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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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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