One of my students wrote in an assignment about personal values and behaviours that he really values happiness, and is sure to wear a smile every day at work. This got me thinking: why is walking around like the Cheshire cat connected to happiness? Is it?
The Positive Psychology movement started with Abraham Maslow – you know, the guy who posited the hierarchy of needs – but the term didn’t really catch on until later. In 1998 Martin Seligman reintroduced it as the scientific study of positive experiences and positive individual traits, and the institutions that facilitate their development. Studies of resilience in children, for instance, could be considered positive psychology.
Two things to keep in mind: positive psychology is a science, and a new one at that. It is not pop psychology. It is also not about thinking positively, which is often as delusional as thinking negatively. Negative experiences are not unimportant in positive psychology, either – indeed they are an important part of life and growth.
Although happiness is a core concept in positive psychology, it warrants critical scrutiny. Research has shown that people in positive moods take more mental short cuts and are less attentive to details. It may even be associated with poor decision making. Research has shown that people who embrace their anger or sadness may be happier overall. People who score 10 out of 10 on the happiness scale do not achieve as much in education, salary or engagement in politics than those with only a moderate happiness score. Not that one must have the highest salary or a graduate degree, but it is an indication that great happiness may lead to a certain amount of complacency.
Positive psychology focuses on individualism in a mostly western context, and as noted above, is still in its infancy. But it seems clear from the studies done so far that unreflective positive thinking is insufficient and potentially counter intuitive to promoting the good life.
So, while I won’t discourage my student from his resolve to put a smile on every day, I am not going to be quick to follow his example. Nor would I make happiness itself a core value. I think I would choose freedom as a fundamental value first.