Thursday, 31 January 2008

Positive Psychology and Happiness

The New York Times reported yesterday that the most popular course at Harvard University is the “Positive Psychology” course taught by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. Since Dr. Ben-Shahar has published the book “Happier”, this course has come to be known as “the happiness course”. More than 800 students enrolled in it, and it will also be opened to the masses on-line (after paying a $700 fee) from February, through the Harvard Extension School. (More details of the course here).

As president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, Martin Seligman was the first advocate of Positive Psychology as a new branch of Psychology. He noted that Psychology was increasingly interested in individuals with psychological problems and in psychotherapy. He advocated that psychology should also be the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.

The likely reason why Seligman advocated that Positive Psychology was a new approach is that the majority of the members of the American Psychological Association are biased towards the study of abnormal individuals and psychotherapy.

However, the scientific study of strengths and virtues of individuals is not new. Indeed, the field known as Psychology of Expertise has been researching the nature and acquisition of high-level skills and knowledge for many years. One of the most important expertise studies was carried out by Adrian DeGroot in 1948. This field became more popular with Herbert Simon’s studies in 1973. After these seminal works many authors made contributions in this field: Ericsson, Charness, Saariluoma, Gobet, Sloboda and myself, among others. As a matter of fact, most of scientific psychologists investigate normal human beings, rather than abnormalities.

Taking this into account one wonders whether Positive Psychology is a new trend without substance or whether it is a new branch of psychology with sound scientific methods.

There are positive and negative aspects of Positive Psychology. The primary positive is that Positive Psychologists are doing research into a number of interesting subjects that only a handful of psychologists were interested before. For example, they carry out scientific studies of happiness and well-being. Eminent psychologists –such as Nobel Prize Lauraute, Daniel Kahneman- are developing measures of well-being in order to supply this field of sound scientific tools.

On the other hand, Barry Schwartz –the author of “The paradox of choice”– pointed out two negative aspects of Positive Psychology in his article”Pitfalls on the road to a positive psychology of hope”.

First, Positive Psychology is about being happy about oneself. There is much advice on how to improve our own well-being, how to achieve our goals or how to capitalise on our innate psychological tools. Contrarily, nothing is said about the side effects of our happiness. For example, people who are over-optimistic likely to be classified as happy. - Positive Psychologists seem to ignore the unwise or reckless decisions which one may make with their over-optimism.

The second aspect pointed out by Schwartz is that Positive Psychology focuses too much on the individual. Positive Psychology does not pay attention to the balance of one’s happiness with one’s obligations within the society. No doubt, many times we have to make decisions in which we have to weigh up our rights against obligations as citizens.

Schwartz, rightly points out, that the role of psychology is not only to help individuals in achieving their goals. Psychologists should also warn their patients if what they want to do goes against the normal functioning of society.

In 2006, I wrote a book in Spanish titled “Organised Thinking: A psychological technology to be happy, more efficient and to collaborate with intelligence”. In this book I explain the three pillars of my philosophy: happiness, efficiency and intelligent collaboration with society.

My conception of psychology is that it has an important role in the development of individuals and societies. In order to achieve the goals of individuals and those of the societies’, psychology has to discriminate good individual goals from bad individual goals. Here “good” and “bad” means good or bad for society.

An individual should have the freedom to choose his/ her goals. However, psychologists have the responsibility to advice to their patients that some goals are not permissible. In the case of happiness, it means that one should not choose a path to happiness beyond the boundaries of our legal framework or without regards to other people’s safety.

The second pillar –efficiency– takes elements from the first and the third pillar. Let me explain the third pillar before the second. The third pillar is intelligent collaboration with society. By stating that one of the goals of “Organised Thinking” is the intelligent collaboration with society, I am implying that psychology is not only about the individual. Individuals form societies; without our contribution, societies disappear. Since we all benefit from the existence of society in many ways, we also have to contribute to it. Consequently, psychologists help their patients directly by helping them as individuals; they also help their patients indirectly by building a critical mass in awareness of the concept of intelligent collaboration with society. Thus, everyone, including the patients will help build and live in a better society.

Our collaboration should be intelligent in two ways. First, we should contribute to society without harming ourselves. There are people that give a lot to others; they help others in ways which they do not pay attention to their own needs. This is not intelligent from my perspective. We are part of society. If we are harming ourselves, we are harming a member of society; hence, we are not collaborating with society.

Second, we do not have to engage in complex acts to collaborate with society. The most important thing (but not the only one) we can do is to perform our responsibilities the best way we can. If someone is a teacher, the most intelligent way to collaborate with society is to prepare and deliver classes of excellent quality. If a teacher gives money to charity but gives mediocre classes, he/she is not collaborating to society with intelligence.

Now, we can go back to the second pillar – efficiency. It is an important link between happiness and collaboration. Efficiency applies both to individuals’ goals and to the goals of society. The more efficiently we achieve our individual goals, the more time we have to help society and viceversa. Efficiency means individuals should focus on relevant issues or activities and to avoid those which are irrelevant.

For example, if I spend money on a superfluous item in order to satisfice a desire (e.g., to buy a cellular phone with camera when I already have a camera and a cellular phone), then I have less money for more important things (e.g., to pay the fee of my son’s school). This is not only about personal finance, it is also about how we allocate our time and attention (see my previous post). If I pay attention to irrelevant issues then I have less time to the relevant ones.

I am in favour of a Positive Psychology that aims at investigating how individuals and societies thrive. On the other hand, like Schwartz, I am concerned with the excessive emphasis on the individual and on happiness. If the members of a dumbed-down society are happy, is this a good thing?

Happiness is one of the pillars of my philosophy; but happiness without efficiency, collaboration and intelligence is of little value in itself.

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