Smile now, cry later

Britain has bought in to America’s positive thinking and is heavily pushing the “science of happines

During the late 1950s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term "positive psychology". The "major mistake of psychology is that it has a pessimistic, negative and limited conception of what people can attain", he concluded. Accordingly, he formulated "a system" for individual growth that he believed could bring happiness to the American people and lead to the overthrow of the Soviet Union.

“The way in which the cold war will be won or will tip one way or the other will be in terms of the human products turned out by the
Russian society and the American society," he wrote. "If Americans can turn out a better type of human being than the Russians then this will ultimately do the trick."

Although the unpalatable language of "human products" has no place in contemporary discourse, an updated version of Maslow's message has quietly become the dominant force in psychology in Britain today. That our government is taking an interest in happiness is surely a good thing, reflecting the idea that there is more to life than GDP. Why, then, are most therapists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts up in arms about it?

Today, Maslow is best known for his "hierarchy of needs" - a staple of every management manual. His "positive psychology" was dismissed as unscientific by his contemporaries. But in 1996, the psychologist Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association and, echoing Maslow, proposed a focus on healthy individuals rather than "the disease model", which only looks at neurosis and suffering. Seligman reinvented positive psychology, opening up a new field of research into the "science of happiness" from his base at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Centre and spawning hundreds of university-level courses throughout the United States.

Since Seligman founded his centre in 2000, positive psychology, which relies on cognitive therapy to treat depression, has revolutionised approaches to mental health in the US, galvanising support because it is believed to work. Rooted in conscious thought, rather than the unconscious motivations that interest psychoanalysts, its guiding principle is that self-defeating and negative thoughts are responsible for mental health problems and that depression can be overcome by monitoring and correcting them. Seligman's "learned optimism" is not only taught in schools, colleges and offices, but has been taken up by the US army, which has introduced a $117m "Resilience" programme based on his courses.

Seligman proposes an equation for happiness: H = S + C + V, where happiness (H) is the combination of S, an individual's set range; C, their circumstances; and V, the factors under their voluntary control. His approach is based mainly on the importance of voluntary factors - such as signing up to courses - and the premise that circumstances (even the realities of war) are of more limited significance.

Don't look back in anger

In Britain, the same approach has been spearheaded by the government's "happiness tsar", the economist Richard Layard. In 2005, Layard published Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which drew on positive psychology. In the past, psychology had been "focused heavily on what had gone wrong with people", he wrote. "Human beings have largely conquered nature but they have yet to conquer themselves."

The impact of this thinking in Britain has been as widespread as it was in the US. Before Layard, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) - which is based on short-term treatments of between six and eight sessions - was one of many therapies offered by the NHS. Now it is almost the only one. Last year, funding for training thousands of new cognitive behavioural therapists was announced and guidelines were published by Nice, the government's health advisory body, recommending it as the treatment of choice for all common mental health problems. The other plank of the programme is the teaching of happiness in schools. Following a government-sponsored visit to Seligman's centre by teachers and council officials, his courses are being taught in 22 schools across the north of England. The explosion in parenting classes, particularly in deprived areas, is based on similar thinking.

But while the general mood is upbeat, not everyone is happy - least of all those who work in mental health. Andrew Samuels, chair of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, describes the policy about-turn as a "putsch". Del Loewenthal, professor in psychotherapy at Roehampton University, wonders: "Is it science or ideology?" And the psychoanalyst Darian Leader goes as far as to draw a comparison with China's Cultural Revolution, which taught that depression is just "wrong thinking".

Rights and responsibilities

Although the controversy is substantial, it has been drowned out by the main defence that positive psychology "works", with evidence, including randomised controlled trials, giving credibility to the claim that it is a science. With depression and anxiety costing the government roughly £12bn a year, a solution that equips individuals with a simple formula for turning their lives around at just £750 a head seems like a good deal. The other big attraction for a government so committed to "rights and respon­sibilities" is the emphasis it places on personal responsibility to turn things around.

But the evidence that this conflation of positive thinking and CBT works is at best very mixed. Studies show that positive thinking can help with depression in the short term, and the techniques taught are effective with specific problems, such as phobias. However, there is no evidence that it has beneficial effects on depression in the longer term; indeed, a number of studies, including a multimillion-dollar trial in the US, show that it does not. So, abandoning all other approaches in the NHS is causing uproar among therapists. Others claim that suppressing negative thoughts, rather than addressing their real causes, fuels anger and violence.

Perhaps most worrying is the accusation that positive psychology promotes unrealistic thinking by fostering a permanently positive spin. In her recent book Smile or Die, the American writer Barbara Ehrenreich posits the idea that the culture of positive thinking is responsible for the global financial collapse. Market fundamentalism was based, she argues, on little more than the delusion that the only way was up for property prices and soaring salaries.

Boom has turned to bust and the belief in continuous economic growth has been exposed as a delusion. Yet the cult of positive psychology and personal growth continues unabated, even though rates of mental illness in the US are double those in continental Europe, where positive psychology has not caught on to anything like the same extent. Seen in that light, the outlook for happiness in Britain, slavishly copying a discredited permanent growth model, is glum indeed.

Anna Minton is the author of "Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-Century City" (Penguin, £9.99)

Maslow motion

Abraham Maslow, born in Brooklyn in 1908, described his childhood as "isolated and unhappy". After a false start studying law, he rebelled against his parents by marrying his cousin Bertha Goodman and moving to Wisconsin to pursue postgraduate studies in psychology. In 1935 he returned to New York, where he served on the faculty of Brooklyn College from 1937 until 1951.

During these years, Maslow came into contact with many European intellectuals who migrated to America as Nazism spread across Europe. During the 1940s, he began to develop what would be his life's work, his theory of human motivation, and in 1945 he came to international attention when he published a paper on the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow moved to Brandeis University, Massachusetts, in 1951 and three years later published Motivation and Personality, which rejected the determinism of both the psychoanalytic and the behaviourist approaches to psychology, taking dynamic and successful figures as its model, rather than those with negative pathology.

Maslow referred to humanism as a "third force" behind these two schools of thought, and became known internationally as the founding father and leader of this emergent branch of psychology.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II