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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

Although positive psychology now promotes itself globally, its American roots are evident in its persistent though unacknowledged attachment to an American-inspired brand of individualism. That attachment is evident in the movement's endorsement of self-fulfillment as the ultimate life goal, its promotion of self-improvement via personal effort, and its narrow sense of the social. We maintain that the bounded, autonomous self that strides through a positive life is an illusion, as is the notion that human flourishing and happiness are readily available to all. We also take issue with the individualistic vision that pervades positive psychologists’ descriptions of society and social institutions. Taking as an example A Primer in Positive Psychology (a recent textbook written by one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and highly praised by the others), we argue that positive psychology's rendering of social institutions is fundamentally asocial and neglects gender, class, ethnicity, and power relations.

In 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published a manifesto for the new century in the lead article of a special issue of the American Psychologist, the flagship journal of American psychology. They called for a revolutionary reorientation of the field, one that would make individual flourishing the primary object for scientific study and professional intervention. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) urged social and behavioral scientists to ‘show what actions lead to well-being, to positive individuals, and to thriving communities’ and ‘what kinds of families result in children who flourish’ (5). Many psychologists have pointed out that an orientation toward wellness, prevention, and flourishing is not new, either in psychology or in other applied disciplines. Cowen and Kilmer (2002), for example, have offered a lengthy list of contributions in this area stretching back to Jahoda's seminal 1958 article on ‘positive mental health’. Nonetheless, Seligman et al. hold that positive psychology's commitment to science distinguishes it from other approaches to human flourishing.

Mapping the territory of flourishing, happiness, virtue, and ‘flow’ is posited as the central task for psychologists. Researchers have gathered data on the relationships between happiness and optimism, cheerfulness, civic engagement, gratitude lists, and altruism (Handler, 2006). Frederickson and Losada (2005) have searched for ‘a set of mathematical equations’ that provide precise formulas for the relationship between positive emotion and human flourishing. According to the formula they derive, ‘flourishing mental health was associated with positivity ratios above 2.9’ (685, 664).

Unlike most scientific fields, positive psychology also fashions itself as a movement, replete with a Steering Committee and an anthem (http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/images/anthem/NarrowVictory.mp3). Moreover, positive psychologists have garnered for themselves headlines in mass media across the United States. In January of 2006, for example, Time magazine devoted forty pages to ‘The Science of Happiness’. Asserting that happiness, individual strength, and good character can be attained through the application of therapeutic and other technologies devised by scientists, adherents of the movement have also flooded the self-help market in the United States with how-to books.

Like the New Thought movement of the late 19th century, the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s, and Erhard Seminars Training (EST) of the 1970s, positive psychology harks back to the individualist ethos of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau. Firmly entrenched in the middle-class culture of the United States, the positive psychology movement preaches the dogmas of positive thinking and self-improvement through individual effort; furthermore, it promotes self-enhancement and personal fulfillment as the goals of living.

When Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the early 1830s, he was both impressed by and concerned about American individualism. He worried that democratic individualism might lead Americans to imagine erroneously ‘that their whole destiny is in their own hands’ (1840/1945, 99). His concern was warranted. The concept of individualism originally referred to equal rights, freedom, and dignity (Lukes, 1973). However, the word individualism was soon supplanted by other terms, such as self-reliance and self-culture, which had different meanings. The writings of the Transcendentalists emphasized individuals’ need to cultivate their unique qualities and capacities apart from society. Implicit in the American version of Romantic individualism was the view that through the expression of a unique, authentic self, an individual would find satisfaction and personal gratification. These ideas are at the heart of the contemporary American conception of self-actualization (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985/1996; Cushman, 1995). Furthermore, all American positive psychologies, past and present, emphasize gratification and feeling good as goals of self-development (Becker & Marecek, forthcoming 2008). As Woolfolk and Wasserman (2005) have argued, positive psychologists, their occasional disclaimers notwithstanding, value positive qualities and virtues not for their intrinsic merit or their salubrious effects on society but for the good feelings they induce in us.

