As psychiatry (which uses medical and biological methods to treat mental disorders) has largely overtaken psychotherapy (which relies on non-biological approaches such as conversation and counselling), psychotherapists have sought alternative challenges.
A common approach is to focus on increasing the happiness of mentally healthy people rather than relieving the mental pain and trauma of those who suffer.
This concept is known as “positive psychology” and has recently expanded to include not only psychologists, but also social workers, life coaches and New Age therapists. But, there is evidence to suggest that the approach has a downside, indicates Science Alert.
Perhaps the most common piece of advice from positive psychology is that we should seize each day and live in the moment. By doing this, we can be more positive and avoid three of the most infamous emotional states, which are known as RAW emotions: regret, anger, and worry.
Positive psychology, a double-edged sword
Finally, positive psychology suggests that we avoid focusing too much on regret and anger about the past or worries about the future. It seems simple enough. But human psychology is evolutionarily wired to live in the past and the future. Other species have instincts and reflexes to help them survive, but human survival relies heavily on learning and planning. You cannot learn without living in the past and you cannot plan without living in the future.
Regret, for example, which can make us suffer by reflecting on the past, is an indispensable mental mechanism to learn from one’s mistakes in order to avoid repeating them.
Worries about the future are also essential in motivating us to do something that is somewhat unpleasant today but may create a gain or save us from a greater loss in the future. If we didn’t worry at all about the future, we might not even bother to acquire an education, take responsibility for our health, or preserve food.
Like regret and worry, anger is an instrumental emotion, addressed in several works. It protects us from abuse by others and motivates those around us to respect our interests. Research has even shown that a certain degree of anger in negotiations can be helpful, leading to better outcomes.
What’s more, research has shown that negative moods in general can be quite helpful—making us less gullible and more skeptical. Studies have estimated that 80% of Westerners actually have an optimistic bias, meaning we learn more from positive experiences than negative ones.
This can lead to some ill-considered decisions, such as putting all our funds into a project with little chance of success. So do we really need to be even more optimistic?
For example, optimism bias is related to overconfidence—believing that we are generally better than others at most things, from driving to grammar. Overconfidence can become a problem in relationships, where a little humility can save the day. It can also cause us to fail to properly prepare for a difficult task—and to blame others when we ultimately fail.
Defensive pessimism, on the other hand, can help anxious individuals in particular prepare by setting a fairly low bar instead of panicking, making it easier to overcome obstacles calmly. Despite this, positive psychology has left its mark on national and international policy making.
One of his contributions was to start a debate among economists about whether a country’s prosperity should be measured by growth and GDP alone, or whether a more general approach to well-being should be adopted.
This has led to the misleading assumption that one can measure happiness by asking people whether or not they are happy. This is how the UN Happiness Index is constructed – which provides a ridiculous ranking of countries according to their level of happiness.
While happiness questionnaires measure something, it is not happiness itself, but rather people’s willingness to admit that life is quite often difficult, or, alternatively, their tendency to arrogantly boast that they are always doing better than others. Positive psychology’s excessive focus on happiness and the claim that we have complete control over it is harmful in other ways as well.
New approaches in mind research
In a recent book called “Happycracy,” the author, Edgar Cabanas, argues that this statement is cynically used by corporations and politicians to shift responsibility for everything from mild dissatisfaction with life to clinical depression.
After all, if we are in full control of our happiness, psychotherapists say, how can we blame unemployment, inequality or poverty for our misery? But the truth is that we don’t have full control over our happiness, and societal structures can often create adversity, poverty, stress, and injustice—things that shape how we feel.
To think that you can think better by focusing on positive emotions when you are in financial peril or have gone through a major trauma is naive to say the least. While you shouldn’t necessarily think that positive psychology is a conspiracy promoted by capitalist companies, there is no complete control over our happiness and that the struggle for it can make people rather unhappy than happy.
What to do?
Instructing a person to be happy is not much different from asking them not to think about a pink elephant – in either case their mind can easily go in the opposite direction. In the first case, not being able to fulfill the goal of being happy adds substantial frustration and self-blame.
And then comes the question of whether happiness is really the most important value in life. Is it even something stable that can last over time?
The answer to these questions was given more than a hundred years ago by the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”