Positive Psychology: Standing on which Giants` Shoulders?

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Standing on a Lego GiantThe aforesaid quote from the Bible reminds us that we all are standing on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. While Positive Psychology as a science is a fairly new development within the greater framework of psychological science (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), its roots can be traced back at least 2,500 years in time. In this essay, I intend to express how the research and practice of positive psychology has been and still is continuously informed by philosophy. I will do so by way of three examples: first and most circumstantial, the notion that our thinking is a powerful intermediary between the “world out there” and our experience of that world; second, the idea that living a life according to certain virtues is accompanied by an elevated level of psychological well-being; and third, the framework of positivity ratios in human development.

Is Buddha the architect of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

We are most likely the only mammals alive that can develop symptoms such as a depressive disorder (Sapolsky, 1998). Our superior ability to remember the past (Baddeley, 1998) and unique capability to prospect into the future (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013) have made us a very successful species – but also prone to psychological malfunctioning in case these “tools” are used improperly. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Beck, 1995) posits that “the poison and the cure” for many of these malfunctions can be traced back to our thinking processes. In his seminal book “Learned optimism”, Seligman (1991) writes: “The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues” (pp. 15-16).

This notion can be traced back (at least) all the way to Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha. In the Dhammapada (1. verse, 1. chapter, n.d.) he is cited with the words: “All mental phenomena are preceded by mind. Mind is their master, they are produced by mind.” Similar phrases that either point to the notion that the “thing itself” acquires its meaning only via the human mind, or that man is the master of his own fate by controlling his thoughts, can be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (Epictetus: “In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”; from Discourses, chapter 1, n.d.; similar quotes by Marcus Aurelius can be found). About 1,500 years later, Shakespeare (n.d.) puts equivalent words into Hamlet´s mouth in the second act of the second scene: “[…] there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Another 300 years later, there is a related quote by Gandhi (n.d.): “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” And finally, before becoming part of the scientific discourse in clinical psychology, the idea of “mind over matter” was propagated by new-age and self-help writers such as Dale Carnegie (1981): “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”

Nowadays, the influence of mental processes on our well-being is a well-documented scientific fact. It is the foundation of clinical interventions such as the “ABCDE” tool in CBT (Wells, 1997), as well as most positive (psychology) interventions (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Therefore, it is safe to say that this branch of psychology was heavily informed by the aforementioned philosophers and writers of the past, especially when taking into account that Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology´s founding fathers, earned a bachelor´s degree in philosophy at Princeton before turning his mind towards psychology (Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d.).

A Touch of Aristotle

The aforementioned educational background of Martin Seligman might also (partially) explain the strong presence of another “godfather of philosophy”, namely Aristotle. One of the first hallmark projects after the founding of positive psychology was the creation of a compendium of 24 human strengths that group into 6 overarching virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Aristotle is mentioned 23 times in that textbook. Among other sages of his time, Aristotle proposed that a life worthwhile of living should entail the presence of Eudaimonia which can loosely be translated into the English term “flourishing”. In Aristotle´s opinion, the key to experiencing eudaimonia is leading one´s life according to certain virtues, where a virtue is seen as the middle point between two vices (e.g., courage lies between cowardice and daredevilry). In light of the frequent references to Aristotle it can be assumed that Peterson and Seligman´s idea of character strengths and virtues was heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher. Over the recent years, some evidence on the connection between the presence of character strengths and well-being has been gathered. While not all of the 24 strengths display a distinct correlation with variables such as life satisfaction, concepts such as hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity seem to be present more often in people that report high levels of psychological well-being (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

From defining “the Positive” to Systems Intelligence

In addition to standing on the shoulders of bygone giants, positive psychology is also heavily influenced by contemporary philosophers such as Schneider (2001) and Pawelski (2012). Both researchers aid the scientific study of well-being, for instance, by trying to define (and refine) important constructs in positive psychology. By way of example: when the discipline was founded at the onset of the third millennium, it was not utterly clear, e.g., what the term “positive” in positive psychology is actually referring to. 15 years later, we have made some progress pertaining to that question. Pawelski (2012) points out that the “positive” in positive psychology cannot just be the absence of something negative. (Psychological) well-being cannot be explained by looking at what is not there (e.g., unhappiness, mental illness). In recent years, this viewpoint also receives more and more empirical support (Huppert & Whittington, 2003).

Yet, philosophers do not only refine the methodology of positive psychology – they also convey valuable impulses for psychological phenomena to be explored and possible interventions in the context of these phenomena. For instance, an issue that has received a lot of attention in positive psychology is the notion of “positivity ratios”. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) argue that it is possible to enter into an upward spiral of well-being when one manages to experience a significant surplus of positive over negative emotions. While it remains unclear up to now where the exact “tipping point” lies (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2013), there remains a lot of evidence for the idea that, in order for a person to flourish, he or she has to experience positive emotions considerably more often than negative feelings (Fredrickson, 2013). Interestingly, this does not only hold true for a person´s “internal emotional chemistry” but also for the chemistry between two people. John Gottman, one of the world´s most renowned researchers on the subject of marriage was repeatedly able to show that a marriage flourishes when the interactions between the spouses display a ratio of approximately 5:1 in favor of positive (micro-) interactions (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

This need for a distinct positivity bias in daily life is also proposed by a contemporary philosopher from Finland, Esa Saarinen. He and his coworkers posit that one way to achieve human flourishing is the development of systems intelligence which is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback” (Luoma, Hämäläinen, & Saarinen, 2010, p. 1). An important framework within systems intelligence is the notion of “Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2008, p. 824). These systems can be regarded as a downward spiral in personal interactions because “there is a bias in human mental constitution to be more aware of the contributions others fail to make to me than of the contributions I fail to make to others” (p. 824). The framework seems to mirror important aspects of the research on positivity ratios in positive psychology.

In light of the distinct overlaps between philosophy and the research and practice of positive psychology, it is therefore reasonable to assume these two disciplines will continue to cross-fertilize in the arena of human interaction. And one day, maybe, there will be something new under our sun.

References

  • Baddeley, A. (1998). Human memory. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York:  Guilford Press.
  • Brown, N. J., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, 68(9), 801-813.
  • Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people (revised edition). Retrieved from: http://freewebeducation.org/pdfs/HowToWinFriendsAndInfluencePeople.pdf
  • Epictetus: (n.d.). Discourses. Retrieved from: http://www.bartleby.com/100/715.html
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. American Psychologist, 68(9), 814-822.
  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
  • Gandhi (n.d.). Mahatma Gandhi quotes. Retrieved from: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mahatma_Gandhi
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  • Pawelski, J. (2012). Happiness and its opposites. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. C. Ayers (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania (n.d). Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from: http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/vitae.htm#Degrees
  • Sapolsky, R. (1998). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Freeman.
  • Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. NewYork: Knopf.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.
  • Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
  • Shakespeare, W. (n.d). Hamlet. Retrieved from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.2.2.html
  • Wells, A. (1997). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: A practice manual and conceptual guide. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

 

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