This American individualism is a core but unacknowledged ideology that pervades positive psychology's ideas about persons, experience, and human action. In this brief essay, we first explore how individualism infuses the conception of the self and the notions of self-improvement advanced by leading positive psychologists. We then examine how individualism also infuses positive psychology's conception of the ‘social’ and social institutions, with the consequence that society and culture are rendered nearly invisible. The third topic we touch upon is how positive psychologists’ unspoken allegiance to individualism inflects the knowledge-producing processes they espouse, authorizing certain research technologies and influencing which interpretations are privileged and which are ignored. (For fuller treatments of positive psychology, we refer readers to recent issues of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology and to a special issue of Theory & Psychology [Volume 18, No. 5] to be published in October 2008.)

Positive psychology is a sprawling enterprise with no agreed-upon boundaries. Who counts as a ‘positive psychologist’ and who disavows that identity are matters of some controversy; indeed, the movement seems more centered around personalities than ideas (cf., Cowen & Kilmer, 2002). Given its breadth and fluidity, it is impossible to discuss the field as a whole. Instead, we focus our attention on Christopher Peterson's A Primer in Positive Psychology (2006) – the first and only college-level textbook of positive psychology. Peterson, who is a ‘member of the Positive Psychology Steering Committee’, is also considered a ‘founding father’ of positive psychology. (These and subsequent quotations in this paragraph are taken from the back cover of the book). Other founding fathers dub the book ‘the definitive textbook in positive psychology’ and ‘the single best textbook on any subject that ... I have ever read’ (Martin E. P. Seligman), a ‘delightful classic’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and an ‘excellent text’ (Ed Diener). These accolades give us confidence that Peterson's account of positive psychology meets with the approval of its founders and leaders.

Our criticisms of positive psychology draw upon critical psychology, feminism, and social constructionism. As social constructionists, we regard positive psychology – like all psychologies – as a cultural artifact, a product of its time and place. Positive psychology offers one possible lens through which to view the self and the social world; our intention is to examine this lens. Furthermore, we hold that the social and behavioral sciences do not uncover pre-existing truths; rather, scientific knowledge incorporates the standpoints and inclinations of researchers, as well as the preoccupations of the larger culture. Moreover, the knowledge that science produces does not necessarily lead to human progress. As feminists and critical psychologists, we are further concerned that positive psychology, with its conception of a self-contained individual, inadvertently reproduces and strengthens cultural ideologies and societal structures of domination that perpetuate inequalities of gender, ethnicity, and class.

To Thine Own Self Be True

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

Although we commend positive psychologists’ emphasis on human strengths and their desire to turn away from an exclusive focus on pathology, we question what the movement has turned toward. In their zeal to outline the conditions that constitute the good life, positive psychologists frequently fail to take note of their disguised ideology (Slife & Richardson, forthcoming 2008). The movement's unacknowledged attachment to American individualism shapes its premises about human growth, fulfillment, and values, as well as its vision of the relationship between individuals and societal institutions.

The ideology of individualism has constructed an independent, authentic self that floats free of its cultural surround. Clifford Geertz has described this self as ‘a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe’ (1983, 59). One can consult this self for answers to questions that arise in the journey through life. The masterful self and the terms associated with it – agency, autonomy, fulfillment, and choice, among others – have become ‘fundamental and powerful source[s] of value [and meaning] in American life’ (Baumeister, 1991, 78). It is this self that looms large in positive psychologists’ claims and theories.

Self-improvement has long been the mantra of American individualism and it is a staple of positive psychology as well. Positive psychologists urge individuals to work on their ‘selves’, thereby increasing their happiness, improving their moral fiber, and ultimately, leading them to self-fulfillment. Peterson's textbook, for example, is peppered with self-help (i.e., help-for-the-self) exercises, such as writing gratitude letters, keeping diaries, listening to certain pop songs, and watching certain feature films. Moreover, positive psychology shares with American self-help movements throughout history a faith in the broad curative effects of positive emotions and positive thinking (Becker & Marecek, forthcoming). For example, positive psychologists Frederickson and Losada have claimed that proper levels of positive affect result in ‘increased happiness, ... lower levels of cortisol, ... reduced inflammatory response to stress, ... resistance to rhinoviruses, [and] reductions in stroke’ (2005, 679).

