Positive Psychology and Positive Thinking

In developing my exhibition, “Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors),” last spring, I studied positive psychology. During the closing dialogue, “As Is: Pop and Complicity” (read the transcript), I realized that the term positive psychology is easily confused with popular psychology—understandably, since the distinction is not entirely clear, when my readings of positive psychology take form in trade paperbacks—and positive thinking. Certainly, positive psychology is optimistic; through research-based cognitive behavior modification, it aims to increase happiness, and to engage in that kind of self-awareness and change is to embrace to possibility that one can positively change one’s attitudes. However, to mistake positive psychology for mere positive thinking is a mistake.

In “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” (New Yorker, September 13, 2010), Kelefa Sanneh reviews two recent books on positive thinking. He takes a critical look at Rhonda Byrne, the positive thinking guru and author of “The Secret” (2007) and “The Power” (2010), starting off with Byrne’s appearance on Oprah. Maybe I’m an elitist, sheltered in a ‘Bay Area Bubble’ unconcerned with such mass culture, but the phenomenon of “The Secret” remained a secret to me until now. Is this what people think I mean when I say positive psychology?

Sanneh contrasts Byrne’s quasi-but-un-religious, ultra-simplistic mysticism with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009; also released with the more specific, less ‘sticky’ subtitle, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America”). When the leftist activist fired this shot, it alarmed me, but as Sanneh points out,

For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose…. She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by ‘shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.’

This, of course, brings to mind the three components, according to Paul Martin, author of “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” (2008) of happiness: pleasure, the absence of displeasure, and satisfaction—becoming an agent, enacting one’s will in the world. Striving and accomplishing goals through acting in the world—not mere positive thinking—leads to deeper happiness? Yes, I’d agree with that. I am now more inclined to believe that Ehrenreich—whose undercover reports on working class struggle instantiated institutional privilege in America in “Nickel and Dimed” (2001) I enjoyed—is explicit in her aim at unthinking positive thinking, rather than all psychology concerned with happiness.

So while the terminology may overlap, along with the general optimistic outlook and “woo woo” self-improvement vibe, positive psychology and positive thinking are very different. For the latter, read Byrne and watch Oprah. For the former, read psychologists and researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi.


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