30 Sept 07 – issue of *Psychiatric Times* (vol. 24, #10) includes an
article: “Positive Psychology: A More Direct Route to Happiness?” by
Here’s the article:
Like medicine in general, psychiatry and psychotherapy have long focused
on relieving illness and pain. Traditional psychotherapeutic approaches
have often emphasized examination and understanding of painful
experiences as a route toward obtaining relief from suffering.
However, does an approach that focuses instead on teaching patients how
to be happy offer an alternative and more direct route to happiness?
Certainly this approach has a strong appeal, as demonstrated by the
popularity of a course by Tal D. Ben-Shahar, a lecturer in psychology at
Harvard, whose Positive Psychology course, according to an article last
year in the Boston Globe, enrolled over 800 students–more than any other
course on campus.1
Is positive psychology an innovative way to find happiness faster? Or
with its claims, does it do a disservice to people with serious mental
According to one of its most prominent proponents, positive psychology
works. “I’m an evidence-based researcher,” said Martin E. P. Seligman,
PhD, in a phone interview. “In randomized controlled trials, we’ve seen
good evidence that the interventions utilized in positive psychology
alleviate suffering and increase happiness.”
Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, helped develop positive psychology. He is
the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of
Pennsylvania and a former president of the American Psychological Association.
He defines positive psychology, or positive psychotherapy, as an
approach that focuses on 3 areas: a pleasant life, an engaging life, and
a meaningful life. “Positive psychology is the study of what causes
these to occur and how to build them,” he said.
In an article in American Psychologist,2 he and coauthors wrote that
this approach as a treatment of depression “contrasts with standard
interventions for depression by increasing positive emotion, engagement,
and meaning rather than directly targeting depressive symptoms.”
In a preliminary study, they reported, positive psychotherapy delivered
to groups of patients significantly decreased mild to moderate
depression over a 1-year period; positive results were also obtained in
therapy with individual outpatients who suffered from major depressive
disorder. In informal settings, they added, participants “not uncommonly
reported [positive psychotherapy] to be ‘life-changing.'”
Beyond damage and disability
Seligman differentiates positive psychology from other therapeutic
approaches by its focus on how to build these 3 components, in contrast
to the focus on “damage and disability” that he says has historically
characterized psychiatry and psychology. Howev- er, he stressed,
“Positive psychology should be seen as a way to supplement any therapy
that the patient or client needs, not replace it.”
The approach has not been with- out criticism, he acknowledged. Key
among the points of criticism have been the following: focusing on
happiness is irrelevant in a world with so much suffering; the approach
offers nothing new; and the focus on feeling is a distraction from the
goal of improving patients’ function.
“Regarding the suffering in the world, striving for a meaningful life
means that people don’t just care about their own issues,” he said.
“This approach is a strategy for buffering against suffering.” The
example he gave was the world of bridge players, a world that is
populated with senior citizens and therefore with people who live with
significant arthritis. “Bridge players don’t complain about their
arthritis when they are playing bridge,” he said, noting the relief that
being engaged brings.
“There are several new discoveries we have made due to the use of
positive psychology,” he noted in response to the criticism that the
field provides nothing new. “One of the key discoveries is that
optimistic individuals live 8 to 9 years longer than pessimistic
individuals.” The criticism that mental health professionals should
focus on function and not feeling was met with this response: “Happy
people function better and the happiness is causal.”
Not surprisingly, Seligman foresees a bright future for positive
psychology. “This approach will play an increasing role in school and
work, as we see that increasing happiness decreases the ‘tonnage of
suffering,'” he said. His Authentic Happiness Web site (www.
authentichappiness.org) provides a variety of resources on positive
psychology for patients and mental health professionals.
According to one expert, however, positive psychology is at best a
repackaging of standard approaches used by many psychologists and
psychiatrists, who focus on strengths and virtues as only one aspect of
“Freud was interested in depth psychology, the psychology of the deeper
recesses of the mind,” said Charles Goodstein, MD, professor of
psychiatry at New York University, in a phone interview. “Positive
psychology seems to be the psychology of the superficial. It seems to be
a form of education, of exhortation. For some people, it might be
beneficial to be the objects of an exhortation to be happy; after all,
ministers and preachers have employed this method for years.”
But then again, there are some people who benefit, at least transiently,
from many kinds of psychological and psychiatric approaches. The
question is the treatment’s long-term value: does it help promote true,
sustaining change in the individual?
“This is an approach that suggests people are relatively simple, and I
don’t think that’s accurate,” he continued. “It lacks an appreciation
for the complexities of human personality. What very often happens in
psychology and psychiatry is the repackaging of old wine in new bottles,
but without an acknowledgment that it’s old wine, and just emphasizing
Positive psychology, he said, carries “the implicit suggestion . . .
that everyone other than positive psychologists is operating in the
sphere of negative psychology. In the arena of popular opinion, when the
issue is framed this way, I imagine the positive psychologists emerge
smelling of roses.”
That dichotomy is fallacious, he said. “Psychiatrists and psychologists
have been cognizant of the importance of the ‘positive’ aspects of human
personality. The notion that psychologists and psychiatrists emphasize
the negative is erroneous. When we work with symptoms, our goal is to
free the patient of the unconscious impediments that have prevented them
from using their positive attributes.”
1. Harvard’s crowded course to happiness. Available at: http://
harvards_crowded_course_to_happiness/. Accessed July 17, 2007.
2. Seligman ME, Rashid T, Parks AC. Positive psychotherapy. Am Psychol.