Originally an academic project to study the science of happiness, positive psychology has spawned a hippy fringe of life coaching and self-help. In a thoughtful review of the field, The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the state of the elation after its first decade in existence.
Positive psychology maintains a core of rigorous empirical science but it is clear from the article that there is considerable tension between those who simply want to investigate the building blocks of the good living and those who want to extend (and sometimes over-extend) the work into life guidance.
Although it has gained considerable respectability, the field is still treated with suspicion in some corners of mainstream psychology, not least because of the tendency for academia to privilege austere seriousness and to treat anything with mass appeal with elitist disdain.
But still there is a slightly evangelical feel to positive psychology which make some people uncomfortable.
Two of the field’s founders and most enthusiastic proponents became famous for some of the darkest and bleakest studies in psychology: Martin Seligman’s work on depression and learned helplessness was based on how some dogs give up trying to escape when repeatedly tortured with inescapable electric shocks and Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment showed that respectable people can be turned into brutal abusers when the context encourages it.
Whether Seligman and Zimbardo feel they’re repenting for their dark past or not, many who associate with the field have the zeal of those reborn from a science previously obsessed with human misery.
The Chronicle article is a insightful look into both the science and culture of positive psychology, taking a particularly close look at the tensions which are shaping how we understand human growth and potential.