Tag Archives: Positive Psychology

Can we be too happy?

Happiness is the ultimate goal of life for many people. Just take a look at the hundreds of self-help books, motivational speakers, and life coaches whose primary goal is to improve subjective well-being and happiness. Even people who are already satisfied with their lives aspire to be happier. Early psychological research on happiness focused on identifying the factors that would allow people to achieve high subjective well-being. More recently, psychologists have begun to acknowledge that happiness is not just an end state that results when things go well. Instead, happiness may also be functional. For example, researchers have found that happy people did better on average than did unhappy people in the domains of work, love and health.

In light of these attempts to boost happiness, it is interesting to question whether being happier is always better. Oishi, Diener and Lucas’s (2007) study investigated the differences between moderately happy and very happy people to address questions about the optimal level of happiness. Their findings showed that people who experience the highest levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of close relationships and volunteer work, but that those who experience slightly lower levels of happiness are the most successful in terms of income, education, and political participation. They interpreted that the optimal level of happiness is likely to vary across individuals, depending on their value priorities. For those whose primary values center on achievement, moderately high levels of happiness may be optimal; for those individuals whose values give priority to close relationships and volunteer work, it is the highest level of happiness that appears to be optimal. In sum, their findings suggested that extremely high levels of happiness might not be a desirable goal. However, the critical question to answer is, “How much happiness is enough?”

Shigehiro Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R.E. (2007). The Optimum Level of Well-Being: Can People Be Too Happy?  Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346 – 360.

Are You Happy?

Don’t worry, Be happy?

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?

square-eye Becker and Marecek. (2008). Dreaming the American Dream: Individualism and Positive Psychology.

square-eye Wiley Prize in Psychology Announcement

Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

smileIt has long been assumed that positive affirmations are the key to happiness. In fact, there are countless books, websites, and resources dedicated to encouraging people to engage in positive thinking by repeating favorable statements about the self. Oprah Winfrey, one of the most iconic social figures in the United States, often encourages her viewers to engage in self-affirmation. However, recent work has found that these practices may actually undermine self-esteem for certain people.

Joanne Wood and colleagues found that when compared to high self-esteem individuals, people with low self-esteem who repeated positive affirmations (e.g., “I am a lovable person”) actually experienced a worse mood and expressed feeling less lovable. Moreover, when low self-esteem individuals were asked to focus on the ways in which positive affirmations were true of them (positive focus), they actually experienced worse mood, lower state self-esteem, and lower happiness than individuals who were instructed to think about how the affirmation may or may not be true of them (neutral focus).

These findings indicate that while positive thinking may be somewhat effective for people high in self-esteem, it is likely to be detrimental for low self-esteem individuals, the group these affirmations are supposed to help. One can hope that with further research, the next wave of self-help products will be beneficial for the ones who need it most.

square-eye The Oprah Winfrey Show: The Secret and Positive Affirmation

square-eye Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others.