Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Society, recently informed Radio National listeners that his research has proven how adept US military drill sergeants are at inculcating new recruits into the constructive mindset that is positive psychology. If these junior soldiers internalise the correct system of thinking, he assured Breakfast’s Fran Kelly, the risk of soldiers returning home to the United States traumatised from placements in Iraq and Afghanistan is minimised. Further, if recruits master the right regime of thought, it follows that some of these young fighters will even thrive: they will actually benefit from the difficult experiences they encounter in these dangerously challenging places.
Initially listeners might have found themselves sceptical on several counts. Firstly, however well supported they might be by consulting psychologists, how could hard-as-nails career soldiers whose reputation if not role is to ruthlessly discipline recruits be an ideal vehicle for delivering positive thought reform? How could such toughened veterans teach the young and the poorly educated to live and fight to the tenets of positive psychology? Listen up, Seligman seemed to be saying, I will lead you to a pragmatic truth.
Seligman delivered a measured performance—a lesson designed to assure his audience that senior army trainers could be a decisive resource for the task at hand. And what was this task? If one puts preconceptions and mystification to one side, he plausibly contended, the task is no more difficult than any other practical job. In the context of war, the goal is to fix the disposition of young soldiers appropriately. More behaviourally, the training amounts to a precise program of vocational instruction delivered by competent authorities to psychologically up-skill a designated workforce. The methods used are as well proven as they are practical.
Thickly communicating his rank and credentials, here was a spokesperson who had real data that was distilled and scientifically warranted. More, it was implied, it was his duty to pass on this incoming information. Like those with the burden with the duty to dispense noblesse oblige, he communicated between the lines that he had been called upon to realise the task of patiently informing those who were less advantaged. Only weeks before he had been invited to share a stage with the Dalai Lama and, clearly, one couldn’t be granted better recognition than that.
With this weight, it was no surprise the briefing he presented was authoritative. A busy president of a high-status guild, Seligman’s claim to prominence was two-fold. On the one hand, he is a secular heavy weight, the most senior office bearer for a high-powered professional-commercial interest group, a company that has both pro-social affectations and the profile of a big corporation. On the other, far from being a merely instrumental success, Seligman’s history is that of a lead figure, even for many the father figure, of the new god-head that is positive psychology.
Positive psychology is an increasingly prestigious school of thought, even movement, in (and around) psychology, which focuses on the skills, strengths and resilience rather than the deficits, problems and inadequacy that for so long have been the basis of the discipline’s calculus. Competing with the other brands—mindful psychology is a discontinuous and incoherent pseudo-discipline where, for example, behavioural, neuro-biological, psychoanalytic, humanistic, critical and cognitive schemas remain conceptually incompatible—positive psychology has moved from the fringe to contend for prominence, if not absolute hegemony. Far less normative than its major competitors, it has an interesting valence for its followers as a right-line, even green approach. But this ideological attractiveness has a cost: positive psychology is fungible to the point of amorality as it can be applied to and has utility for a spectrum of purely self-profiting operations.
In this trajectory, Seligman has made a sustained contribution with his well- publicised work on learned helplessness, learned optimism and beyond. With this background, he is held to be a progressive and a pioneer, but this should not be allowed to disguise his worldliness and political savvy. Deep of register, with an elder’s weight, this spokesperson is a fine example of Richard Sennett’s idea that ‘it is precisely because the strong believe in themselves and in what they do that they become credible in the eyes of others’.
Surprisingly, a little more than a month later two different media items appeared which decentered, if not ruptured, the certainties Seligman had deposited with Radio National’s listeners. Firstly, the Murdoch press published two feature articles in the same edition of The Australian making fundamental criticisms of positive psychology, particularly as it has been applied to those trying to live with cancer. Although presumably coincidental in their timing, in the narrow sense these items challenged the psychology president’s argument—that there is a program of technical support that is readily available which can be used to maintain ‘our’ involvement in these difficult circumstances.
The second media item was possibly, but not necessarily, cued by the first and involved an extended feature on positive psychology in the Life Matters program on ABC radio. The first part of this was an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America; the second an interview with two psychologists, one whose specialty was sports psychology and another in a senior academic position whose research concerned those living with cancer. Each of these latter speakers agreed, to some extent perhaps unconvincingly, with the critique Ehrenreich had presented: if people believe the treacherous assumption they only have themselves to blame if they haven’t got all they want, if they feel sick, discouraged or defeated, and this is done under the flag of positive psychology, this is a terrible indictment. Such an indictment is not of the consumers of positive psychology, however they may have been recruited, but of the approach’s capacity for misuse. Ehrenreich argued that a rampant self help industry, amoral marketers and the prevailing individualistic ideology of ‘it’s about me’ were jointly implicated with positive psychology.
