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)
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.