In most epochs and in most societies, values have been determined in relation to entities outside the self (e.g., a supreme being; social norms; Taylor, 1989). In contrast, positive psychologists see values primarily as private choices. In their view, individuals are free to choose ‘both the meaning of and the means to pursue the good life, or “happiness” ... so long as they do not interfere with the ability of others to do the same’ (Christopher & Hickinbottom, forthcoming 2008). Furthermore, each individual determines the greater good; the greater good is no more than what will make that individual most fulfilled. Indeed, the discussion of values in A Primer in Positive Psychology (2006) is so centered on the individual that at one point Peterson is obliged to remind readers that ‘values are also social’ (172, our italics). In his words, ‘our larger culture and its priorities set the table’ of values from the ‘pool of possible values’ (187). Despite these reminders, however, Peterson does not elaborate on the societal context for the development of values.

Many psychologists and others have criticized the way in which individualism has permeated American psychology (e.g. Baumeister, 1991; Becker 2005; Cushman, 1995; Sampson, 1993; Spence, 1985; Taylor, 1985). The bounded, masterful self, as they see it, is a fiction. It is impossible to separate out the self from the social because what is taken as the private domain of the self is defined by the social (Cruikshank, 1999). The forms that selfhood takes are defined and determined by the social surround. As Nikolas Rose (1990) has maintained,

The ‘self’ does not pre-exist the forms of its social recognition; it is a heterogeneous and shifting resultant of the social expectations targeted upon it, the social duties accorded it, the norms according to which it is judged, the pleasures and pains that entice and coerce it, the forms of self-inspection inculcated in it, the languages according to which it is spoken about and about which it learns to account for itself in thought and speech (218).

We also question – as have many other progressive social theorists – the ethos of self-improvement via private effort (Greenberg, 1994). Happiness, well-being, and the good life cannot be inculcated through self-focused exercises (e.g., writing gratitude letters). More important, the good life is not readily or equally available to all. Disparities in status and power resulting from social class, gender, skin color, race, nationality, and caste, markedly influence well-being. These structural differences dramatically affect one's access to healthcare, educational and economic opportunity, fair treatment in the criminal justice system, safe and secure living conditions, a promising future for one's children, and even mortality (Prilleltensky, 2007). What kind of fulfillment is possible in the absence of these basic conditions? To suggest that self-help exercises can suffice in the absence of social transformation is not only short sighted but morally repugnant.

If, as Rose (1990) maintains, the self does not stand outside culture and social relations, the language of autonomy and self-determination is misleading, if not mystifying. There is no pure inner self to serve as a touchstone of authenticity, nor is there an infinite array of self-determined ‘choices’. What appear to be free choices are made within contexts of constraint. Therefore, when Peterson limits the role of culture to ‘setting the table’ of values, he seriously underestimates its import. It might be more apt to say that culture serves up an entire meal and harangues diners to find it to their taste.

For all that Americans have gained from liberal individualism, a singular focus on the self and its fulfillment has always had its dangers. Not without cause did Tocqueville fear that American democracy ‘threatens in the end to confine man entirely within the solitude of his own heart’ (1840/1945, 98). Positive psychologists focus on what ‘good societies’ must provide in order to produce the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number of people. They do not discuss what obligations, duties, and allegiances citizens owe to the state and the community.

Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

Positive psychologists identify social institutions as one of the ‘three pillars’ of personal fulfillment and thus one of the main topics for investigation (Peterson, 2006, 20; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). But when Peterson and other positive psychologists have discussed social institutions, their notion of the social is what Bellah et al. have called ‘social in the narrow sense’ (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985/1996, xxv). That narrow view has in its sights the local and familial; it ignores the political, cultural, and economic. Indeed, some positive psychologists seem to believe that the study of social institutions falls outside the purview of psychology altogether. For example, Peterson (2006) and Gable and Haidt (2005) defer the study of ‘positive institutions’ to ‘positive sociology’ and ‘positive anthropology’. Adherents of the many critical psychologies that have developed across the world in the past 60 years would chafe at such a restrictive view of psychology's purview.

