Seligman & Layard: Positive Psychology in Politics

Posted on 30 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

This post is in response to part of Metatone’s comment on my earlier post here

Sport got there first, of course, and got there many decades earlier. Even before Freud and Kraepelin had begun constructing their contrasting disease models of mental illness, athletes and footballers had come to a basic conception of positive psychology. It was an Arnoldian model, even in America. Meaning, significance and life satisfaction could be found in a context of team, in the refusal to give up, and in the deliberate exercise of courage.

The three core traits of optimism identified by Martin Seligman – belief in misfortune’s temporary, local and impersonal status (it’s not forever, it’s not everywhere, and it’s not me) permeate Tom Brown’s Schooldays and underpin Arthur’s famous conversation about cricket. It’s more than a game. It’s an institution..

A Window in Stirling, Scotland 1929

From whence, ultimately, sport psychology. And sport psychology’s shadow science, which says, crush your opponent. Grind him into the dust, and then take his women.

Clearly, Martin Seligman and his team are not responsible for sport psychology or Thomas Arnold.  The comparison is in taking a visible, positive outcome, and trying to understand it. Where psychotherapy concentrates on putting the roof back on where it’s been blown off by depression, anxiety, panic or phobia, positive psychology sits the carpenters, tilers and thatchers down and asks them what they know.

What do I think? I think, about time, and well done.  I’ve benefitted directly and personally from reading Seligman and his team. I see no reason at all why people who seem to deal with life’s ups and downs with resilience should be studied less than endlessly depressive pains in the neck like myself. Surely there’s value in beginning a conversation about what human strengths are, now that we’ve come so far in describing the pitfalls and weaknesses. Martin Seligman and his team are doing the job properly, and making the effort to share their results in intelligent layman’s terms.

The trouble is, of course, that sooner or later, the idea crosses the Atlantic. Good American thinking doesn’t always get across intact: some ghost squadron of U-boats surfaces halfway and torpedoes the balls, brain and spirit out of it. That, or it’s met at Fishguard by a particular sort of unrestrained English middle class enthusiast. The kind Richard Dawkins describes. The ones who have had some expensive education, and reckon from that that they know how to think…

So Seligman’s sober positive psychology, with its endless analytical questionnaires,  its slowly emerging studies, its quiet determination to establish, incontrovertibly, what there is to establish, lands on British soil and becomes Inspiration! and Happiness Now! and breakfast TV interviews with the kind of men who wax.

And then we come to Richard Layard, who wrote yesterday:

..happiness is good for you — yet it still eludes all too many of us. As Samuel Beckett once said, the tears of the world are a constant quantity. But what if he were wrong; what if it were actually possible for individuals and whole societies to boost their happiness?This is the simple idea behind the Movement for Happiness, which is being launched in September by Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington college, Geoff Mulgan, the former head of policy at No 10, and myself. We hope it will become a mass movement, extending far beyond our borders, with members who are committed to trying to produce more happiness in all spheres of life. Underpinning the movement is the burgeoning new science of happiness, which is currently unravelling why some people and some societies are happier than others.

It’s currently unravelling that, is it? I see…

There is plenty of advice around about how to live if you want to be happy. The New Economics Foundation, for example, prescribes the spiritual equivalent of the five fruits and vegetables a day required for peak physical health. All you need to remember is “Great” — giving, relating to other people, exercising the body, attending to the world around and teaching yourself something fresh.

Quite apart from the sheer mawkishness – this is where David and Mr E do things so much better than I do – and I admit that I’m having trouble finishing the sentence: the incredible bloody cheek and nerve of it leave me lost for words. Britain is full of existing mass movements – scouting, the RSPB, the National Trust, Amnesty, the bleeding Football Association even – that implicitly promote all of these goals and give people a wider context than their own lives. And how many local clubs and associations?

I’ll be frank: I don’t trust the happiness surveys Layard cites. Too subjective, too many competing meanings. I don’t think the British trust the concept very much either. And whilst I agree with Layard that resilience can be taught – to some degree – I warn him against saying things like:

We know from scientific trials that resilience can be taught in schools to reduce teenage depression and anxiety. We know that an optimistic frame of mind can help people recover faster from illnesses.

Blame and accusation lie down that road. If only you’d attended more to your resilence lessons, you wouldn’t feel low.. and that’s all too close to saying, don’t feel low, it’s not allowed.. And as for the optimistic frame of mind and illnesses, come walk a cancer ward with me, and see just what material these people get sent by cranks in their time of extremis and see how it makes them feel. If only I’d eaten better.. if only I’d gone jogging.. if only I could raise my spirits.. if only, if only.

