Positive Psychology Detractor Exorcised by Big Leap
In his new book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholia, Eric G. Wilson blends his experience as a sufferer of chronic sadness and as a scholar of the Romantic period and comes up with “proof” that negative emotions and experience lead to creativity. That is quite a leap!! This current darling of the press suggests that misery is good—even desirable. After all, he is able to cite numerous examples of high artistic achievement produced by melancholy people. Who is Wilson? He is an English professor and Chair at Wake Forest University, and his message of misery may be compelling if incorrect.
Wilson mistakenly calls Positive Psychology “a brand of psychotherapy.” There is Positive Psychotherapy—researched and manualized—but it is not by any means what drives the field nor is this its only topic. Generally speaking, Positive Psychology is not meant to be a treatment for the mentally ill. Positive Psychology is about far more than happiness and getting more of it, and a close reading of Wilson’s own arguments suggests that he does not know much about Positive Psychology topics like hope or elevation, though they are likely relevant to his study of how misery supposedly yields the artistic geniuses he admires.
Why Praise Melancholia when it’s Positive Emotion at Work?The Romantic poets, like many people who lived before antibiotics and modern medicine, faced daily miseries of death (the consumption Wilson references was common and had no cure) and sadness. Wilson calls happiness an “addiction” and he misinterprets the poet Keats’s personal observation that “gloom” was the cause of his inspiration as proof that it is good to be miserable. But that does not make it a negative emotion causation study. Keats’ poetry seems to Wilson an example of what happens when one comes out of a cloud of wonderful darkness long enough to realize a flash of insight.
Or, maybe not.
I’d like to consider the possibility that Keats’ response to a Grecian urn or a Nightingale was instead “elevation” or even “awe.” Positive Psychology researcher Jon Haidt (University of Virginia) says, “I believe that powerful experiences of elevation can be peak experiences. Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental “reset button,” wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.” In addition, Keats is using his strengths when he closes with these immortal words:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
(For the uninitiated, “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence” is a strength to which I relate.)
Elevation could very well be the explanation for the down-and-out Handel’s 24-day run with little food or sleep while he composed his masterpiece “The Messiah” after reading the words to a libretto which related the life of Jesus. Perhaps as well, he spent days in the flow state, a time of high concentration and initiative, working at the point where his talents and skills met his challenges, but not to the level of anxiety or the fear of failure. This may have been a state of pure joy for Handel while time slipped away and he was amazingly highly productive. Hallelujah!
And what about Van Gogh? He was probably bi-polar, so he is not exactly a paragon of desirable human experience, no matter his genius. Look at “Starry, Starry Night” and see darkness if you like, but it is the stars against that darkness on which the artist focused. Chronically depressed people, I would argue, are not producing works of great creativity because they are sad; instead they are producing them during times of relative lucidity (in this case, hypomania), while seeking the light in a dark world. They are choosing happiness by using art to help transcend pain. (By the way, “Apprecaition of Beauty” is a transcendent strength).
Chronically happy people are less self-indulgent than depressed ones. They also regularly experience the more enduring aspects of happiness beyond pleasure: engagement, meaning and achievement of valued goals. So does this mean that chronically depressed people, when they experience engagement (flow), meaning and achievement, are…happy? And if so, is this a good thing?
In his LA Times article of February 17, 2008, Wilson says this: “Melancholia, far from error or defect, is an almost miraculous invitation to rise above the contented status quo and imagine untapped possibilities” (italics mine). That sounds like part of a Positive Psychology practitioner’s mission statement. And, in an interesting use of a positive emotion, Wilson says, “I’m offering hope to those millions who feel guilty for being downhearted.” He’s offering hope? It is an important sub-field of Positive Psychology.
It may be clever to rail against the “Happiness Movement,” but be sure not to confuse that with Positive Psychology. You might even read studies for yourself rather than the books which claim to present findings to you.
Sonja Lyubomirsky has found that it is possible to increase happiness, but it is hard work. (PPND’s review of Lyubomirsky’s new book is here). That work is what many happiness detractors find unappealing about positive interventions. The question is, are the outcomes worth it? See for yourself: Lyubomirsky, et al. Happiness Studies. Read numerous studies in their entirety plus four abstracts for papers in press. Also, see Lyubomirsky on YouTube:
* Good Morning America on YouTube.
* 20/20. on YouTube.
Positive Psychology or Self-Help?
