A few days ago I got a book that I had wanted to read for some time: “Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life.” I had heard about the ‘second wave’ of positive psychology, but until now I had not decided to dig deeper into this topic. The authors of this book, ‒Itai Ivtzan, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon, and Piers Worth‒ are not the first to talk about this second wave. B. S. Held used the term in 2004, and Paul Wong identified and explained this new movement in 2011.
But, what is second wave positive psychology?
In its early years, positive psychology placed a strong emphasis on the positive states of the human being in compensation for the tendency of traditional psychology to focus on negative’ states of mind. There was the implicit message that negative experiences and states were undesirable, and therefore people should try to avoid them, while positive qualities were necessarily beneficial and should be promoted. Positive psychology enacted a rather polarizing positive-negative dichotomy.
In recent years, scholars within positive psychology have been adopting a more nuanced view of positive and negative, recognizing that positive qualities can sometimes be harmful and negative mental states can sometimes contribute to human flourishing.
Positive can be negative
Positivity can be detrimental when used excessively or within a toxic context. Sinclair, Hart, and Lomas found that pressure to be positive can cause harm in particular contexts, as it can discourage people from facing the reality of their situation. This results in denial of both the reality of difficult circumstances and the emotions that accompany them. Forced positivity can be an avoidant coping mechanism.
Held describes the pressure to be positive or happy as a distinctive cultural trait in North America. She also notes that the pressure to be happy and optimistic in challenging circumstances can lead people to ignore or deny negative emotions such as sadness or anger, and thus hamper their ability to assess life circumstances realistically.
McNulty and Fincham in their research on positive attitudes and well-being among newlywed couples, found that forgiveness promoted well-being in healthy relationships, but was detrimental in unhealthy relationships. The study showed that forgiveness increased the likelihood of the abuse reoccurring, as the abuser interprets the victim’s forgiveness as tacit permission for continued abuse. These surprising findings show that forgiveness in an abusive situation can aggravate it and stresses the importance of context when investigating positive traits and qualities.
Negative can be positive
Some aspects of life are commonly viewed as negative and yet lead to well-being. For instance, facing challenge and discomfort has great potential for growth, healing, and transformation.Anger has been presented as a destructive and undesirable emotion with potentially devastating consequences if not properly contained. Beck presented anger as a manifestation of hate and a fundamental cause of evils such as war. But anger can have a positive outcome if skillfully displayed. For example, it has been argued that the dynamic of moral anger has helped fuel the social movements that have emerged in recent decades, from feminism to civil rights. Martin Luther King Jr., in his fight for civil rights, displayed a righteous anger that allowed him to fight without being blinded by hate.
Sadness has also been classified as undesirable. However, sadness can arise as a compassionate response to suffering in the world. Sadness can carry important messages, such as how much we care about someone or something. It can also be a source of inspiration or a source of significance. It can even harbor beauty.
Norem highlights the positive power of negative thinking, for example, the connection between pessimism and proactive coping. Here we could differentiate between “pure” pessimism (a fatalistic assumption of the worst) and strategic pessimism (early detection of flaws and problem solving). A pessimistic mindset can prompt a person to prepare for potential problems, thus decreasing the likelihood that they will actually occur.
The four principles
Second wave positive psychology is based on four fundamental principles:
- Appraisal: This principle cautions against categorically identifying phenomena as positive or negative, since such assessments are fundamentally context dependent. For instance, excessive optimism can lead to miscalculations of risk, while pessimism can be advantageous if it leads to caution depending on the context.
- Co–valence: This principle reflects the idea that many phenomena are complex mixtures of light and dark, positive and negative. We can think of the way that hope implies an optimistic longing for a future goal, but can still be undermined by anxiety that it might not be fulfilled.
- Complementarity: This principle considers the idea that there are phenomena of human experience that are opposite and that coexist with each other and complement each other. We can use love as an example. The two faces of love are fundamentally inseparable: the stronger and more intense the love of one for the other, the greater the risk of distress if the relationship ends against one’s will.
- Evolution: This principle allows us to contextualize the idea of the second wave. We could look at conventional psychology, with its apparent concern with the negative aspects of human functioning, as the thesis. By criticizing this and embracing positive phenomena, positive psychology presented itself as the antithesis. The next stage in this dialectical process is synthesis, in which the truths of both the thesis and the antithesis are preserved, while the flaws in their respective positions are overcome.
Second wave positive psychology is an attempt to respond to criticisms of both traditional psychology and positive psychology. It is a synthesis that can pave the way to new ways of understanding the human experience in a more nuanced and realistic way. The second wave is attempting to cover the entire emotional spectrum of human experience. This is an essential approach since the human experience cannot be summarized as a set of polarized opposites. Human life is an amalgam of dark and light that deserves an integrative approach to study.
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Held, B. S. (2002). The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: observation and speculation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 965-91. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10093. PMID: 12209859
Held, B. S. (2001). Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching : A 5 Step Guide to Creative Complaining. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferson, K., & Worth, Piers. (2015). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge.
McNulty, J. K. (2010). When positive processes hurt relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(3), 167-171.
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Norem, J. K. (2001). The Positive Power Of Negative Thinking. New York: Basic Books
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Sinclair, E., Hart, R., & Lomas, T. (2020). Can positivity be counterproductive when suffering domestic abuse?: A narrative review. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(1), 26-53. doi:10.5502/ijw.v10i1.754
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