The Myth of Positive Psychology – What The Guru’s Don’t Want You To Know

Tony Robins, Deepak Chopra, Oprah…I dare say there isn’t a soul alive in western culture who hasn’t heard these names.  And all who hear them associate them with good tidings, self-help, charity and the new American Dream.

These people and the many who stand beside them have more than one thing in common; they expound on the virtues of self-actualisation, visualisation, positive thinking and the idea that happiness is a place to be, a destination hard won after a tortuous journey of self-reflection and (in some cases) penance.  They have one other thing in common too…

Each and every one of them is filthy rich.

I love that term, “filthy rich”; it engenders the perfect notion of opulence, tempered with the ruthlessness that is necessary to reach such status.

Any way you slice it, self-help guru’s are at the pinnacle of an industry; a business sector that is poised to take the money of those who need it most, by offering instruction in methods of self-delusion and wish-thinking.  Though, they aren’t so much taking people’s money, as simply opening up their coffers and asking for a donation (with certain pointed exceptions).  But it is not their financially philandering ways I wish to speak about today, no it’s actually the fantasies they sell that I’m interested in.

Positive Psychology – as if the humanities ever needed to be supported by an unfounded value judgement.  The term itself is shrouded in relative mystery, proffering many vague and (apparently) deliberately ambiguous definitions, depending on who in particular is offering the explanation.

“We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.”[1]

It has been described as an endeavour: “to find and nurture genius and talent” and “to make normal life more fulfilling”[2].

As may not be apparent though, this wolf in sheep’s clothing is cunning.  But before I get to the myths let’s explore some of the truths.

Positive Psychology is, or rather was, the domain of the self-help guru – the mysterious and quirky eastern purveyor of introspective knowledge and personal wealth (al la The Love Guru?), but has recently become a widely studied domain of both the scientific establishment of psychology, and also that of TV talk show hosts.

The movement owes its existence to one Martin Seligman – an American psychologist and author (and quintessential self-help guru), who is now the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania[3].  Though don’t let the idea that the mainstream establishment of psychology has accepted this questionable idea as a sign for its righteous inclusion as a valuable scientific pursuit.  Seligman wasn’t the first “Positive Psychologist” though, as the overall idea was the brainchild of Abraham Maslow[4] (Yes, the same Maslow responsible for the oft cited Hierarchy of Needs[5]).  Seligman however, is credited (by me) with the perversion of the original science – a model that has quite successfully been used over the years to describe and explain many instances of abnormal behaviour – into a money making machine, selling the wares of fantasy and wish-thinking to those who can afford it.

In layman’s terms Positive Psychology is the study of and eventual curricular pursuit of defining exactly what it is that makes one person successful (read: happy) and the next not-so-much.  It involves, or rather, has involved the much more laudable pursuit of wellbeing over health, emphasising the notion that modern medical science has typically been concerned with symptoms and illnesses as opposed to the overall welfare of the patient.  Some have incorrectly credited the positive psychology movement with the recent popularity of whole-body medical treatment in western culture; though in reality those recent trends are the result of a mixing of the philosophies of both western and eastern medicine as immigrants from eastern lands seek formal education in western medicine.

This, much as with many of my philosophical arguments, is highly semantic, all when there is a real world idea to identify and to vilify here.  Perhaps I fail to give credit where it is due; Seligman is a serious scientist, in pursuit of serious science…for the most part.  Where he and his science end, the grandiose charlatanism of the true self-help guru begins; there have been many willing to step into that role and to exploit any poor sap who happens to be looking for an answer.

A term I’ve used above, as well as in many other pieces, encompasses the true villainy at work here.  Regular readers won’t be surprised at my opposition to this particular idea, but either way, the idea bears explanation…though that will take some work.

Embedded deep within the subtle nuances of the Positive Psychology movement is a fundamental idea, on which the rest of the establishment rests as a foundation.  Namely, that everyone is capable of sustained happiness – and more to the point, that happiness is anything more than a physiological response to subjectively positive stimuli.  On top of this basic idea has been laid the notion that given certain assumptions – that sustained happiness is both achievable and desirable – one who is happy should be viewed as more successful than their competitors.  This position opens the door for exploitation on a grand scale, by allowing the purveyors of this “science” to package the tools needed to achieve such “happiness” and to market the erroneous idea that success or failure (supremely subjective and ambiguous terms) are contingent on this product.

Essentially, the packaging of happiness into sound bites and talking points, and in most cases, to volumes upon volumes of authority based books, preys on those who are already in a position of profound insecurity.  For why would they be seeking advice on ‘how to be happy’ if they had achieved that state on their own.  I call this predatory for a very specific reason: the “science” doesn’t work.

It has always struck me that the self-help (Positive Psychology) movement is unmistakably similar to the dogmatic product of mass organised religion.  In my view, as with many of my atheistic colleagues, blind faith leads only to wish-thinking.  This term (as alluded to above) is at the heart of this issue, it embodies the very nature of an intelligent, sentient being who strives to know more than what is currently knowable.  We as a species are driven it seems, to define our role in the greater scheme of the universe.  We have been obsessed with the idea for millennia; who are we, why are we here and what, ultimately, is our purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe these are (and will remain) the ultimate questions for humanity to answer.  They are worthy of pursuit more than any other question we can conceive, however, since the nature of these questions is inherently spiritual (not to be read as religious), and the religious / scientific infrastructure in place for our time is incapable of addressing such spiritual notions, the inevitable outcome is a wish-thinking ideology.

