Positive Psychology Is Garbage

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Positive Psychology Is Garbage

Only a true marketing wizard could transform his image from that of a guy best known for torturing dogs into the world’s foremost apostle of happiness. And that’s exactly what the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor of Psychology Martin Seligman pulled off.

Seligman launched his career in experimental psychology by administering painful electric shocks to man’s best friend to show what causes mammals to succumb to despair. It was on the basis of this work that he coined the term learned helplessness, wrote a book about it, and became a bellwether for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.

In fact, the professor became so notorious that he was able to get himself elected as president of the American Psychological Association.

The World Book of Happiness is shown in Brussels on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. When times are bad, count on European Union President Herman Van Rompuy to spread a little happiness. For New Year, the politician given to soothing Haiku poetry in his off time, is sending ”The World Book of Happiness” to world leaders and calling on them ”to make people’s happiness and well-being our political priority for 2012.” The book is a compilation of 100 short essays of scientists and experts in positive psychology brought together last year by Belgian writer and editor Leo Bormans. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

To his credit, Martin Seligman took the opportunity to pivot. A few months into his tenure as head of the APA, he announced to his colleagues that psychology had for far too long focused on trying to fix the negative side of the human experience. For now on, he would be shifting his attention to a new “positive psychology” that would be all about making healthy people happier.

Since making his announcement, the professor’s work has exploded in popularity and visibility. He regularly receives invitations to give keynote addresses at some of the world’s largest corporations, has had personal audiences with the prime minister of Great Britain, and has provided coaching to hundreds of people at a time on a conference call that costs $2,000.

While Seligman’s ideas have been generally well received, a few brave souls have stepped forward to challenge him. In particular, the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, dug into some of positive psychology’s most deeply held tenets and emerged with a picture of an emperor badly in need of new underwear.

– Michael Schein

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