The recent backlash against the “Happiness Movement”, as many journalists call it, presents a fine opportunity to note the differences between self-help and Positive Psychology. You may have noticed that what you read, hear or see in mass media seems to suggest that Positive Psychology is a general term for any “you need to be happier” approach.
1) Self-help is mostly based on folk-wisdom, or on an individual or small group of individuals’ personal experiences. Some of these experiences may have been born of best-practices or a great revelation. Maybe the experiences can help you, too, so people are sharing. You may benefit and might even think that if a real person shares a personal experience that it is somehow more trustworthy than if a researcher who may not have “suffered” the problem provides correlations between an activity or intervention and well-being. Sometimes a self-help approach becomes a phenomenon, like “The Secret”, but this does not make it Positive Psychology no matter what you may have been led to believe.
2) Positive Psychology is a science that’s research based, and no claims are made without the studies to back them up. If you have never read a “real” study, see the links to several above. Don’t forget that Positive Psychology is about a lot more than happiness (a.k.a. subjective well-being and positive subjective experience), though those topics have received significant attention.
3) Additional Positive Psychology research topics with articles on this site include
For more on any topic, or use the search function at the top. There is so much more to Positive Psychology than happiness!!
Images: Starry Night, John Keats, Van Gogh.
Great article Sherri. You make very important points that are generally missed in the popular buzz around positive psychology
Having spent a year in MAPP lets you see common misunderstandings in uncommon ways. 🙂
Hi Sherri – Thanks for your very thoughtful piece about the Eric Wilson book. I think many of his claims are quited wrong-headed (e.g., that melancholy breeds creativity and genius, a claim for which there is absolutely no research evidence). On the other hand, he has a point about the value of negative emotions, and this is something with which no positive psychologist would disagree. I have been asked about Wilson in several radio interviews recently (including NPR’s On Point, in which I was requested to “debate” him, though it amounted to a couple sentences at most). I hope that both perspectives can be aired, so that the general public isn’t misguided.
Hi, Sonja–Thanks! I have been collecting PP criticism and waiting for a book that really thought had it mostly wrong, but not completely. Wilson’s “intuitive research” speaks to many people, so I felt compelled to write about it.
BTW, I loved being able to link to so much real PP research on this site. Your articles are great reading and real science, and so many are available without a subsciption to a journal. You don’t just have a CV on your homepage, which is great!!
Most people are content to get their science (and psychology) from the mass media. Good for you for meeting the media and helping them see straighter about happiness. I was on the MAPP call recently and as always it was great to hear from you 🙂
This is a great piece setting the not-well-enough-informed mass media in their place! I sincerely wish that this article could reach the same audience as most of the “Anti-Happiness” press.
Thank you so much for taking the time and consideration to defend positive psychology as it deserves to be defended!
What a great, great idea–get the good news out and help inform people. Did you ever get media coverage for your PP bike ride with Jason? Maybe schools of journalism should have PP classes. Now that could be a Positive intervention!! 🙂
This last point reminds me of the debate that Senia, Nick, Jeff, Erica, Angus and I had about the idea of government mandating 50% positive news. If you are interested, here are links to the first and last in the comment chain:
Maybe positive journalism should be a part of the expansion of positive psychology into positive social sciences that Martin Seligman talked about at the Global Well-being Forum.
Organizational mandates often create the Butterfly
Effect. You just cannot predict fully the ripples that a mandate will cause. Some of the very best and brightest ideas on the planet, once in the hands of fallible human architects, have created the greatest suffering and destruction. Marx’s communism comes to mind. So do Hawaiian T-shirt Fridays.
It is too easy to become despotic and dogmatic about ideals. At our worst we are all fascists. I want what I want when I want it. NOW! Even benevolent laws can become twisted parodies that harm more than they help. Add into the mix the subjective element of bias, misinterpretation, and the lust for power. Then I wonder if we aren’t better off leaving people to their own devices and ignoring positive interventions altogether. “First do no harm”.
On the other hand, it is better to try to make the world a kinder place. Isn’t it? Even if you try and fail, you still, on balance, flourish personally.
I agree that mandates are tricky. I guess it all gets down to …
–What is the definition of good news?
–What does it take to get people to watch, read or listen to it?
–Can media outlets stay in business on the good news principle?
Oh, that problem.
But meanwhile, I can choose good news…and I do.
I loved your latest article b/c I love Starry Night & the old Masters. Plus there’s always a backlash to new movements. Its ultimately a good thing because it hones the arguments that everyone here will write.
Whats wrong with no news? Happy people get of their “b…t” and do things according to Sonja L