There are consequences for an individual when they have a feeling, and emotion, and have a secondary layer of feelings, beliefs and emotions that tell them that the first feeling is wrong. That they are wrong for having it. Unforseen consequences of happiness lessons: the unhappy, already underground, dig further. I wonder if this isn’t why Seligman chose “authentic happiness” instead of “happiness” on its own: it says, there is fake, surface happiness, and there is authentic unhappiness.

Layard has said elsewhere that he wants “the burgeoning science of happiness” to influence government policy. Fortunately, I think the recession has kicked that ball into the deepest, longest, thickest outfield. Someone will rediscover it one day, perished, deflated and with quaintly old-fashioned markings, the veteran of fifty summers sitting in the sun with only the birds and adders for company.

Because if it were not so, the idea is bloody dangerous.

Whenever government gets ideas beyond the crudely economic, the unforseen consequences start queuing up. That’s under normal circumstances, and goes with politics. But if Layard gets his way, the unforseen consequences of it will do more than queue: they’ll rush the gates.

I know a lot of psychotherapists. The crank and creep factors are high. But so are barriers to entry. Layard’s suggestion that we lower them – by training, as a high priority,  thousands more – has one good side to it: the NHS psychotherapy bottleneck might widen a little. But the downside – a dramatic increase in the proportion of inexperienced therapists in the system – speaks for itself.

On the other hand:

Dr. Seligman is now turning his attention to training Positive Psychologists, individuals whose practice will make the world a happier place, in a way that parallels clinical psychologists having made the world a less unhappy place. (Here).

Even here, I can feel the hairs on the back of my neck come awake, and not in a good way. But done slowly, with care, with attention to the changing research news, that might be change I can believe in.

What if we believe the happiness surveys? Even then.. the surveys plot rising happiness until a plateau is reached in about 1975. For the first time in human history, it’s possible to see what happens to a society without serious material want. That should be extremely interesting. But at the moment, it’s a case of studies being used to confirm and promote the pre-existing political beliefs of the people using them. I’m a mixed-economy leftist myself, who thinks we should have toughed it out in ’79 instead of panicking our way into Thatcher. Politically, I should support Layard, but I don’t.

As a former therapist,  I find the idea of my field extending its political influence and clout sinister and frightening. I want it stopped.

And so, for this reason and on this occasion only, please, charge your glasses: the toast is Recession!

5 Comments For This Post

  1. dearieme Says:

    Fifteen years ago I’d been sent home to die. The GP said “For someone so ill, you manage to remain surprisingly cheerful.” I said “I’ve always been lucky and I don’t see why my luck should change now.”

    I don’t tell this story to give myself a pat on the back; I’m not even sure that I understand my own instinctive reply. But: even someone who is broadly pessimistic, and sometimes frets, can also sometimes buck up. I’m not superstitious: I don’t believe in God, Gaia or Global Warming. And I certainly don’t believe that we “make our own luck”. Moreover, when I got better I scolded anyone who told me that “You must be a fighter”.

    Perhaps the fashionable “Keep calm and carry on” has got it about right. Obviously life can be cruel, or cruelly random. Perhaps we should instruct sportsmen in the wonders of the Poisson Distribution, and deaths by horse-kicks in the Prussian artillery – now there’s a challenge.

  2. JamesHamilton Says:

    “..deaths by horse-kicks in the Prussian artillery” – I understand Capello has already introduced this to the England curriculum.

    Please don’t mind if I express gladness that you came through.

  3. Metatone Says:

    A very thorough response. Thankyou!

    On the topic of your field and politics… have you seen The Trap by Adam Curtis… he sees a lot of connections between R D Laing’s work and what you’ve termed “panicking our way into Thatcher…”

  4. Bruce Says:

    Fifteen years ago I’d been sent home to die. The GP said “For someone so ill, you manage to remain surprisingly cheerful.” I said “I’ve always been lucky and I don’t see why my luck should change now.”

    I don’t tell this story to give myself a pat on the back; I’m not even sure that I understand my own instinctive reply. But: even someone who is broadly pessimistic, and sometimes frets, can also sometimes buck up. I’m not superstitious: I don’t believe in God, Gaia or Global Warming. And I certainly don’t believe that we “make our own luck”. Moreover, when I got better I scolded anyone who told me that “You must be a fighter”.

    Perhaps the fashionable “Keep calm and carry on” has got it about right. Obviously life can be cruel, or cruelly random. Perhaps we should instruct sportsmen in the wonders of the Poisson Distribution, and deaths by horse-kicks in the Prussian artillery – now there’s a challenge.

  5. Nathan Lee Says:

    Psychology is one of the most interesting branches of science because there are so many unknowns.**~

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