August 5, 2010

On positive psychology: my worries, views, suggestions and questions

The first purpose of my book review of The Spirit Level, of a few months ago, was, of course, to inform about Richard Wilkinson's and Kate Pickett's work on the importance of equality. Briefly, this research shows that people in more equal societies are better off in many ways. The second purpose of my article was to offer a commentary on positive psychology. Part of my commentary is in the review itself but, thanks to some comments and questions by readers, part of it is in the comment section. Occasionally, people ask me about my views on (the development of) positive psychology, so I thought it might be useful to summarize, in a separate post, what I said in the article.

In the article itself, I offer three worries:
  1. I think, independent variables in positive psychology are usually too narrowly chosen by over-emphasizing strengths and virtues as possible causal factors of flourishing and focusing too little on contextual, situational, or structural factors.
  2. Also, dependent variables are, in my view, often too narrowly chosen by focusing mostly on subjective well being and too a much lesser extent on flourishing in a broad sense. Flourishing goes beyond happiness or satisfaction with life by also focusing on the contribution and relatedness of individuals to the world around them. People who flourish are highly engaged with their families, work, and communities. They’re driven by a sense of purpose: they know why they get up in the morning.
  3. I imply that positive psychology focuses too much on the individual outcomes and too little on outcomes at a system level (organizations, societies). 
In the article, I conclude that for positive psychology to thrive, it needs to move beyond a somewhat narrow focus on happiness and strengths and take into account a broader perspective on thriving and its determinants.

In the comment section, I offer the following additional views, suggestions and questions:

Suggestions for broadening the focus of positive psychology:
  1. Focus on building knowledge about thriving (/flourishing) while acknowledging that thriving is more than subjective well-being 
  2. Expand the focus on thriving of groups/ organizations/ communities
  3. Put more focus on other determinants of thriving than strengths and happiness, in particular situational determinants
  4. Focus more on an idiosyncratic, 'try + learn' and doing-what-works approach (as opposed to a high standardization, 'plan + implement' and strengths focus (this point is explained here:
  5. More actively seek cross-links with psychological research done outside the PP community. 
Also, I ask readers to help me find specific empirical positive psychology studies that have been done in the last decade that:
  1. have focused on organizational (or community) thriving broadly defined (using dependent variables other than only measures such as subjective well-being, work satisfaction, etc) and
  2. have included independent variables other than individual measures (well-being, strengths, personality etc), particularly including situational factors (work design, organizational structure, pay distribution, etc)?


  1. Agree with what you are saying. Just wonder if it's worth the effort to get PP folks open up to alternative perspectives. They are very good at what they do but they are a bit like a guild - quality for the sake of quality. So, it's become a bit of a priesthood. User applications of PP seem to be of limited interest PP people - often designed as research, not for the user's outcomes.
    Still PP is importnat work and has a high profile in certain circles - a good thing if it builds awareness of the principals and the few apps that do exist among a broader, main-stream community.
    Interesting that CEO Tony Hsieh of and Delivering Happiness used PP to rationalize and build his case that staff and customer happiness was a commercially viable proposition.

  2. I like your analysis, Coert, some really thought provoking suggestions that I think would strengthen our understanding of human thriving. Some of that narrow focus I suppose is a result of the nature of the field, a reaction to so much psychology that ignores or downplays thriving as normative criterion. Perhaps it's time to consider bringing thriving back into the larger study of humanity.

  3. Hi Todd,Agree. In addition to that, Psychologists tend to look too much for things insade the person to explain actions and outcomes.

    I came across these passages in Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, which illustrate this point:

    "Psychologists focus on the internal, the psychological.[...] We emphasize things about the actor - characteristics, traits, and so on - that seem like plausible explanations for her behavior. And we deemphasize, as cause of her behavior, the things we can't see very well, namely, the circumstance to which she is adapting."

  4. If you focus exclusively on the individual's characteristics, you lose sight of the important influence of the situation. If you focus exclusively on the situation, individual differences get lost in the noise and you can only talk about the mythical "average person." It may well be too much to try to keep track of situation and individual differences at once.

    Mischel takes that "interactionist" approach and while it makes sense it isn't clear to me that it has wide practical application.

    I suspect that we have to settle for simplified models to get things done. Being aware of the simplifications we've made is a big positive step though.

  5. I agree that balance is important. The level of the individual is surely important. Also, I acknowledge that individual differences can and do play a role in behavior and outcomes.

    The thing is, I think there is not enough balance now. Claude Steele (a psychologist) speaks of the psychologist's bias and I (also a psychologist) agree.\

    It would be tempting to say: "let psychologists focus on internal, psychological factors and other social scientists on situational, structural factors".

    But I would argue that psychologist should focus on these factors outside the individual more than they do now because they influence our psychology so much.

  6. As a relative newcomer to the PP field, here's what occurs to me.

    1. Psychology has typically (as I understand it) been about the individual. Ergo, positive psychology is typically about the individual. Perhaps we need a positive social psychology stream? (And I would love to see positive organizational psychology myself).

    2. Psychology seems to pride itself on being empirically-tested and validated. We can't lose sight of that. However, what seems to work is a better partnership between practitioners and researchers. If a practitioner tries something and it works, it isn't currently classified as "positive psychology" until a researcher validates it in a lab setting. In Physics (and perhaps other fields as well), there are experimentalists and theorists. Theorists dream up great theories, but they need to be rigourously tested by experimentalists. Experimentalists may notice a certain effect in the lab, but it needs to be fit into the greater physical understanding of the world (universe, whatever). Perhaps an analogy for future PP working relationships?

    3. How are we defining "positive psychology" anyhow? I don't think there is one common understanding. It may have started as the search for happiness / well-being, but it has definitely already expanded. Positive health, positive education, positive organizations (though that isn't getting as much research attention as it deserves), positive leadership... So much more than individual happiness.

    I get very worried at Alan Kay's initial comment on this blog - why wouldn't it be "worth it" to get PP researchers to open up? I find that most of them are very open and interested. Perhaps it's just my selection sample, but any PP researchers I've talked with are keenly interested in the real-world applications of their work. It's just that the real world is messier and there are many more variables, so it doesn't translate well to a lab for scientific testing.

    My 2 cents!

  7. Hi Lisa, thank you for elaborate reply. Here are some thoughts on your reply.

    ad 1. Even while psychology is about the individual it could acknowledge more the importance of situational behavior determants. Also, it could look more broadly at flourishing as a criterion.

    ad2. I agree wholeheartedly. Science is first the context of discovery and then the context of justification. To feed the process of discovery, the input of practitioners is potentially very powerful.

    ad 3. you can always wonder who has the right to define an area such as PP. I am a fan of the definition provided by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi in 2000,: "“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.”

    I think PP folks are just the same as everybody else in many respects. There may be some conversative tendencies like in any other community (so I understand what Alan is saying) but this is normal, I guess. I think there is reason for optimism. If I would not be optimistic, I would not bother to raise the issue.
    Thanks again, Lisa!

  8. A good suggestion for an elaborate work on how to build thriving communities is the book Social Change 2.0 by David Gershon. This book might help understand what inteventions work when building these communities and how building thriving communities is the key to bringing positive change in society. It is a book on positive psychology at work at the personal, organizational en societal level. I thouroughly recommend it!

  9. Hi Geert Jan, thanks for the suggestion. Is Gershon a psychologist? Is his work research based?


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