This chapter critiques positive psychology (PP) and PP interventions (PPIs) at three levels. First, it identifies the fundamental problems of elitism and scientism, which permeate and negatively impact PP research and applications. Second, it critiques the conceptual and methodological limitations of PP and PPIs, providing specific examples. Third, it critiques specific problems in PPIs. Finally, this chapter proposes second wave PP (PP 2.0) as a correction to the deficiencies at all three levels so that PP can move forward in a more inclusive and balanced matter. The aim of PP 2.0 is to reach the global audience in terms of achieving wholesome well-being for individuals and society.
In a recent post on the popular German positive psychology (PP) blog Mappalicious, Sonja Lyubomirsky was quoted as saying, “I hope for the label ‘positive psychology’ to be retired. We don’t need it anymore” (Rose, 2016). This raises a question in the minds of PP practitioners and enthusiasts: Is the field spearheaded by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) on its last legs? Has the domain been over-used for commercial interests, especially for the field of positive coaching?
Grant and Schwartz (2011) have posited that the “too-much-of-a-good-thing” (TMGT) effect in any domain is omnipresent due to an overarching meta-theoretical principle, whereby once positive phenomena reach the highest point of an inverted U, their effects turn negative. Thus, has PP already reached the inflection point of the TMGT effect? Does this predict the emerging of a new form of PP?
The present chapter examines the reasons for the waning of PP and the emerging movement of second wave PP (PP 2.0) spearheaded by Wong (2011a) and Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, and Worth (2016). As a correction to many of the problems inherent in the initial wave of PP, Wong (2011a) advocated a more balanced and inclusive approach by integrating the “complex interactions between the negatives and positives to optimize positive outcomes” across situations and cultures (p. 69). PP 2.0 takes a dialectical approach to encompass the whole array of human experience, behaviors, and emotions. PP 2.0 also takes on cultural, ethnic, and geographic variables from across the world with the aim to make it applicable to all people (Chang, Downey, Hirsch, & Lin, 2016; Wong, 2013). Defined in simplest terms, PP 2.0 is concerned with how to bring out the best in individuals and society in spite of, and because of, the dark side of human existence through the dialectical principles of Yin and Yang.
Positive Psychology’s Fundamental Problems
PP has taken the world of psychology by storm since Martin Seligman’s presidential address at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention of 1998 (Fowler, Seligman, & Koocher, 1999), but the backlash has been just as fast and furious (Bohart & Greening, 2001; Ehrenreich, 2010; Held, 2004; Lazarus, 2003; Taylor, 2001). It can be argued that the persistent criticism of PP is closely related to the very strategy responsible for its success. Thus, this section will first critique the fundamental problems related to PP’s strategy before turning to its conceptual and methodological problems in PP interventions (PPIs).
The Problem of Elitism
Seligman’s (1999) “Positive Psychology Network Concept Paper” is an official blueprint for the PP movement. With Seligman as the chief supported by three lieutenants, this network was a blatantly by-invitation-only elitist, hierarchical group. Given the high-profile of the members of this group, this strategy of promoting PP was immediately effective and impactful with the support of big money and big names (Wong, 2011b).
However, the unexpected downside of elitism was the development of a mutual admiration fraternity of citing and publishing each other’s work, with enthusiastic followers blindly embracing every word from PP leaders—hook, line, and sinker. This marked the beginning of a breakdown of critical thinking, which has adversely affected the peer review process ever since, resulting in many PP publications with serious deficiencies that should have been caught during the peer review process (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2014).
The cornerstone of the empirical foundation for PP was Fredrickson and Losada’s (2005) critical positivity ratio. However, Brown, Sokal, and Friedman (2013) demonstrated that there was actually no empirical support for this so-called ratio. Furthermore, Brown, MacDonald, Samanta, Friedman, and Coyne (2014) critically reanalyzed the work of Fredrickson et al. (2013), which claimed that distinct dimensions of psychological well-being are differentially correlated with levels of expression of a selection of genes associated with distinct forms of immune response. Brown et al. were able to debunk these claims as meaningless because of conceptual deficiencies and fatal statistical flaws. It appears that, until editors are willing to submit PP papers to critical review by experts outside the PP community, there will continue to be PP publications with serious deficiencies.
