Home All Warning: Positivity May be Harmful

Warning: Positivity May be Harmful

written by Jeremy McCarthy 22 November 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.

The Conundrum

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.

    Hope Then Regret

  • 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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.’”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Hope then regret courtesy of Meredith Farmer
Positivity? courtesy of rocket ship

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Angus Skinner 22 November 2011 - 10:56 am

Interesting article Jeremy and essentially I quite agree with you, though I never thought Positive Psychology underestimated the importance of negative feelings – though I know many have portrayed it as doing so. Indeed, Kathryn may correct me if I am wrong, I think one of my first articles for PPND was about the importance of being unhappy – unhappiness is part of life.

However what I wanted to post about here was a link to Kathryn’s article on Moral Markets. The very interesting argument advanced by Robert Frank in The Darwin Economy is that individual interests and group interests are not the same thing. And of course as individuals we tend to focus on our own interests, but rarely exclusively. There are good reasons why mammals do not eat their young, unlike reptiles. And those reasons are group or social reasons.

What this boils down to is that I think you are quite right – there needs to be much more nuance, much better refinement in PP and its applications. We need to stick with the empirical base, as it develops.

That said I do not think, and I have worked over the years with some of the most deranged and and dangerous of people, that there is no one for whom some of the learning from PP is not appropriate. I would feel disappointed if somehow PP developed as applying to some but not to others. On the other hand that may be because I have an overdeveloped concern with the social. The base of that would be anxiety, but then that would also be true if I had an overdeveloped focus on self.
Nice article Jeremy.

Jeremy McCarthy 22 November 2011 - 11:14 am

Thanks Angus, I agree with you. One of the points that I wanted to make is that these issues of needing greater complexity, nuance and context are not unique to positive psychology. All of our health sciences provide us guidance on things we should do to be healthy (e.g., dietary guidelines, exercise recommendations, vitamin consumption, tooth flossing and brushing), but all of them vary by individual and context.

Science is like a lens that at first only shows us broad strokes but over time things come more and more into focus. The only difference between positive psychology and other sciences is that it is perhaps newer and still needs time to get into the “hi-def” realm.

I also agree with you about PP incorporating the negative (see my previous article on the “Defenders of Negativity.”) But I do think Kennon Sheldon does a good job of highlighting some of the confusion that comes from calling a field “positive” psychology.

Lisa Sansom 22 November 2011 - 1:07 pm

I wonder if there’s also something in the PP definition around “positive methodologies”. For example, positive psychology might study motivitation (a positive topic) but it would never study hitting people to get them to solve more anagrams (although it might be highly motivating…). Just a random thought…
Thanks for the article!

Christine Duvivier 22 November 2011 - 1:17 pm

Hi Jeremy, Great article, thank you! With respect to Forgiveness and kindness, I suspect that there is actually another factor here that the author was not considering. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you say what the person is doing is “right,” it means that you release your negative attachment to it (and recognize your own contribution to the situation). If someone continues to hurt you, naturally you stop that in whatever way you need to — leaving, getting help, etc. I don’t see that as at odds with forgiveness — all forgiveness does is let you release the energy and move on.

Similarly, with kindness, I notice that some people will use kindness from a place of disempowerment — as a way to be liked for example. In this case, while the kindness may be coming from the heart, it is also entangled with a negative motivation or avoidance strategy. Sometimes they are feeling more guilt than kindness even though the act appears to be kind. Here again, my observation is that when someone is feeling loving and kind, or great positive emotion as they do an act of kindness, they don’t do it in a situation where they are trying to convince someone to like/love them more — but rather as an act of generosity. So even someone disempowered can benefit from using the positive– when they direct it toward something/someone that they feel positive emotion about.

As you said at the start, it’s nuanced and “it depends.”

Thanks for your fascinating thoughts!

Annemarie 22 November 2011 - 5:54 pm

Hi there

Christine… I totally agree with you. I think it is dangerous to isolate forgiveness and kindness from issues like self-esteem. What are the drivers here? Is the person really forgiving, kind or optimistic – or – are these coping strategies used out of fear? (in all fairness I probably need to read the original research to see if that is answered). I agree that over-use of any coping strategy – positive psychology based or other – can be bad if it avoids the real problem.

I understand that in doing empirical research it can be hard to look at something holistically because there are so many variables. However taking a thin slice leaves so many questions unanswered that could have real bearing… such as…. if someone was in what we perceived to be a “bad” relationship and was able to practice true forgivness, kindness and optimism what would the impact on their health and wellbing be as opposed to someone that wasn’t? How do these practices effect the duration and ending of the relationship?

