I’m taking a certification course in “positive psychology,” and I’ve realized lately that I feel a little sheepish telling people about it. There’s something about the idea of studying something so unabashedly “positive” that sounds a little silly, fake, Pollyannaish.
It also sounds very corporate, like the kind of thing they’d teach in business school so owners can convince employees that they’re really happy toiling away at meaningless jobs while they’re actually being exploited to make the owner huge profits.
Of course that’s not what “positive psychology” is really about, although it has become popular in the business world. It’s actually a growing branch of the field of psychology taught at such eminent universities as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard. Still, I’m realizing that I’ve so bought into the popular culture of cynicism that it feels like it takes an act of courage to admit I’m interested in what makes people happy. After all, given what’s going on in the world these days, (and especially what we see in the news), what right does anyone have to be happy?
As a therapeutic tool, the term “positive psychology” doesn’t inspire much confidence, either: it sounds like learning to sweep all the painful stuff under the rug and to just look at the bright side, which doesn’t seem like a very honest or effective strategy.
That’s not how the lead course instructor, psychologist and Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, describes it. In his talks and books – some of which I’ve read and think are very good and not at all simplistic – he describes positive psychology as a sort of antidote to the field of psychology’s traditional focus on the negative – the pathologies and illness that make people suffer. He wants to focus on what works: what makes people happy, successful, and fulfilled.
But isn’t that just looking at the other side of the same coin? I wondered initially. People who aren’t happy, successful or fulfilled tend to be depressed, anxious and neurotic, right? So what difference does it make if we ask them why they’re depressed and anxious, as opposed to what makes them happy?
From what I can tell so far, the difference appears to be the focus. Let’s say I’m depressed and anxious because I hate my job, for example. I can focus on why I hate my job – because my boss is an idiot, or the work seems meaningless, or the hours are too long – and those would all be legitimate reasons to be miserable and want to quit. After all, it’s normal and even healthy to want our work to be fulfilling and in balance with the rest of our lives.
But I think a positive psychologist would first ask a few key questions. What do I like about my job? When do I enjoy it, or find my work interesting or fulfilling? The idea wouldn’t be to ignore my negative feelings, but if I can find and focus on the positive ones, that may lead me to a broader understanding of what’s going on, and to a wider range of options. Once I’ve identified what I like, I can consider how I might be able to increase those parts of my work. In the process, I can consider how I might decrease the parts I don’t like. For example, if a toxic boss is the problem, maybe I can limit contact with her, do the things that I know will satisfy her and get her off my back, or explore whether it might be possible to report to someone else. Now I have more options than just quitting, which may or may not solve my problem, since I don’t know what my next boss or colleagues or workplace situation will be like.
One advantage of positive psychology seems to be that it puts us in a position of power rather than leaving us stuck, feeling helpless. (Interestingly, the man considered the founder of the modern “positive psychology” movement, former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, is the same psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness,” in which an animal or human being has learned she has no control over a bad or painful situation and therefore stops trying to change it.)
Positive psychology also reveals how much power we have to affect other people in a positive way. Rather than criticizing or focusing on what’s wrong with others, we can be the voice of encouragement, the one who finds the jewel in those around us and helps them polish it.
I was driving as I was thinking about this, returning home after a particularly grueling period of work, for which I was feeling generally unappreciated. I turned on public radio. Terri Gross, host of the show “Fresh Air,” was interviewing country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent about her new album.
DeMent, who writes and sings soulful, plaintive songs in an oddly appealing high-pitched twang, was describing growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a religious Pentecostal Christian family. While music and singing were a big part of her upbringing, mostly connected to the church, school wasn’t, and she dropped out of high school by the 10th grade.
At 23, she decided to go back. DeMent had always loved writing stories, she said, and though she had little confidence in her writing ability, she enrolled in an English class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. What she remembers about it was her teacher who, instead of commenting on the misspellings and bad grammar that littered her papers, would praise her imagination and creativity.
“She was so kind to me and so – just little, simple teacher notes, you know?” DeMent told Gross, her voice trembling as she recounted it. “But her red pen, you know, she’d say these really kind things and – you know, you have an imagination. You got the – and it encouraged me. She didn’t criticize what I didn’t know how to do.”
DeMent “sunk herself into that class,” she said, and then took another. She soon wrote her first song. From then on, she knew that was what she had to do.
From her telling of it, that one teacher, who saw and focused on the best in her, made all the difference. And that, from what I can tell, is the power of positive psychology.