It has been called a “marketer’s dream” and “just reformulations of the platitudes you’d gather if you spent a half-hour reading bumper stickers in the Whole Foods parking lot,” (from Boston Magazine’s September 2006 issue, Happiness Is…None of the Above).
It has been portrayed by the media as a cult, as a “so-called science”, as a marketing ploy for people who want science in their self-help, and as merely a grooming ground for “stars” such as Harvard’s Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught the university’s most popular class ever.
A New York Times Magazine feature (1/7/07) even says “positive psychology can seem like a retro endeavor with the appeal of a cure that fits on a recipe card” and refers to the “sect like feel of positive psychology.”
Responses to the article and its question, “Is happiness something that we can learn?” included this one, which was echoed less articulately by many other of the 99 comments when the Times posted the article: “What I have read of the actual approaches described in this article seem somewhat misguided and even frightening. They seem destined to create a nation of Stepford Wives and Stepford Husbands programmed by self-appointed gurus who are now marketing their simplistic blueprints like academically endorsed versions of “Happiness for Idiots or Happiness for Dummies” (Rick E USA). Yikes!
Looking to the world of academia for support? Prominent psychologists at respected institutions of higher learning, even Ben-Shahar’s colleagues at Harvard and at nearby Wellesley College, have been quoted in the media dissing “happiness.” Given this kind of press, what do we need to do to help expand the value of a positive approach to psychology and beyond?
Who gets to make meaning out of Positive Psychology?
In a world of instant communication, nearly everyone can have their opinions available to the masses. If you have been keeping up with the media accounts, you may have noticed that the field of study we are so excited about is more often maligned than not. With their penchant for sound bites, the media often reduces the three pillars of positive psychology to “it’s all about me” hedonism. Has anyone figured out why people in the media would want Positive Psychology to fail?
It would seem that well-being would be good for everyone, even the media.
Not so, according to Poe’s Heart and the Mountain Climber: Exploring the Effect of Anxiety on Our Brains and Our Culture by eminent psychiatrist Richard Restak, in which he looks at how the media manipulates and creates anxiety so that we will “pay more attention to those who speak to us of the terrible things…than…to people who assure us that everything is all right.” Positive psychology practitioners, take note.
We know from researchers like Schwartz, Kahneman and Gilbert that the human brain is not very good at estimating how it will feel about future events, and that there is an optimal amount of choice which results in decisions, beyond which maximizing occurs and anxiety increases. Restak considers this question. Is there an optimal level of anxiety that can be both created and maintained by the media and which will result in people seeking more information, thus creating more readers, more viewers and more purchasers of consumer goods?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. One recent approach to creating this anxiety unwittingly partnered Turner Broadcasting with Boston’s local media outlets. LED “characters” which had been placed around the City of Boston by agents of the media giant brought the city to a standstill at the nexus of
- our fear of terrorism, reinforced by Boston’s connection to 9/11
- the extreme guerilla journalism and competition of the local media to get the story out (facts optional)
- the efficient public safety response that broadcast the danger by shutting down transportation systems and running news updates throughout the day to the fearful and the stranded.
Turner Broadcasting seems to have decided that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and this campaign was cheaper than a Super Bowl commercial. For a cool million, the estimated cost to repay the areas affected by the marketing/terror hoax, Turner spread the news about its cartoon to millions of TV viewers, radio listeners, web-surfers, newspaper readers, cell-phone callers, podcasters, and bloggers. These people are now both more aware of cable cartoon offerings and more worried, anxious that anyone can plant real detonation devices.
Call to Action
So while it would be nice to think that the media and ersatz experts who dispense knowledge about Positive Psychology to the masses would read actual studies instead of relying on hearsay, would not state out of context quotations as the whole truth, and would not look for the opposing viewpoint at every turn, that is not likely to happen. Anxiety pays now and builds upon its own foundation. It is our responsibility and opportunity as Positive Psychology journalists to counter media criticism. Well being, engagement and meaning are what people want and need, even if the media think otherwise.
Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Vintage.
Restak, R. (2005). Poe’s Heart and the Mountain Climber: Exploring the Effect of Anxiety on Our Brains and Our Culture. Three Rivers Press.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.