Thanks for a great article!

Kevin Simmons 22 November 2011 - 6:19 pm

Christine, I think you are spot on, and would like to expand on your thoughts.

In “Flourish”, Seligman mentions that he has high school students discuss the shadow side of the virtues while reading “Macbeth”. Are Fincham and McNulty simply pointing to the shadow side of Forgiveness, Hope, and Kindness? I have yet to do the mental exercise (it’s tiring) of thinking through the shadow side of my own virtues, but imagine the dark side of hope and optimism to be the kind that does nothing to improve your situation – seeing the better way, but not doing anything to get on the path. The point being, as Angus already noted, Positive Psychologists have already noted that positive emotions, character, or organizations do not cause the good life they simply facilitate it.

Christopher Peterson, in “A Primer in Positive Psychology”, points out that for Positive Psychology to move forward, that it needs more collaboration with Developmental and Educational Psychology, Community and Cultural Psychology, and Hard Psychology. Rather than attempting to dismiss a growing field by looking to contradictions, Peterson encourages expanding the field through collaboration with other disciplines. This hope ties directly in with Jeremy’s observation in “Going Beyond the Conundrum”.

Christine Duvivier 22 November 2011 - 8:23 pm

Hi Annemarie, I love your questions about the impact of “true forgiveness” etc. I think those are brilliant questions, thanks!


Christine Duvivier 22 November 2011 - 8:50 pm

Hi Kevin, I love your point (from Chris P) about exploring across disciplines, rather than dismissing something new.

Personally, I think the “shadow side” they describe is really more of a compensation for unhappiness or insecurity, in which the person uses this “strength” or “optimism” in a way that really is neither a strength nor truly optimistic. For example, two people could be perceived as overly optimistic when they say, “It’s all going to turn out great and I’m going to spend tons of money because I just think it’s going to be fine.” The question is: how do these two people really feel inside over a period of time? The true optimist may be the CEO who brings his “overly optimistic” vision into being. On the other hand, someone who’s using bravado may sound the same on the surface but end up being the person who doesn’t make it happen (or as you said, doesn’t take action) — because he’s not genuinely feeling optimistic.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and stimulating more discussion.

Dan Bowling 22 November 2011 - 11:12 pm

“Descriptive, not prescriptive,” as you suggest in point 4, is a pretty solid footing for positive psychology, in my opinion. Good, thought provoking article as usual, Jeremy. And rich commentary in response.

Paul Schlosberg 23 November 2011 - 1:25 am

Jeremy, thank you for an interesting and stimulating article; and I think I totally understand the concept you are putting forth, and in essence, I don’t really disagree with it. I would say that in general we need to strike a balance and we need to act, convey attitudes and emotions counsciously. We can’t just spew out feelings and emotions and expect them to never ever be destructive in some way unless we apply conscious direction with them.

However, I do disagree with the way you have worded the article, or have put the concepts into context. In my humble opinion, it is difficult for me to say that “forgiveness” is really wrong or bad. Forgiveness is just about always a good thing; in other words it’s really, truly difficult to over-emphasize the importance of forgiveness(similar to eating green vegetables or drinking water – yes we can over-drink water, but it’s extremely difficult to do that, and it’s not the fault of the water, it’s our mistake in consuming too much).

However, personally, I would word your meaning differently. I don’t think it’s damaging to forgive someone in an abusiveness relationship, in fact depending upon the circumstance, I think it can actually be a highly altruistic act to do that. But, at the same time it IS foolish to not at the same time hold that person accountable for their actions, or to trust them foolishly unless they have apologized and also proven to you that they have changed. In other words I don’t think that forgiving someone also must make you a doormat for that person. What I am talking about is unconditional love, you can love and forgive someone unconditionally, but at the same time also NOT be their doormat, and still hold them accountable for their actions.

It’s the same thing with optimism. In my opinion, optimism in itself is never bad, but unless we balance it with a sharp sense of discriminating intellect, healthy skepticism, shewdness, and wisdom then it can be dangerous.

Jeremy McCarthy 23 November 2011 - 10:21 am

Thank you everyone for your insightful comments. You can tell we are moving in the right direction in these discussions when the complexity increases rather than decreases. I appreciate Christine and Paul’s perspectives that highlight some of the challenges trying to categorize these traits as good or bad. They are complex and as you point out, not only does the context matter but how they are defined, expressed and translated into action matters a great deal.

