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Vernon’s tabloid critique of positive psychology

In his Comment is Free piece, Happy Talk, Mark Vernon takes Positive Psychology to task. Whilst it’s not clear if he is directly criticising the work of Martin Seligman he opens the article with

“This year marks the 10th anniversary of Martin Seligman coining the term “positive psychology”.

He goes on:

“Its recommendations do not rise above the commonplaces of “work less”, “stay fit”, “think positively”, and so on”

“The fundamental error of the science – and the reason why so many of its recommendations sound trivial or just confused – is the assumption that happiness is the same as positive emotion.”

“happiness is not about feeling good, it is about being good. ….Happiness is fundamentally a moral matter not a hedonistic one.”

Which makes it seem that Mark Vernon has never read Martin Seligman’s work. Seligman describes three routes to happiness:

  • the Pleasant Life, consisting in having as many pleasures as possible
  • the Good Life, which consists in knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life
  • the Meaningful Life, which consists of using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are.

Seligman is always pretty clear about what he values

“The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about. There will likely be a pharmacology of pleasure, and there may be a pharmacology of positive emotion generally, but it’s unlikely there’ll be an interesting pharmacology of flow. And it’s impossible that there’ll be a pharmacology of meaning. ” from Edge: A Talk with Martin Seligman

Vernon says he has read Authentic Happiness and in detail. This is much easier to believe if you read his more considered postings on his own blog. What he seems to object to most is the idea that anything in this space is measurable and therefore worthy of scientific study. That’s a much more interesting and less tabloid debate. Shame he didn’t stick to that point on Comment is Free.

Written by Karen

March 7th, 2008 at 8:09 am

Posted in happiness,psychology