The Problem with Positive Psychology

We won't be authentic if we fail to penetrate into our unconscious mind

Most everyone is looking for happiness. The shopping malls of the self-help industry feature thousands of different methods, beliefs, and practices for finding it. Many of these approaches are of limited value, and we do ourselves a big favor by avoiding them.

According to Martin E.P. Seligman, founder of positive psychology, people who apply his method “are the people with the highest well-being I have ever known.” Seligman’s approach encourages us to apply determination and grit in order to increase our positive emotions and relationships. We flourish, he claims, when we focus on engagement, accomplishment, and a sense of meaning. His latest book is titled, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press, New York, 2011).

Seligman’s approach can produce a temporary boost of happiness, or an illusion of it, but it doesn’t deepen our spirit, soul, or psyche. It risks turning us into smiley-faced puppet people instead of real and authentic individuals who are evolving through deeper awareness. Positive psychology advocates a kind of willpower-on-steroids programming that insists we can feel fulfilled and happy by believing we are making it happen. This system does not appreciate how, through unconscious conflict in our psyche, we compulsively replay and recreate unresolved negative emotions.

When we try to dodge or repress our psyche’s inner dynamics, we encounter inner rebellion that produces a wide variety of suffering and self-defeat. To become smarter, wiser, and more conscious, we have to understand the inner mechanisms and drives in our psyche that induce us to chase after old hurts, cling to painful regrets, and indulge in a variety of other unresolved emotions.

We have two layers of negativity in our psyche. The deepest is unconscious negativity, which produces negative thoughts and feelings. This negativity, which people do not typically feel or register, involves impressions left over from childhood of being deprived, refused, controlled, helpless, criticized, rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and unworthy. This unconscious negativity is a major determinant of our suffering and unhappiness.

The second layer of negativity is conscious. It consists of such painful feelings as anger, loneliness, fear, envy, greed, resentment, bitterness, and depression. These negative experiences are symptoms of the deeper negativity. As we become more conscious of the nature of our psyche, we are able to trace our surface negativity back to its source in the unresolved, unconscious negativity.

When we make unconscious negativity conscious, we can start to release it. However, people are typically not eager to see the deep negativity because doing so involves the humbling recognition of our emotional attachment to it. We can’t bring ourselves to let go of our attachment to our particular hurts, grievances, complaints, negative perceptions, and other forms of suffering. That’s the dark secret of our psyche that we find so appalling. Positive psychology doesn’t come within a mile of this awareness.

Let’s take just one example, the plight of compulsive shoppers, to explore unconscious or deep negativity. Typically, compulsive shoppers feel empty, anxious, or depressed after a shopping binge. That’s because their compulsive behavior is a defense intended to “prove” that they want to get something of value, when in fact they are entangled in powerful feelings that something vital is missing in their life. This underlying unresolved emotion—the deep negativity—reasserts itself when the shopping binge is over. These individuals are likely entangled in emotional issues involving deprivation and refusal that go back to childhood. They often harbor deep feelings of being unworthy and lacking in intrinsic value. Their compulsion can also be traced to feelings of helplessness and passivity that produce their lack of self-regulation. They can also, through lack of insight, be unable to resolve a recurring conflict in their psyche in which the inner critic assails them for their excessive spending, while they accept punishment for their “naughty” behavior in the forms of guilt and shame.

Unconscious negativity has to be exposed (made conscious) so that our intelligence can go to bat for us. We become smarter and wiser when we see the full scope of how and why we suffer. Positive psychology, however, makes no attempt to examine the roots of self-defeating behaviors and recurring emotional difficulties.

The Source of Positive Psychology

Essentially, positive psychology is a product of that universal scourge of civilization, the egocentric mentality. This mentality assumes that we can, through willpower or cognitive calisthenics, make choices to flourish while ignoring the powerful undercurrents in our psyche that often make self-defeating choices for us. The human ego is eager to make this claim to power because it hates to acknowledge that it dances to the strings of unconscious dynamics.

