In a book by Oliver Burkeman (2012), he controversially titled The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, broadsides simplistic advice of putting on a smiley-face and pursuing short-term gains in favour of mindful acceptance of negative emotions in an uncertain world.
Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestseller Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009) voiced a backlash against Western culture’s positivity bias and a tendency to deny adverse outcomes that likely contributed to the GFC.
Scholars of positive psychology and educated professionals have also voiced concern that the science they research and promote is often co-opted by self-help advocates and misrepresented by poorly trained practitioners.
In the “tyranny of positivity” (Held 2002), positivity was said to be an attitude some felt had gained too much attention, feeding into discomfort with and avoidance of negative experience and realistic appraisals of life challenges.
This view has dropped away a little more recently with more research in positive psychology that explores interventions in therapeutic conditions, post-traumatic growth, global challenges and the pandemic, with what is now considered the third wave of positive psychology.
Truth: Positive Psychology is not “Happyology.”
Self-help promoters and the media often give the impression that people “should” be happy all or most of the time. This view can lead people to feel pressure to achieve the impossible or like a failure for having negative emotions, moods, and experiences. This, in turn, can increase negative self-talk, rumination, or depression. A study by (Bastian et al. 2011) highlighted the impact of social expectation on happiness: when people believe others think they should feel happy and not sad or stressed, they feel worse. Offering a supportive space where people can express emotions and honestly share what they are experiencing is far more helpful and authentic than simply telling people to “be positive” and “look on the bright side”.
With roots in humanistic psychology and the study of human health, positive psychology evolved to better understand what is right with people, not just what is wrong. It is designed to complement the treatment and prevention of mental illness by identifying and celebrating what makes life worthwhile, productive, and fulfilling.
The science and practice of positive psychology are not about promoting “happyology” or ignoring the realities of negative experiences or the ups and downs of life. Positive psychology does not prescribe specific levels of happiness. It provides meaningful insight, analysis, and strategies to help people leverage positive emotions, build resilience to learn from and manage negative emotions and experiences, and raise levels of wellbeing and effectiveness overall.
“Psychology is not just about illness or health; it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play. And in this quest for what is best, Positive Psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, self-deception, or hand-waving; instead, it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents; in all its complexity.”
– Martin Seligman
Truth: Positive Psychology is not about ignoring negative Emotions
Cautioning against simplifying and overstating positive psychology’s early role in promoting the positive as distinct from psychopathology, APA fellow Paul Wong (2011) advocates a balanced approach. Positive psychology needs to integrate the “complex interactions between negative and positive to optimise positive outcomes” across situations and cultures. Researchers and field leaders are now taking stock of the field (Sheldon et al., 2011), examining biases, evaluating gaps, stretching perspectives, and integrating evidence from mindfulness and post-traumatic growth areas.
Positive psychology tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behaviour presents in all its complexity and considers the emotional experience in totality.