Positive Psychology Exposed

I’m thankful for so many things including my family’s health, my health, this weather front from Hawaii, my work, my Church Council colleagues, clean flannel sheets, and Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious.

Read the whole book, but Chapter 8, a critical history of the Positive Psychology movement, is especially insightful. Positive psychology, or happiness studies, is only twenty years old. After studying the financial backers that gave rise to it, and the founding academics’ research, here’s Whippman’s critique:

“Clearly anyone in the happiness trade has a strong financial incentive to at the very least play up the amount of agency we have over our own well-being and to play down the elements that we are unable to change. And, like the self-help industry, positive psychology almost defiantly downplays the role of our life circumstances in our happiness. In contrast, it emphasizes to the max the ability of the individual to radically alter his or her own levels of contentment by sheer effort and force of will.”

Whippman later turns up the heat:

“With its almost belligerent denial that structural obstacles to happiness exist, it seems to promote a dangerous level of social and political disengagement about tackling the injustices of the wider world. On a more personal level, I find it unforgiving and dismissive of others’ often very real problems and all too liable to veer into victim blaming. Most important, it seems to undermine the very idea of a supportive community in which we all take responsibility for one another’s welfare, something that is at the very foundation of happiness.”

Whippman convincingly argues that the scientific basis of the movement is mostly smoke and mirrors. She exposes famous academics’ research as seriously flawed. I want to see how they respond. They have gotten very rich inaccurately marketing happiness studies as scientific.

Whippman’s review of relevant research coupled with personal forays applying happiness strategies, leads to provocative insights. Among the most important:

• To be more happy, stop thinking so much about how to be more happy.

• Instead, be more social. Spend more time with people, than alone.

• Also, stop trying to avoid sadness and related negative emotions. Embrace them as inevitable parts of life.

That last point is especially important for parents of children who increasingly experience anxiety. Whippman argues the rise in anxiety among children and adolescents is largely a result of helicopter parents attempting to shield their children from challenging life experiences and the negative emotions that often accompany them.

The Torah says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” Meaning I read this book as an endurance athlete. Athletes improve their fitness by running or swimming or cycling or lifting weights to the point that their muscles breakdown. Then, as a result of sleep and scheduled rest, the muscles rebound past the original point, meaning the athlete is stronger and more fit. They key is repeated exposure to resistance followed by rest.

To truly flourish in life, all of us, but young people in particular, need more resistance, or in modern parlance, we need to “lean in” more to life’s difficulties. Then, overtime, through the help of supportive friends, parents and/or public institutions, we will bounce back more resilient and happier than before. Two steps forward, one back. Or more accurately, two steps backward, one forward.

Too many parents want to protect their children from any steps backwards, but when it comes to their mental health, that backfires. Once, when the Eldest was 12 or 13 years-old, her soccer team turned more competitive. As a result, she rode the bench for most of a soccer doubleheader one cold, wet weekend on a muddy field in Shelton, WA. The GalPal and I were both bent as a result of this unexpected turn of events. On the drive home, the Good Wife informed me she was, “Going to talk to the coach!” To which I responded, “No you’re not.” Her instinct was understandable, but it’s exactly what Whippman says parents should guard against.

As it turned out, Eld was well-liked by her teammates and they rallied around her. She moved on from the demotion way more quickly and skillfully than her parents. I’m not sure how I succeeded in talking the GalPal down from the “talking to the coach” ledge; but as a result, Eld is a little more resilient, and according to Whippman, probably a little more happy.

When dealt a setback in life, don’t side step the inevitable negative emotions, instead, get more comfortable being uncomfortable. And unless it’s physical or emotional abuse, teach your children to do the same. They’ll thank you as adults with improved mental health.




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