Standing back to observe, it seems there is an unstable relationship between the advantages and disadvantages of positive thinking. Vietnamese Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan made a strong case when he noted that ‘pessimists are right, but optimists get more done’. Yet, if we become harnessed to the mindset that ‘it is only what you make of it’, ‘you have to move on’ and so forth, we are oxen who have been crudely shackled to till a narrow furrow.
Thinking outside this blinkered idiom, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be viewed as an ethically charged and philosophically significant phenomena rather than simply a private dysfunction. For example, the narrative therapist Michael White suggested PTSD was an expression of ‘violated compassion’. Seligman, on the other side, offers a technical, scientific anodyne. It is possible, he contends, to take the practical step of inoculating our troops against the toxins generated by their involvement in troubling environments. Positive psychology in general, and Seligman in particular, may not have a public position on the deployment of troops but, whew, to the public and the policy makers it is certainly reassuring to know that an expert is telling us we can wrap up those men and women who are our soldier-delegates in a ball of good science that will roll them back to us in one emotional piece.
More broadly, in effect what Seligman is offering conservative thinkers is a grand rationale, a thesis which de-contextualises person and environment and fillets the consideration of consequence from the realm of ethics. Coming from such a reputedly scientific and apparently authoritative source, in some quarters such a line of argument is manna from heaven, supporting as it does the perceived legitimacy of the neo-liberal principle that there are only personal solutions to what might appear to be complex problems. Loved by the ideologues of market thinking, those who get a guernsey to authenticate this welcome message publicly tend to be richly rewarded. Heralding the efficiency of technical, individualistic responses to problems like PTSD, or to the ‘challenge’ of living with cancer or poverty, homelessness or injustice, gives a certain prestige to those who can walk this talk.
But however siren-like, this talk should never be allowed to elide an awareness of context and ethics. Herbert Marcuse noted many years ago that:
Freud’s fundamental insight [was] that the patient’s trouble is rooted in a general sickness which cannot be cured by analytic therapy. Or, in a sense, according to Freud, the patient’s disease is a protest reaction against the sick world in which he lives. But the physician must disregard the “moral” problem. He has to restore the patient’s health, to make him capable of functioning normally in his world.
Frantz Fanon, for a time also a psychoanalytic therapist, offered a brief but dramatic case vignette that engaged with the question of the relationship between professional ethics and the context of professional practice. Working in Algeria in the 1950s during the ghastly war of independence between Algerians and French colonialists, Fanon became frustrated when one of his patients, a man who initially presented with nightmares, did not improve, despite being the subject of a properly rigorous psycho-analytic technique over a considerable period. The persistence of the symptoms was a mystery: the patient was healthy and well presented the therapeutic technique sound and well conducted, so what could be going wrong? Direct enquiries could not be countenanced as, amongst a broader set of disciplines, the therapeutic protocol insisted the analyst should be practically, if never emotionally, aloof. Finally, deciding he had no choice but to transgress the custom of avoiding intrusiveness, Fanon asked the man directly what he did for a living. One suspects with a mixture of relief and shame, the patient replied ‘I work as a torturer’.
Together with its high-toned cousin positive psychology, positive thinking has for some time been top of the pops in the hit parade that makes up our collective common sense. Given this status it is especially sensible to interrogate the habits of mind that this pairing offers, patterns of thought that are apparently both constructive and progressive. Ehrenreich has very recently presented a public cue (as did Marcuse many years ago in his writings on ‘the triumph of positive thinking’). Yet, still susceptible to Seligman’s argument—that a technical fix can trump a contextually generated pathology—presents us with a salutary reminder that there remains another loop in the slip-knot of uncritical thought: we continue to share an abiding, probably accelerating, tendency to pine for individual solutions to problems which seem complex, even intractable. Here, Fanon’s vignette might be remembered as a hint to remain curious about the context of every problem which is assumed to be personal in its construction.
Mark Furlong is an independent scholar with many years experience in social work education.