Looking on the Bright SideWednesday, 03 March 2010 14:17
For the last forty-odd years Barbara Ehrenreich has been inspecting aspects of American life with a mercilessly critical eye. Her latest book is published under different titles in different countries, but my copy, published in New York by Henry Holt and Company in 2009 is called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Positive thinking and Positive Psychology are big business in the USA, and like all big businesses in America, Positive Psychology seeks to conquer the world.
Big Business ignored the harm it has brought to the countries where it established itself. As Peter Maas described in his book Crude world: The Violent Twilight of Oil, large oil companies like Shell and Exxon-Mobile despoiled the land and displaced the people living there, thus causing enormous suffering. In a similar way Positive Psychology ignores the real pain and suffering that many people endure. Martin Seligman, who established the business of Positive Psychology, advises us to pause at the end of the day and count our blessings. That is all very well if you are living in circumstances where there is much to be grateful for, but, if you are an Iraqi or an Afghani who has lost everything in the war Big Business (the Pentagon, Haliburton, Blackwater) brought to their country, what blessing can you feel grateful for, except, perhaps, that at the end of the day you are still alive?
Positive Psychology ignores how many people, particularly people who get depressed, feel an intense hatred for the world and everything in it. This was how my mother felt. At times of crisis she would exclaim with intense disgust, ‘It’s rotten! Everything is rotten!’ She closed her ears to my father’s pleas that she be more optimistic. With my mother and people like her, their hatred of the world has spilled out from their intense hatred for and disgust with themselves. If, under the influence of the gospel of Positive Psychology, they try to persuade themselves that they are happy, and tell other people so, they have to be constantly on guard to prevent their intense unhappiness from revealing itself. Such lies prevent them from undertaking the work of discovering the events in their childhood that led them to conclude that they were bad and unacceptable. Such a search is never easy, but it is the only way to arrive at the self-acceptance of which happiness is a by-product.
Happiness is always a by-product of what we do. When we become engrossed in doing something that we feel is important we might not notice that we happen to be happy. Make finding happiness your goal, and you have embarked on discovering the equivalent of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
I have often observed somewhat impatiently that there are people who get depressed and people who make them depressed. This is a gross over-simplification, but there are certainly many people who preserve their own equanimity by steadfastly ignoring or belittling the unhappiness of those around them. What Positive Psychology allows them to do is to pass off selfishness as wisdom in living.
Positive Psychology teaches that we can increase our own sum of happiness by undertaking some charitable tasks. However, is not doing good to increase one’s happiness similar to doing good in order to increase one’s chances of getting into heaven? And are not both activities examples of nothing but selfishness? Have not Positive Psychologists not realised that, if we are selfish, other people do not like us? Do they not know that being disliked does not lead to happiness?