Given positive psychologists’ focus on the individual, it is hardly surprising that A Primer in Positive Psychology (2006) devotes only a single chapter – some 25 pages out of 300 – to the discussion of social institutions. In that chapter, Peterson discusses ‘the good family’, ‘the good school’, ‘the good workplace’, ‘the good religion’, and ‘the good society’, the institutions about which positive psychology has had the most to say. Of course, not all the aforementioned are societal institutions: Certainly ‘society’ itself cannot be considered a societal institution. More important, a selection bias is evident in Peterson's choice of those institutions dearest to the American middle-class heart.

What might psychologists want to know about social institutions? Foucault chose to study the prison, the madhouse, and the confessional because he was interested in the regulatory power of institutions. He was particularly concerned with what he termed technologies of the self – the means by which institutional power forms the self and inculcates regimes of self-surveillance that render coercive power unnecessary (Foucault, 1973; Martin, Gutman, & Hutton, 1988). Peterson, in contrast, is not concerned with power. The Primer's discussion of institutions does not allude to processes such as compulsory conformity, surveillance, colonization, domination, and bureaucratization, processes that are frequently included in social science treatments of institutions. Instead, Peterson is interested in how the institutions he has selected ‘facilitate the development and display of positive traits, which in turn facilitate positive subjective experiences’ (2006, 20). In short, institutions are positive insofar as they promote personal fulfillment: ‘Good’ institutions make people feel good. Neither the coercive power nor the constitutive power of institutions plays any part in Peterson's account. Perhaps this is because Peterson – who dubs himself the ‘director of virtue’ at the ‘Positive Psychology Center of the University of Pennsylvania’ (2006, 137) – imagines himself as a benevolent overlord, whereas Foucault imagines himself as yet another human being at the mercy of disciplinary regimes.

Talk of the virtues of institutions, the happiness of their members, and the like indicates the individualist bias in Peterson's (2006) discussion of institutions. In that discussion, institutions are little more than collectivities that do individuals’ bidding and serve to make them content. Indeed, Peterson's persistent talk of individuals’‘membership’ in institutions smacks of a clubbiness that even Babbitt might have envied. Peterson fails to make the analytical distinction between collectivities and social institutions and thus he effaces institutions. Institutions are not mere congeries of people. For example, families are not just households that contain related individuals. As a social institution, the family has a cultural form, socially mandated functions, normative gender arrangements, and generational (and often gender) hierarchies. These are regulated by law and custom and constrained by social context. Similarly, the institution of work does not merely consist of ‘workplaces’ (286); as an institution, work is intimately bound up with the class structure of a society, with an individual's class identity, with sets of values, and, of course, with dominant and subordinate relations between bosses and employees. Moreover, social institutions are not constructed wholly through personal effort; for the most part, individuals do not choose whether or not to become ‘members’ of institutions.

We see in positive psychology a troubling reluctance to analyze critically the sociopolitical context in which institutions are embedded. Consider an exercise that Peterson offers to students reading his text. The exercise is called ‘Working for an Institution’. Students are to select ‘a group or an organization that is part of an institution in which you believe’ and ask themselves: ‘[Am I] doing what [I] can do to make this group a better one, thereby strengthening the institution and the goals that it endorses?’ (2006, 301). Peterson advises students to ask the ‘powers-that-be’‘what you might be able to do that would be most helpful’ (301). The exercise presumes (and tacitly instructs students) that the ends and means of organizations are beyond analysis. It also presumes that organizations and groups are not to question the institutions of which they are a part. In this exercise, students take up the position of obedient insiders, following the bidding of those in power. This exercise, Peterson believes, engenders a sense of fulfillment and personal satisfaction. Such are the technologies of the self; in this exercise, the ‘positive’ fox guards the ‘positive’ henhouse.