Much of our thoughts are influenced and largely determined out of the clash of conflicting drives and primitive instincts in the mysterious cosmos of our psyche. Yet positive psychology, like other cognitive-behavioral approaches, claims the opposite is true—that our thoughts cause our feelings. This presumption suits the interests of egotism, which exalts in its own mental power and cleverness, though it can’t feel with any depth beyond its own self-centeredness.

Positive psychology is like an unwanted guest that barges into someone’s home (our psyche) through the front door, giving orders and demanding compliance. This guest may at first appear to get his way, but the host (the drives and other dynamics of our psyche) soon rebel to restore the old order. A wiser, more humble guest studies the occupants, procedures, and interactions of the home. She is intent on learning from her host so that she can leave armed with precious self-knowledge.

Positive psychology, which Seligman claims has produced “a tectonic upheaval in psychology,” cannot see through illusions or penetrate defenses. In Flourish, for instance, he writes, “I now think that the topic of positive psychology is well-being, that the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” This emphasis on well-being is misguided. Americans had a sense of economic and social well-being in the years and decades leading up to the financial crash of 2008. Our well-being was an illusion. We were in denial as corruption, greed, and stupidity prevailed beneath the surface. A sense of well-being is an impression we can unwittingly produce to rationalize or justify our denial. In other words, our sense of well-being can be blissful ignorance, a kissing-cousin to denial of both inner conflict and social-economic-political dysfunction. Without insight, we can’t tell when our sense of well-being is being employed as a defense or whether it is legitimate in its own right. At the moment, we have a sense of well-being in terms of the earth as our sanctuary, even as we rush about creating environmental conditions that might soon wash or blow away that illusion.

The goal of psychology ought not to be well-being. The focus on well-being is too individualistic and egotistical. How can we reinforce our brain power with the vital intelligence that self-knowledge provides when we remain unconscious of inner dynamics that shape our desires, impulses, intentions, and motivations? Human development needs a more expansive sense of where our intelligence and consciousness can lead us. Better goals for psychology include the development of more self-trust, autonomy, and wisdom. We need to learn to let go of inner fear so that we can see reality more clearly, acquire the inner strength to accept reality, and the enhanced intelligence to deal effectively with it.

Seligman also writes, “We often choose what makes us feel good, but it is very important to realize that often our choices are not made for the sake of how we will feel. I chose to listen to my six-year-old’s excruciating piano recital last night, not because it made me feel good, but because it is my parental duty and part of what gives my life meaning.” Again, Seligman fails to see the bigger picture. We can’t separate good feelings from what gives our life meaning. Good feelings of the highest quality are produced when we are fulfilling our duty to others and finding meaning and purpose in life. His son’s “excruciating” playing ought not to preclude that deeper pleasure.

In an earlier book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman made a similar claim. He wrote that happiness has little to do with pleasure and much to do with developing personal strengths and character. However, his contention makes no sense because, again, the pursuit and acquisition of personal strengths and character are a vital source of pleasure. As well, happiness and pleasure cannot be separated. One might argue, in desperation, that a person could at any moment be enjoying the pleasure of sex, while not particularly happy about his life in general. But such a fine distinction would evade reality. The consistent pleasure of living one’s life at higher levels of inner peace, happiness, and purpose approaches the level of bliss. This higher pleasure transcends the passing pleasures of sensation and materialism.

Seligman says our level of happiness cannot be lastingly increased—and that we can only hope to live in the upper reaches of our natural range. How ironic that positive psychology makes such a nihilistic prognosis. Our happiness can be lastingly and dramatically increased. This is achieved through deeper insight and a willingness to acknowledge and to understand our psyche’s commanding presence in our daily life.

Seligman is right about one thing, though, that we need to take responsibility for our state of mind. We can start by understanding the limitations that our egocentric mentality imposes on our intelligence.