Most of us have heard of positive psychology and about its benefits (if not go tohttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_psychology and get reading!) made popular largely by Martin Seligman.
The basics of positive of psychology are about teaching ourselves to be happier and thus helping our brains ‘think happy’. My question is; does positive psychology insinuate that to be happy we teach ourselves positive thinking and thus avoid the harder emotions?
If we are asking ourselves to lean toward happiness, are we avoiding the harder/sadder emotions – more importantly, will we judge ourselves for having those sadder or harder emotions? Emotions which are not happiness.
My critique of popular contemporary therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the likes, are that they focus on a problem. They come from a place that is focussed on allaying ourselves of a feeling, and at the root of that is a judgement that having that feeling is not a good thing. It is not ok to feel sad or anxious and thus we need to stop having that feeling. To stop having the feeling we need to go to therapy and learn to stop thinking this way, and if therapy doesn’t work we need to take medication to stop those intrusive feelings from arising.
I do believe that CBT and medication have their place in our society and in therapies. I believe strongly in the benefits of all therapies, but only in moderation and with these solutions, I don’t believe they are always the best first option. If we are trying to reduce a feeling, then we are saying that that feeling is not to be had, that it is a bad feeling. We are judging the feeling. If we continue to have this feeling, then we run the risk of judging ourselves for having the feeling eg “despite all my therapy, I am still feeling sad.. I just cant get over this, I am just no good at this.”
Humans can experience a wide variety of emotion and we are designed to experience all of them, denying any of them seems dangerous to me. If anything, I think of this avoidance or denial of certain emotions as the cause of the very emotion we are trying to avoid. If I tell you to close your eyes and imagine a big blue elephant, then ask you not to think of the elephant anymore, the chances are you will either actively think of something else in order to block the elephant, or you will not be able to think of anything BUT the elephant. When you focus your attention on something else you are really only forcing a new thought with the blue elephant somewhere in the back of your mind.
This idea, however stretched, can also be applied to feelings. If we are always trying to avoid feeling sad or anxious for example, we may begin to focus on other emotions in hopes we don’t feel the sadness, but what we are really doing is focussing on the sadness in a new way, rather than experiencing a new emotion.
Similarly, if we focus on happiness, we may be judging anything but happiness negatively, which may make us upset! The opposite of happiness!
I wonder if positive psychology engenders the idea that happiness is the only emotion we should be trying to achieve, and if inherently, positive psychology is actually causing us to judge ourselves or judge our negative emotions. I wonder if positive psychology is in fact getting in the way of itself?
As I read over this article I realise these are complex ideas that may be a bit hard to grapple with. I realise the article looks a little complex. I also realise I have been at work for too long today and need some rest. So let me know what you think of the article, tweet it, facebook it, throw it up on linked in and let me know what you think!
Ray Medhora can be found practicing child and family therapy in Sydney Australia as well as training other aspiring counsellors to help them reach their goals.. Ray always feels odd writing in third person.