Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Too happy?

Is Positive Psychology a victim of its own wide appeal? A new Chronicle essay by Jennifer Ruark ("An Intellectual Movement for the Masses: 10 years after its founding, positive psychology struggles with its own success") worries that the "movement" atrracts too many Fruit Loopy types.

It's not unreasonable to wonder where happy shades into goofy. But, weirdly, some apparently want to exclude practitioners from my academic turf, ground not commonly fought over except by those who would pull it out from under our feet:

"Critics said Seligman's proposal was too radical: He was overstepping the bounds of social science and trying to be a philosopher, telling people how to live their lives."

I hope people don't generally perceive philosophy's function as "telling people how to live," though of course we're all about having that conversation and soliciting (then critiquing, sure) a wide spectrum of views on the subject.

In any event, we really don't feel professionally threatened by Positive Psychology. Happy to have 'em on board, the more the merrier. But I note the stirrings of a backlash against Positive Psych, as seems implicit in this piece in the Times:

Can we only be happy in retrospect? Tim Kreider thinks so.

"I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness. Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena (sic.) familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the “real” stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past."

And then there's the Happy Meter: Obama makes us happy, blog analysts in Vermont say. Will this very post tip the meter even higher? But let's not get carried away trying to twitter our way to happiness. "We don't want people to be happy all the time; that would be Brave New World... We clearly need a balance of good and bad days to keep us healthy and balanced."

You can have some of my bad ones, Dr. Dodds, if you really think it'll do you some good. I think they're highly over-rated myself. (Here, have some of this tasty Miralax-laced-Gatorade.)

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