Related to elitism is positive psychologists’ general tendency not to read and cite the broader literature, as Ryff (2003) has rightly criticized. This issue of citation amnesia becomes especially problematic when positive psychologists investigate topics related to existential psychology. For instance, Heintzelman and King’s (2014) conceptual problem regarding meaning in life was mainly due to their lack of understanding regarding Viktor Frankl’s concepts of meaningfulness and the existential vacuum (Brown & Wong, 2015). Similarly, George and Park’s (2016) recent paper on existential meaning had the same conceptual problem as a result of failing to consult the existential literature.
Given that science by nature is incremental and integrative, it is neither scholarly nor ethical for PP researchers to only focus on recent publications by members of the PP community as if they have created a new science and the older work is not worth reading. Such a myopic view of the literature is partially responsible for the backlash against PP; most researchers would react negatively if a positive psychologist failed to cite their prior work and claimed to have discovered something new.
The Problem of Scientism
The second fundamental problem with PP is scientism—the belief that the positivist paradigm of the scientific method is the only way to examine truth claims and the only good and trustworthy method to achieve happiness, well-being, and flourishing. Such belief in scientism amounts to fantasy and is detrimental to scientific progress (Durston, 2015). PP advocates the scientific method of testing hypotheses, developing self-reports based on operationally defined constructs, and conducting experimental tests, all of which has been effective in producing many “scientific studies” that are quickly published in the popular press and accepted by businesses and individuals to increase their success and happiness (Coplan, 2009). Unfortunately, many of these studies cannot be replicated, and their findings often have little relevance to human needs because their measuring instruments lack construct validity (Biswas-Diener, 2015; Tavris, 2014).
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) dismissive remarks about humanistic psychology are an example of arrogant scientism. The division and bitter debates that ensued have hindered the progress of PP; only recently have there been hopeful signs that this divide can be healed with the development of the more inclusive PP 2.0 (Ivtzan et al., 2016; Wong, 2016a). Ironically, the commercialization of PP and the proliferation of self-help books by positive psychologists and practitioners are far worse than the commercialization of humanistic psychology, as derided by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi. What makes it worse is not only the large scale of it, but also the marketing of pseudoscience in the name of science (Coyne, 2014). Recently, Wong, Ivtzan, and Lomas (in press) have pointed out the ways in which scientism and the uncritical applications of PP findings to organizations are counterproductive.
An implicit culture of scientism permeates every aspect of the PP community, from research to practice. Many Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) students claim to have expertise in the science of happiness, meaning, or resilience, even when they have had only one course in research methodology and did a master’s thesis on the topic. Many positive coaches use science as their calling card, when they have little understanding or training in scientific research in psychology. Even on social media, the official Positive Psychology page on Facebook shows such scientism; Wong’s (the first author) postings have been frequently rejected by the administrators, who have claimed that “these postings are not based on scientific findings” without understanding that the scientific process involves more than just scientific findings. In sum, scientism and elitism are a bad combination, responsible for many of the conceptual and methodological problems in the research and applications of PP examined in the next section.
Positive Psychology’s Conceptual Limitations
Seligman’s initial focus on positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions has dominated the agenda for research and intervention within PP for more than a decade even though such a positive-focus only is indefensible conceptually, scientifically, and experientially because in reality, the positives and negatives cannot be separated. One assumption behind PPIs is that they can “replace negative experiences with positive ones” (Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013, p. 160). Unfortunately, this assumption has never been empirically supported. Although good experiences may somewhat mitigate the adverse effects of bad ones, there is no evidence that one can ever replace negative experiences with positive ones except for the situation of counterconditioning in treating phobia (Craighead & Nemeroff, 2004). There is also no evidence that the negative effects of very traumatic experiences simply disappear as a result of happiness-inducing interventions.
Seligman, Parks, and Steen (2004) also emphasized that positive interventions are intended to “improve the lives of the people whose days are largely free of overt mental dysfunction” (p. 1379). In short, the goal of positive interventions is to build some positive variables in order to increase some positive outcomes (e.g., happiness or well-being). Logic dictates, however, that this will unnecessarily—and ironically—limit PPIs to people who are least in need of help.