We think students should instead be encouraged to scrutinize the dominant ideologies of social institutions. For example, if a workplace has policies that appear just and humane, we would ask students: To whom do these policies seem just and humane? To everyone in the workplace? We would further ask students to examine the larger context in which that workplace is embedded. For example, a policy offering good compensation for overtime may appear just and humane. However, it may benefit male workers exclusively. In the United States, men's wives usually take up the domestic slack, allowing men to devote long hours to work; female workers generally shoulder a lion's share of responsibilities at home in addition to their paid jobs. Because the unequal division of family labor is institutionalized, a policy that may appear to offer equal advantages to all workers de facto does not. For us, engaging students in such critical questioning should be part of the mission of psychology instructors, including those who teach positive psychology courses. We hold this view because we see human flourishing not as a matter of private satisfaction, but as a matter of the collective welfare.

The context-free family

Peterson devotes roughly a page and a half to his examination of the ‘good family’. We turn to this discussion of family life to illuminate some difficulties that arise in discussing an ‘enabling institution’ absent its socio-political context. We begin with Peterson's description of the contemporary family:

... Childrearing responsibilities often fall to mothers, perhaps contributing to the increased depression found among them (Brown & Harris, 1978). Following the birth of a child, the typical mother takes on more household chores, regardless of how she and her mate divided the tasks before (Cowan, Coie, & Coie, 1978) ... Mothers report the most satisfaction and the highest morale once their children leave home (Neugarten, 1970). Why not? On the one hand, life becomes less demanding. And on the other hand, the successful development of offspring from dependent children to autonomous adults means that a parent has done well. (2006, 283–284)

Positive psychologists accord great importance to empirical evidence. It is striking, therefore, that the research that Peterson cites in his discussion of families is 30 to 40 years old. The account given above, for example, ignores the revolutionary changes in the institution of the family, in family structures, and in everyday family life over the last several decades. Peterson's discussion of the ‘good family’ centers family life on a stay-at-home mother. For nearly three decades, however, most women in the United States have worked outside the home; indeed poor and working-class women often have not had the option to do otherwise (Williams, 2000). Furthermore, in Peterson's description of domestic life, fathers are absent from children's lives. The centrality of mothers in Peterson's vision reinforces the idea that women are naturally specialized for domestic work (Williams, 2000). Peterson's antediluvian description of a ‘good family’ reads like a nostalgic vision of 1950s middle-class family life that never actually existed (cf. Coontz, 2000/1992). As such, it hardly provides an effective basis for delineating the institution of the family in the twenty-first century.

Tolstoy's pronouncement that happy families are all alike does not hold up as well in the 21st century as it did in the 19th (see McGoldrick, Giordano, & Garcia-Preto, 2005; Walsh, 2002). Peterson's description of the family is not only anachronistic; it also flies in the face of overwhelming evidence of the diversity of family forms in the United States. Peterson suggests that the goal of the ‘good’ or ‘enabling’ family is to produce children who grow up to be successfully autonomous. His assertion that autonomy is the apotheosis of human development is a distinctly Euro-American, middle-class, and masculinist view of successful adulthood, a view with which feminists and others have long taken issue (Gilligan, 1982; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1986). In poor and working class families, the goal of childrearing may well be more sociocentric (Kusserow, 1999). Moreover, in these families, parents – whether by inclination or necessity – are not focused on what Annette Lareau (2003) has called the ‘concerted cultivation’ of children. In families of East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Latino heritage – whatever their class background – autonomy, individuation, and leaving home are not valued goals or markers of adult status. Raising autonomous children who will go on to be successful, however, seems especially important to middle- and upper-class families whose children must be prepared for life in a brutally competitive capitalist society (Warner, 2005).

In Peterson's account of the family, the import of sociostructural arrangements goes unremarked. Note, for example, that in the passage quoted above, Peterson cites the landmark Camberwell study (Brown & Harris, 1978) as evidence that childrearing responsibilities contribute to increased depression among mothers. Many readers will spot this as a gross misreading of this work (titled The Social Origins of Depression), which explored the contribution of a variety of factors associated with working class life (e.g., isolation, lack of social support, financial insecurity, inadequate housing, severe life events) to mothers’ depression. Moreover, the maternal depression, decreased satisfaction, and lowered morale that Peterson associates with mothering receive no further comment, even though the cultivation of positive affect is the first ‘pillar’ of positive psychology. Of course, raising children per se is not a demoralizing or unsatisfying experience. Rather, as Brown and Harris (1978) argued, the contours of childrearing, which are a product of socioeconomic factors, socially ordained gender relations, and cultural obligations, determine mothers’ experiences.

