Happiness Myths: Positive Psychology (part 1)

The relatively new science of happiness field, a positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman, is a welcome addition to the happiness research community, and we're going to take a critical look and give it a few pokes. Martin Seligman While positive psychology has good points to offer such as the need for exercise, the 'flow' condition of loss of self consciousness and doing what you do well,(called Strengths and Virtues) there are other areas that don't hold up so well. Each specific category of interest offered by positive psychology will be addressed separately, and this website: Science of happiness will be used for reference if you wish to explore these categories in detail.

Relationships: "In one study people were asked on random occasions about their mood. They were found to be happiest with their friends.... and least happy if they were alone". A fundamental assumption here would be that one expends the effort to be with their friends because it is more enjoyable than being alone, so it would be expected that they would report a higher level of happiness when they are with friends. A similar situation would perhaps be a study comparing the subjective happiness level of those eating in restaurants compared to that of folks eating at home. Rather than concluding that restaurants cause authentic happiness, I would simply conclude that we are happy doing the things that make us happy.

That's not to say that meaningful relationships aren't important, as they address a universal need in all humans for companionship, but for that same reason, the results could have been predicted without doing a study.

In another study it was concluded that "the cooperativeness of an individual was a predictor of their happiness". Again, it seems intuitively obvious that an uncooperative person is not experiencing a high level of subjective happiness. It also says nothing about whether unhappiness leads to uncooperativeness or if uncooperativeness leads to unhappiness, though my vote would be for the former. To the credit of the author, this ambiguity is noted. However, it doesn't matter unless one can choose to be in a cooperative mood.

Both of these factors; the confusion of correlation with causation, and confusing methods for happiness with attributes of happiness, will appear often in our exploration of happiness myths in general as well as positive psychology specifically.

Caring: This addresses the time spent caring selflessly for others, in which there is an association between volunteering and psychological well being. It seems clear that we feel good about ourselves when we can help others. An interesting and pertinent result of the studies (Morrow) is that "Volunteers who were involved for approximately 100 hours a year (2-3 hours a week) were found to have the highest measures of well-being. Higher levels of involvement were not associated with increasing gains."

The reason this is significant is that it implies that the benefit is entirely the result of the fulfilling of a perceived 'void'. In other words, when one needs to act in a selfless way, then doing so fills that need, resulting in a higher level of subjective happiness, but once that need is filled, there is no longer a benefit. We could reprase this in politically incorrect terms and suggest that as long as one feels guilty, taking action to relieve that guilt is appropriate, which is really common sense.

happiness pills

This theme will also appear in virtually every other area of positive psychology as well. For example, it was determined that the quantity of relationships was not nearly as significant as the quality. In other words, the fulfillment of the need is what is significant and relationships are not to be viewed as 'happiness pills' in which more is better. Similarly, the experience of 'being in the flow' is useful on occasion, but beyond some point, it loses it's effect. The same is true of expressions of gratitude; more is not necessarilly better.

The areas of 'positive thinking' and 'gratitude' will be explored in part two.

Phil Beaumont

To Happiness Home
From Positive Psychology 2 to Happiness Myths

More Happiness Myths Articles:
Happiness Myths: Steps to Happiness?
Happiness Myths: Positive Psychology (part 2)
The Happiness Project Myth 2
The Myth of Positive Thinking

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