The term describes precisely what it seems; a tendency to place responsibility for the outcome of life events in the proverbial hands of an outside influence.  Though in the context of the current discussion, it may seem somewhat counterintuitive, and to demonstrate, please indulge me in some literary pantomime.

If one is unhappy, as defined by the cultural meme of success, one needn’t take responsibility for their circumstance personally.  They may simply surrender to the idea that they haven’t been given the tools to be successful (read: happy) by their life teachers thus far.

Enter the self-help guru.

For the low price of whatever book, video or seminar is being sold at the time; this unsuccessful schlep can buy the instruction necessary to gain this success by practice, and in turn apparently takes responsibility for his or her own happiness.

This is false, and I’ll illustrate why.

Once indoctrinated with the vernacular and expectations of the Positive Psychology Establishment, the student (if you will), relinquished their entire faculty of logic and reason, and hands over their free will (in relation to their happiness).  This acquiescence to the tutelage of the “guru” puts all responsibility for the success of the teachings back in the hands of the instructor, even in spite of the usual fact that the specific instructions typically require the student to undertake the lifestyle changes, visualisations and reinforcements of the program themselves.  Ultimately, should the process fail, which it invariably does (and I’ll discuss this a little later), the blame for the failure rests not on the student, but on the instructor.  This fact is contrasted by the alternative; success in these teachings, however fleeting, is credited to the student and not to the teacher (though the money still flows to the teacher).

This is actually a feature of the ideology of the movement, in that the guru’s claim that everyone is capable of achieving “success”, but that those who don’t simply haven’t found the path.  It would be counter-productive for the process to lay blame for incremental failures on the student and so all failure is inherently absorbed into the process: ‘you can be happy, you just need to better understand the lesson’, as opposed to: ‘you can’t be happy, because, considering your life circumstances, you are currently incapable of happiness’.  All of this serves to displace responsibility for ones life circumstance from within their control, to entities, people and processes outside of their control, thereby avoiding any real culpability for the outcome.

One might suggest that this is only a problem in the cases where the student fails to achieve happiness, and to that I have a profound rebuttal.

As stated earlier; happiness is a physiological response to subjectively positive stimuli.  It is not a destination, nor should it be considered a perpetual state-of-mind.  To view it as otherwise is a potentially dangerous fallacy.  Hypothetically speaking, a person who is perpetually happy will fail to recognise and appropriately respond to stimuli that are subjectively negative.  Many may already be preparing to further rebut that we’re not talking about happiness, we’re talking about contentedness, and I wouldn’t disagree, but for the nature of reality.

No man is an island, entire of itself…” – John Donne[6]

No human lives in a vacuum; we are all affected, influenced and perturbed by the world around us.  We are the collective product of our past experiences, and as such, where those experiences are subjectively positive or negative, a particular state of mind results.  Note that there is no such thing as universal value-polarity.  The value of an event or circumstance can only be judged by the experiencer.

Photo illustration by Mindy Ricketts

The process, via Positive Psychology, of instructing students that happiness is a state of mind, to be controlled and generated in spite of life’s circumstances, is a potentially scarring fallacy indeed.  What is to happen to the devout student of a self-help guru when life invariably exerts itself on the student?  Humanity is endowed with a full compliment of emotional states, an array of feelings, intuitions and responses, all of which are necessarily present for reasons found in evolutionary development.  To deny the full potential of ones emotional self, is to set ones self up for emotional failure…and this is precisely what Positive Psychology portends.

The resulting dichotomy predictably presents us with an array of so-called abnormal emotional states and corresponding behaviours – depression, anxiety and stress for example.  While all of these things are present in the psyche of humanity to begin with, they are invariably exacerbated by the constant expectations presented by the incessant monologues of Positive Psychology proponents.  They cite success stories and herald them as examples of correct behaviour, as though unhappiness is something to be eliminated along with the common cold, all the while expanding the reach of their podium and, more importantly, increasing their bank accounts.

All this without even a cursory look at some of the unavoidable restrictions that go along with the self-actualisation ideas being offered in the same vein.  If anyone can become whatever they desire (including movie stars and sports legends), as long as they follow the visualisation techniques offered by the guru, then we, as a species, have a potential problem on our hands.  We already have enough celebrities and sportsmen, and notwithstanding the sobering fact that not all are capable of the job at hand, there simply isn’t room in Hollywood for 6.8 billion people.

I’m concerned though that this will all be taken in the wrong context.  Happiness is achievable, as long as we agree on a few important caveats.  Happiness should be cherished for what it is…a reward for making good choices.  It cannot be and should not be considered sustainable, and for Pete’s sake (whoever Pete is), when someone gets to be as rich as Oprah and all on the “happiness” of her fans, those fans should become suspicious of their real motives.


[1] Seligman, Martin E.P.; Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2000). “Positive Psychology: An Introduction”. American Psychologist 55 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5.PMID11392865

[2] Compton, William C, (2005). “1″. An Introduction to Positive PsychologyWadsworth Publishing. pp. 1–22. ISBN 0-534-64453-8.

[3] Positive Psychology CenterUniversity of Pennsylvania

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Maslow

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs

[6] The opening line(s) of the most famous poem written by English Poet John Donne (21 January 1572 – 31 March 1631): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Donne

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