From: L. Michael Hall
2023 Neurons #1
January, 2, 2023
WHAT’S NOT POSITIVE
ABOUT POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
I have long appreciated, quoted, and acknowledged the work of Martin Seligman in his well-known studies Learning Helplessness (1975) and Learned Optimism (1991) and integrating the core of that in my work on resilience (Resilience: Being the Phoenix, 2019). In those two books, he moved from being a Behaviorist to becoming much more a Cognitivist Behaviorist as he recognized the role that cognition plays in depression and other emotional states. Later he became the President of the American Psychological Association (APA). And with that one-year term, he launched his version of psychology, known as Positive Psychology.
But from the beginning, I have had questions and concerns. “What in the world could I say that would not be positive about Positive Psychology?” Actually, a lot. Here are some of them. First, the term itself “Positive Psychology” originated in Abraham Maslow’s 1964 book, Toward a Psychology of Being. Positive Psychology was one of his chapter titles. But if you read in the field of Positive Psychology, you would never know that. Neither Seligman nor any of his students acknowledge such or give credit to Maslow for the term. And not giving credit to sources is always a sign of poor scholarship and low integrity. This means that not Seligman but Maslow is the true father of Positive Psychology.
Second, as I read books on Positive Psychology, and I have read many of them, not giving credit for the name itself is not the only thing they overlook. For the most part, the writers completely overlook that it was Abraham Maslow who began the focus on the positive side of human nature way back in the 1930s and 1940s. Somehow they completely ignore that (or intentionally overlook it). They also overlook the work of Carl Rogers in his focus on the positive side of human nature and even the Human Potential Movement which arose in the 1960s from Maslow and Rogers (see Self-Actualization Psychology, 2008).
Third, when Seligman does mention Maslow, which is very seldom, it is almost always in a context where he disagrees with Maslow and criticizes him. Now I’m fine with one scholar offering a critique of another, but when every single reference is a critique and there is not a single acknowledgment of Maslow’s contributions— something is wrong. In other books on Positive Psychology, the first mention of Maslow or Rogers will be some 100 pages in and again, most of the references are critical of them. In Martin Bolt’s book A Positive Psychology Guide (2004), the first reference to Maslow is on page 135, the next was on p. 153 where he criticizes Maslow.
Now why would anyone do that? Why would a famous psychologist do that? Typically when a person has to push someone else down it is in order to push himself up—which is a sick neurotic behavior. It is an illegitimate and unhealthy maneuver to prop up oneself.
Now also unknown to most people, the reason Positive Psychology got a big boost and became recognized as quickly as it did was because Seligman was given over 30 million dollars in grants from having been voted President of APA in 1998. Dr. Carl Lloyd, who teaches Positive Psychology, says, “It was these two things which really helped him to launch research in the field of Positive Psychology.” And with 30 million dollars, who couldn’t make a gigantic splash in any field of Psychology?
Fourth, another concern about Positive Psychology relates to the online research pieces they have distributed. Often it really does not reflect the best research. Dr. Lloyd noted that his junior-level students who had some studies in undergrad sequence of research and statistics have raised
relevant questions about the validity and reliability of the research methods and results.
“For instance, they can take one questionnaire and then repeat it several days later and get fairly different results. That’s a problem with reliability. It begs the question if the research concerns are defined well enough to be valid. Anyone can collect tons of data, but is it enriching the field at all or answering the questions that are being asked?”
Fifth, in reading much of the literature on Positive Psychology from Seligman, there is the presence of what can only be characterized as arrogant self-promotion. It reeks of self-promotion in a lot of the writings.
Sixth, Positive Psychology seems to be almost exclusively for normal people or those who only need a bit of counseling. It does not seem to address the deeper issues of therapy, neurosis and character disorders. In Bolt’s book, there is not a single mention in the entire book of therapy, trauma, or neurosis. He quotes Seligman:
“The main purpose of a positive psychology is to measure, understand, and then build the human strengths and the civic virtues.” (2004, p. 2)
When Positive Psychology was first launched, all of the original books were mostly academic and offered very little in terms of practical applications. Over the years, others entered into the field and began creating applications, especially in the areas of appreciating, thriving, flourishing, personality strengths, looking for a positive frame, etc. Today Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi are considered the founders of Positive Psychology, both of them have contributed significantly to psychology and especially to humanistic psychology. In Neuro-Semantics I have from the beginning given plenteous acknowledgment to Seligman for his work in learned helplessness and learned optimism. I also gave full credit to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his work in “flow.” In relating to how flow relates to the genius state, I quoted many of his books.
The kind and quality of psychology that we use in Neuro-Semantics is certainly positive psychology. It was developed from the developers in the Human Potential Movement—people who predated Seligman by 50 years. It was demonstrated by Satir, Perls, Bateson, and others which is how it entered and formed NLP.