Individualism as Psychological Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

According to positive psychologists, their movement is distinguished by its commitment to scientific rigor. This scientific approach, they insist, makes positive psychology superior to other approaches and movements concerned with the good life. Despite positive psychologists’ claim to offer a bold and necessary departure from psychology-as-usual, they have not proposed any departures from North American methodological orthodoxy. Nor, to our knowledge, have positive psychologists considered how psychology's conventional modes of inquiry might have contributed to the crises that they hope to rectify. For them, it appears, the master's tools are sufficient to dismantle the master's house.

Any method of inquiry (scientificity notwithstanding) deforms in characteristic ways that which it intends to study. Here, we ask how positive psychology's commitment to individualism inflects certain of its methods of inquiry. Peterson's Primer (2006) suggests that positive psychologists rely heavily on research technologies that deliberately effect a separation of research participants from the ongoing social environment. Such technologies are predicated on the notion of the individual as – to reiterate Geertz's pithy phrase –‘a more or less self-contained cognitive and motivational universe’ (Geertz, 1983, 59).

A paramount example of such technologies is the experiment, which sequesters participants in the hermetic confines of the psychology laboratory. The purpose, of course, is to eliminate possible confounding factors so that the variables of interest can be studied in their pure form. However, context stripping, as Elliott Mishler has called it, has been subject to considerable criticism (Marecek, 2001; Mishler, 1979; Parlee, 1979). Although it may have worked well for studying the physics of falling bodies in frictionless environments, it works less well for studying social life and subjectivity. Purifying persons, environments, and social relations strips them of the complexity that characterizes real life (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).

Positive psychology shares with business-as-usual psychology a commitment to studying individuals (or aspects of individuals) as the unit of analysis. These studies yield law-like propositions about the behavior of generic human beings. The presumption of universalism serves to legitimize certain research technologies. For example, many of positive psychology's claims rest on data collected from American college sophomores who have been conscripted from psychology classes. These data are used to construct generalizations about humans throughout the world and across historical time. Because individual-level and sub-individual-level processes are the focus, the particularities and preoccupations of American college students, who typically are unmarried and only peripherally involved in paid work, comparatively affluent, and living in the early 21st century, are considered irrelevant, as are specifics of identity arising from their social and class positions.

We join in a chorus of feminist psychologists, cultural psychologists, critical race theorists, and critical psychologists who have noted the scientific and political disadvantages of the practices of de-contexualization and universalism. To give just one recent example, the APA Task Force on Socioeconomic Status (2007) has argued that universal theories of healthy development, categorizations of normal and abnormal behavior, and rankings of social behaviors or achievement typically reflect middle-class experience and are detrimental to economically disadvantaged groups. Such misleading generalizations form a kind of cultural hegemony that devalues the realities of poor people's lives and ultimately contributes to their moral exclusion. Constantine and Sue (2006) have pointed out that people of color, because of their life experiences (including a history of struggle against adversity and racism), have adaptive strengths that are not part of White people's experience. These adaptive strengths have thus far been overlooked by positive psychologists. As Spelman has written, ‘The claim of commonality can be very arrogant indeed’ (1988, 139). Psychological anthropologists have put forward a rich array of evidence about how people from different cultural backgrounds conceive of self, experience, conduct, and morality in ways different from those of White middle-class Americans. A positive psychology that fully accounts for cultural legacies, social locations, and histories of domination and subordination requires richer and more sensitive methods of study than those on which the movement has thus far relied.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

We have argued that positive psychologists’ attachment to an ideology of individualism shapes their way of perceiving both the psychological and the social worlds. Positive psychologists conceive of flourishing as something determined by individual choice and attained by private, self-focused effort. This emphasis on individual-level processes ignores the societal and cultural force fields acting on individuals. For positive psychologists, even civic participation and service to others are, at bottom, valuable only insofar as they generate good feelings (e.g., camaraderie and a sense of usefulness) in the participant (cf. Peterson, 2006, 301; Seligman, Parks, & Steen, 2004). This calls to mind Badcock's apt comparison between the social reformer whose sole concern is individual well-being and

