Chapter 6 of Ehrenreich’s book covers the movement in academic and clinical psychology to incorporate ideas about positive thinking and happiness into research. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4, ch. 5.)
I’m torn about this chapter. It doesn’t really say anything I don’t know. And of what I do know, or thought I knew, about half of what it says, is said in a way that’s almost unpersuasive enough to actually persuade me of the opposite.
It’s really a perfectly fine chapter, for what it is. It has the feel of magazine journalism. It’s framed around Ehrenreich’s interviews with Martin Seligman (also the coiner of the term “learned helplessness”). Ehrenreich dramatizes her meetings with Seligman, his choosiness as to the location of their interview, his grumpiness, his difficulty explaining things so that a non-expert can understand, and so on. It’s hard to explain just why it’s disappointing.
Let’s start with the new information it will plausibly provide for a great many people: The positive thought movement has a counterpart in university psychology departments. Martin Seligman is one of its most important practitioners. As president of the APA, in 1997, he made it his mission to promote research on positive thinking and happiness. There had been no interest in positive thinking or well-being in psychology before that point (this ought to be qualified, I think), and like most other people, most psychologists thought of Norman Vincent Peale when they thought of that kind of thing—traditionally, psychologists had been interested in pathology and the negative aspects of human psychology. Seligman wrote several self-help books for a general audience, showing how to use his theory for self-improvement. In these books, he says that people who practice positive thinking—people who are cheerful and optimistic, and feel things are pretty much good the way they are—are healthier than those who are negative. Therefore, people should try to practice positive traits, and engage in activities like religion that encourage these positive traits. (Though, if you keep reading, you find he backs off, and praises character-building pleasures like tennis and reading novels; and even further on, he backs off again, and praises authenticity and the traditional virtues.) There are a number of studies that support his and his colleagues’ conclusions, but each of these is flawed (doesn’t tease out correlation from causation, for example, or doesn’t consider other possible factors), or was reported in the press as more conclusive than it really is. There are some studies that show the opposite result. Barbara Held disagrees with Seligman and his colleagues. Seligman doesn’t care about Ehrenreich’s arguments about the larger-picture dangers of too much optimism, or the dangers of having too much of some of the other traits he labels positive, such as spirituality or pride. Psychologists in the positive-psychology field write self-help books because managed care, combined with new kinds of pharmaceutical treatment, is crowding out psychotherapy. They hire themselves out as consultants and life coaches. Seligman does this too. Seligman has worked for the US Department of Defense (he gave a talk to a group that’s supposed to focus on teaching soldiers to resist torture, but has been involved in research on performing torture) and has taken money from the Templeton Foundation, which supports Republican political candidates and gave quite a lot of money in support of Proposition 8 in California a few years back. A lot of research in positive psychology has been funded by Templeton. There’s a lot of research trying to show whether a positive attitude can affect recovery from various diseases, and for some diseases, not including cancer, some tentatively positive results. Seligman and other researchers now think more work needs to be done on the meaning of the term “happiness,” and whether a different description of well-being would be better. A recent conference showed some difference of opinion between the academic researchers and the clinicians. Some researchers point out that practice has run ahead of science but think the practice is worthwhile. The clinicians weren’t too happy, Ehrenreich remarks, when Seligman announced he’s moving on to a broader scientific conception.
A lot of this, especially the account of the current state of psychology and the state of current research, will already be familiar to people who’ve read magazine and blog accounts of positive psychology and happiness research. Those readers probably won’t find a more in-depth critique, here, than they’ve already seen. (Since I’m “reading” the audiobook, if any of this was supported by footnotes, I don’t know. I didn’t make any note of them on my first reading.)
Now, let’s add Ehrenreich’s political argument: Seligman was bought by the military and by the right-wing, religion-promoting Templeton Foundation; also, he wants a piece of the lucrative corporate-consulting market that’s up until now been left to the charlatans. Positive thinking declares that mental health is a function of acceptance of the status quo, both the way things are generally and in one’s own life. It emphasizes individual attitude and deemphasizes the impact of circumstances, thus discouraging efforts to work for social change. Positive thinking is the kind of trend that allows clinicians and academics to make a little extra money. It exists because it promotes right-wing and religious values, not because it’s true (if it were true, Ehrenreich presumably couldn’t have poked holes in it so easily). All this, on top of the argument of the previous chapters, that positive thinking is a way employers can manipulate employees into bringing in more cash and being more productive.
Ehrenreich focuses entirely on Seligman and one corner of positive thinking and happiness research. Her book, especially this chapter, performs a valuable debunking function on a field that’s been flooded with cheap self-help books. But she implies, in some places fairly strongly, that the corner in question is isolated and unrepresentative—and that the researchers who support it are acting for ulterior motives (and thus against the public interest, in a way that could be fixed by simply changing their motivations). Moreover, she implies that it’s fairly easy to see that the basis of the field is untenable, and in fact that it’s a house of cards that soon will fall. She seizes on Seligman’s inability to see the philosophical issues from her point of view, and on researchers’ grappling with whether the word “happiness” has the connotations they want, as evidence that they’re obviously wrong and that reasonable people will inevitably, pretty conclusively, abandon them.
The message for readers? Get rid of all your positive-thinking self-help books, Ehrenreich says. They have a dubious history, and they’re not supported by science after all. If someone tries to tell you to be more positive, tell them all that has been debunked! It’s Republican science! I’m not persuaded that this is helpful, either to individuals or as political strategy.
Let’s change the way science is funded, is another possible takeaway. If the money weren’t so overwhelmingly on one side of the political spectrum, research would arguably be less partisan. But the results would only change if researchers do, in fact, have ulterior motives. If they basically agree with their results, presumably their results will be the same no matter who’s funding them. At least so far, Ehrenreich hasn’t considered any reasons why a person might rationally consider the ideas of positive psychology to be plausible.
Finally—a minor point, but annoying for me, as a reviewer—she’s nitpicky. I can be nitpicky, myself. But, first, Ehrenreich’s so nitpicky that she makes me feel bad about it. How plausible is it that scientists publishing peer-reviewed research in respectable journals didn’t even consider the problems of correlation and causation? And, second, I want to nitpick her writing, in turn. And I’m guessing that would not be so welcome.