Some of the simplicity of the discussion in my article is limited by the simplicity of our measurement tools. Are the researchers truly measuring forgiveness in the way that Christine and Paul define it? Probably not. I rate very high on forgiveness on the VIA survey which I find surprising because I don’t notice myself going around forgiving people very often. What I observe in myself is that I am very accepting, i.e. it takes a lot before I feel transgressed upon, and therefore I rarely feel the need to forgive. Being too accepting could (and does) absolutely lead to situations where my wellbeing decreases. So this is an example where a “positive” strength, measured and labeled as “forgiveness” in the VIA, can lead to negative outcomes.

There is another facet to all this as well. For the purposes of the study I cite, they are measuring the impact on future wellbeing. But this doesn’t measure the sense of meaning behind one’s life. To use an iconic example, Jesus Christ is the exemplar of forgiveness and unconditional love but it did not bode well for his wellbeing. Does that mean he was wrong? Sometimes we do things that we know will hurt us because we feel they are important.

Anthony Rogan 26 November 2011 - 10:38 pm

Positive psychology is defined by Peterson (2006) as “the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and all stops in between” (p. 4).
With this definition, the things you talk about such as forgiveness are positive only if they result in positive outcomes. Also, I am sure that true forgiveness will not result in a negative outcome. Ditto for true optimism and true kindness. Most things can have a dark side unless used as intended. .

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Jeremy McCarthy 26 November 2011 - 11:14 pm

Thanks Anthony, your comment that true forgiveness and true kindness won’t lead to negative outcomes is aligned with some of the other comments on this article. I like your “unless used as intended” line. But forgiveness is not only positive if it leads to positive outcomes. Forgiveness, optimism, and kindness are also considered to be positive subjectively, meaning it usually feels better to experience them than to experience resentment, pessimism, and hatred, regardless of the long-term consequences. They are also positive in the sense that they tend to be valued and appreciated (at least in our culture.) All of these senses of the word positive (subjective positive experience, positively accepted or appreciated values, and positive outcomes) could all fit in with Peterson’s idea of “what goes right in life.” I think Peterson’s point (which I agree with) is that positive psychology and the study of a life well lived has to consider all of these things. How things feel in the moment, the long term consequences, and the values they represent are all important. The problem comes when the word positive gets so overused that we are not clear about which sense we are referring to when.

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 30 November 2011 - 9:27 am

Hi Jeremy

Great article – I liked the link to Sheldon’s work on the ‘positive’ label and what this really means in positive psychology. I agree with your conclusion, but I think as more research is done, our definition of what positive psychology is is changing.

At the same time I do think the word ‘context’ is overused. “Exercise, spinach, and sunlight are all good for people, but only in the right context” – is it really context you mean? On that basis, pretty much everything is contextual. Isn’t it just common sense that you wouldn’t expect someone with a heart condition to run a marathon, eat spinach if you had a spinach allergy (heaven help us if there is such a thing) or lie out in the sun if you had a light-sensitive skin condition? The reason I ask is because I can imagine plenty of people would avoid exercise and spinach on the basis they don’t like them. Is that good enough not to recommend them? According to my mindfulness meditation teacher, you don’t have to like meditation to benefit from it, you just have to do it…

BTW You might also be interested to know that I covered the same Fincham & McNulty research myself in my PPND article back in August, with a slightly different angle: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/bridget-grenville-cleave/2011081018747


Jeremy McCarthy 30 November 2011 - 10:01 am

Thanks Bridget, sorry I hadn’t seen that article (or I would have linked to it in mine for sure.) It’s a good one!

The point about everything being contextual is exactly what I’m trying to say. Imagine I published a paper saying, “Whoa, exercise is not as good as everyone has been saying because I have discovered ‘contexts’ where it causes harm!” I could give examples about people exercising with injuries, people exercising too much, people exercising without proper nutrition, people exercising improperly, etc. But this would not be very shocking to anyone and I doubt it would do much to shake the generally accepted, scientifically established benefits of exercise.

PP should be no different. The way our scientific discovery works is we look for broad effects that are common across a wide variety of people and look for significant impacts. There are few absolutes. In any studies, for any health intervention, there are some people who show improvement some who remain unchanged and some who decline. As we do more research we learn more about these nuances.

I agree with the importance of studying and understanding these contexts, because this is how we deepen our understanding of how things work. My point is not that positive psychology isn’t flawed, it’s that it’s flawed in the way any new science would be. Contributing a layer of complexity to our understanding is a good thing. But this should be a natural step in the evolution of positive psychology and not a step away from or “beyond” positive psychology.


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