... the private citizen of Venice who concerns himself only with the safety of his own dwelling and his own ability to get about the city. But if the entire republic is slowly being submerged, individual citizens cannot afford to ignore their collective fate, because, in the end, they all drown together if nothing is done. (Badcock, 1982, cited by Prilleltensky, 2007)

In addition to the ‘three pillars’ of positive psychology cited by the movement's founders – happiness, character strengths, and enabling institutions – we have suggested a fourth ‘pillar’ of positive psychology: Its method of ‘doing’ psychology. Positive psychologists often depict their mission as offering an important corrective to what they term ‘business-as-usual psychology’ (Peterson, 2006, 16). Unfortunately, however, the intended corrective comes in the form of ‘business-as-usual’ research technologies that often produce ‘more of same’; that is, first-order change (change in form) when second-order change (change in structure) is needed (Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974; cf. also Prilleltensky, 1994).

As the positive psychology movement seeks to muster new contingents of international recruits, we wonder how it will be received beyond the shores of the United States. How will it fare among psychologists in South Africa and Latin America, who are part of long and sometimes bloody traditions of political engagement and critique? What will psychologists whose training has made them more cognizant of critical social theory, critical psychology, and post-modern thought, make of positive psychology? In locales such as New Zealand and Australia where national consciousness of racial and ethnic injustice is high, how will American positive psychology's bland universalism be received? Will researchers who have engaged with the methodological and epistemological debates of the past several decades take positive psychologists to task for their insularity? In our view, many other psychologies have an intellectual vitality and critical edge that are absent from positive psychology's triumphal rhetoric.

Individual freedom of choice, boundless opportunity, personal fulfillment, and happiness within every individual's reach – these constituents of positive psychology closely mirror what is taken to be the American Dream. Ironically, this was not the Dream of James Truslow Adams, the historian who coined the term American Dream. For Adams,

The [American Dream] is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (1931, 404, italics ours)

Adams envisioned the ‘social’ to encompass societal and institutional power and to have a constitutive force. It is this view of the social, we argue, that enables truly positive change.

Short Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References

Dana Becker's research interests are at the intersection of clinical psychology, women's studies, and cultural studies. She has authored papers in such journals as the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Theory and Psychology, Journal of Community Psychology, and Family Process and in edited volumes such as The Encyclopedia of Gender. She has written Through the Looking Glass: Women and Borderline Personality Disorder (Westview 1997) and The Myth of Empowerment: Women and the Therapeutic Culture in America (NYU Press 2005). Ms. Becker's current research focuses on the social uses of the societal discourse of stress. She has received research awards from the Association for Women in Psychology and the American Psychological Association. She presently teaches at the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, following a 20-year career as a psychotherapist. She holds an AB in Classical Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, a MSS from the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, and a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Jeanne Marecek's interests are at the intersection of gender studies, cultural psychology, and critical psychology. She has contributed papers in these areas to such journals as Feminism & Psychology, American Psychologist, Asian Journal of Counseling Psychology, Psychology of Women Quarterly, as well as to many edited volumes. She is co-editor of the book series Qualitative Psychology for NYU Press. Her current work focuses on field-based studies of suicide and self-harm in rural Sri Lanka. She has held fellowships and grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Fulbright Commission, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. She is also Senior Affiliated Fellow of the Social Policy Analysis and Research Centre of the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka. She teaches at Swarthmore College, where she holds the William R. Kenan Chair of Psychology; she is also a member of the Asian Studies Program and the Gender Studies Program. She holds an MS, MPhil, and PhD from Yale University.

Endnote
  • *

    Dana Becker, Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, Bryn Mawr College, 300 Airdale Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010–1697, USA. Email: ddbecker@brynmawr.edu.

  • Jeanne Marecek, Department of Psychology, Swarthmore College, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA 19081, USA.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. To Thine Own Self Be True
  4. Positive Institutions for Positive Individuals
  5. Individualism as Psychological Method
  6. Conclusion
  7. Short Biographies
  8. References
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