On September 30 Wiley-Blackwell announced the winner of their inaugural Wiley Prize in Psychology — Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center. While his career contributions are certainly immense, other scholars and, most recently, popular authors, have turned a critical eye to positive psychology.
In an 2008, Dana Becker and Jeanne Marecek published an article questioning positive psychology, particularly its emphasis on individual success and development and what they perceive to be a disconnect with the realities of social institutions and sociocultural power. Popular author Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book coming out this month, “Bright-Sided”, in which she questions the entire “happiness” movement, including positive psychology and the way in which it has taken self-help into the academic realm.
While Becker and Marecek are not against the idea of “human flourishing,” they see it “not as a matter of private satisfaction, but as a matter of the collective welfare.” This idea is particularly relevant in the current global recession and the discourse of individualism is also prominent in U.S. debates on healthcare. In the U.S., where “boot-straps” philosophy reigns supreme, Becker and Marecek argue that the suggestion “that self-help excercises can suffice in the absence of social transformation is not only short signted but morally repugnant.”
Thus we, as humans living in our societies and bound by institutions, have to ask ourselves the extent to which personal happiness and a sense of fulfillment is tied to broader social influences. Can we “will” ourselves to be happy through the use of affirmations, or are we simply creating convenient illusions to persevere through difficult times?