to discover the rest.

People outside this PP lens are amused that this conversation is even required.
Superficial vs. deep, integrative approaches. I will be devoted to the latter and hope the amount of people that do the same continues to rise. If I ran these PP graduate programs, I would first and foremost train people to be critical thinkers….


Jeremy McCarthy 1 November 2011 - 5:19 pm

Todd, as always, I appreciate your perspective. I think your comment about parsing out humanity is particularly relevant and is a big problem with science in general. We try too hard to compartmentalize, categorize and find easy answers, which then become misleading headlines on what science teaches us.

The challenge is that the complexity is infinite so there are always more links that could be made in any new study that is done. The key is in finding the right balance between where things get compartmentalized for easier study and understanding and how they get linked together in an infinite web of factors that contribute to and detract from health and wellbeing.

Amanda, thanks for your comment on the name for the science. My opinion (which may be different from others in the discussion) is less that we need a new name and more that we need to stop trying to define positive psychology as if it were a box that needs to contain certain things and exclude other things. It does serve a purpose to help us focus on things we might otherwise neglect and provides an organization around people who want to focus their work in this area. But debating what is or isn’t positive psychology is far less important than thinking about how all these areas of research combine to teach us something about the human condition.

Todd I. Stark 1 November 2011 - 7:04 pm

I was thinking this is a really good conversation!
Oz, there are topics in psychology where I’m inclined to agree with you at times, but I don’t think it is fair to paint all cognitive and behavioral science with the same brush. There are legitimately different ways of doing science for good reasons other than just that people interested in the field are poor scientists. Duncan Watts has a thoughtful take on this in “Everything is Obvious…” As does Massimo Pigliucci in “Nonsense on Stilts”. Both helped me better understand the different ways science is done and why. Kind regards, Todd S.

wayne 2 November 2011 - 1:21 am

Hi Todd S, I agree that their are indeed different legitimate ways to do things – but the irony is that the personality profile of a psychologist is a good predictor of the therapy they’ll use – not the therapy that best suits the client.


Judy Krings 2 November 2011 - 6:04 am

Hi, So,
I would really appreciate knowing the link to the research you mentioned about the therapist’s personality and the therapy they use. My opinion only, but most therapists I know do not apply a cookie cutter approach to therapy. I am really curious to read this research. Many thanks!

wayne 2 November 2011 - 3:39 pm

Judy, It was part of an accreditation that I did for MBTI. Those who were strongly T were more likely to use CBT while those who were F were more likely to use “talking therapies”. I have read similar research for the big 5 – conscientiousness predicted CBT – as an aside psychologists tended to be high on neuroticism – sort of expalins the negativity bias. Will try and dig up the references

Bob P 2 November 2011 - 4:24 pm

All humans are alike,yet each is unique. If I deviate from the norm, that can be caterigorized and therapies that have been scientifically researched for my category can be applied. When I am normal again I can think about being more healthy mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and or physically. I like the idea of being unique in this effort. Are PP psychologists trying to find a scientific way of dealing with seven billion different positive expressions? “Optimal functioning” doesn’t strike me as moving into positive territory, but sounds more like achieving perfect normality.

30 years ago I read Herzberg suggesting that mental health was not the opposite of mental illness. I was vey much intrigued and have spent 30 years looking for a definition of the mental health that was not the opposite of mental illness. There seems to be a discontinuity between the two that is a large chasm indeed.

I like this positive psychology discussion above. I look forward to crossing my chasm with your help.

Judy Krings 2 November 2011 - 4:29 pm

Hey, Wayne, thanks so much for your feedback. I guess I am an eclectic lone wolf clinical psychologist, now coach, who never operated out of a box. Correction, now that I think of it… The colors in my crayon box are constantly morphing to new shade,s textures, and hues. I admire each client’s kaleidoscope and am always noticing the nuances as they turn it. The spins and colors of new well-being is always an individual artistry to my eyes. This research makes my MBTI, ENFJ, smile. Sometimes it is good not to fit the norm! Personally, I would be an off the wall ACT therapist with a twist of many other therapies, though I was trained in CBT, REBT, (Ellis was such a pistol!) and psycho-dynamically, too. Whatever works and go with my gut. Thanks again!

Judy Krings 3 November 2011 - 7:27 am

My gut told me you would wonder, Wayne, so I opened my MBTI crayon box for you. Thanks for making me smile. You bet my crayons are always looking for new vibrant vistas to add to the palette. Nuance is nice!

Jeremy McCarthy 3 November 2011 - 12:21 pm

Hi Bob, I think you bring up a good question for positive psychology around the issue of “healthy” vs. “normal.” Most health sciences focus on “negative deviance” and strive to bring a clinical population from a sub-normal or negatively deviant state up to a baseline or normal “healthy” state.

Most of the positive sciences attempt to focus on “positive deviance” or rising above the baseline to a supernormal (hence “optimal”) state of health. They argue that health is something greater than simply the absence of illness. So someone could be “healthy” by most clinical definitions because they are at a normal state of health, but positive deviance would describe someone who is thriving, flourishing, or living “optimally.”

Think of an olympic athlete as someone who is approaching “optimal” fitness levels.

Annemarie 7 November 2011 - 6:49 pm

Great discussion….. I have seen people read a book on PP and suddenly become all one-sided about it (maybe they always were 🙂 I am not surprised it happens, it is a great perspective and understandably attractive AND it is great to see a more holistic view articulated within the profession!


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