It is worth stressing here that, for the most part, PP takes the term “positive” to mean “having only positive content.” This working definition largely avoids mentioning and addressing human pains and distresses, and specifically targets a subset of individuals who are not suffering from overt or covert mental illness by prescribing the dutiful performance of happiness-enhancing activities. This rather rose-tinted approach is far too narrow to be descriptive of the entire range of human experiences.
The positive-only focus is based on binary or dichotomous thinking; that is, one can either focus on the positive or negative. In reality, the positives and negatives cannot be separated; they often co-exist in various combinations and there is also the phenomenon of covalence, as has been shown by Lomas (Lomas, 2016; Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015). We also add that from the Yin–Yang perspective, opposites can complement and nurture each other to contribute to our survival and well-being.
Research has demonstrated clearly that that there are upsides to the negatives (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2015; Norem & Chang, 2002; Woolfolk, 2002) and downsides to the positives (Forgas, 2014; Shumaker, 2006; Wong, 2007). Any adequate explanation of human behavior needs to incorporate the negative or dark side of human existence (Ivtzan et al., 2016; Wong, 2011a).
Componential Rather Than Holistic Thinking
PP research and PPIs tend to focus on specific emotions, thoughts, and behaviors rather than the whole person. Such reductionism is useful for research, but, at some point, we need to confront the fact that the person needs to be understood holistically, because personhood cannot be reduced to various components. For example, in the application of character strengths research, the focus typically is on signature character strengths, but such a narrow focus misses the point that a person may be strong in some signature character strengths but can still behave like a jerk because of a lack of humility and others-directed character strengths.
Schwartz and Sharpe (2006) pointed out the downside of this componential approach, and advocated the need to strike a balance. In their influential book on Practical Wisdom (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2010), they emphasized the importance of cultivating practical wisdom, which is necessary to respond and act in a balanced manner. Similarly, Allan (2015) also emphasized the importance of balancing different character strengths for well-being.
Furthermore, focusing on a person’s strengths does not mean ignoring the dark side of human existence, which includes personal problems, illnesses, and suffering (Ivtzan et al., 2016; Saleebey, 2011). Similarly, Snyder, Lopez, and Pedrotti (2011) argued that the most promising positive approach is to simultaneously increase one’s strengths and remediate one’s deficiency. They strongly contended for a balanced approach: “It is very tempting to focus on just the good (or the bad) in the world, but it is not good science and we must not make this mistake in advancing positive psychology” (Snyder et al., 2011, p. 8; emphasis in original). Such balancing is more likely to be achieved when we take a holistic view of the total person.
The componential approach of gratitude exercises can also be criticized. In Buddhist psychology, as well as in traditional Asian cultures, there is a consistent teaching that people should be grateful. Take, for instance, the popular Chinese saying, “Whenever you drink, remember its source.” Such teachings on cultivating an appreciative attitude can avoid the problem of mechanically employing gratitude exercises inappropriately, whether it is sending a gratitude letter or paying a gratitude visit.
An existential gratitude exercise is perhaps the best example of holistic thinking. The emphasis is placed on cultivating gratitude by internalizing it as an essential virtue rather than practicing the gratitude exercise as a way of increasing personal hedonic feelings. For example, instead of writing about three good things, three daily blessings (Wong, in press-a) can be emphasized:
- Be thankful for being alive with all its opportunities for creative contributions.
- Be thankful for family members, friends, and all those who have contributed to your life.
- Be thankful for our home, the beautiful planet Earth.
Such an existential gratitude exercise is not only deeper and broader than PPIs such as the Three Good Things exercise or the Gratitude Visit, but also more relevant to people in all life circumstances and ethnic-cultural contexts. If one meditates on the above three areas daily, it will make one a better and happier person. We invite PP researchers to compare this existential gratitude exercise of “Three Blessings” with any other gratitude exercise.
Another limitation of focusing on specific behaviors is the dismissal of the importance of attitude change. There is substantial literature on the psychology of attitude change. An attitude is “a relatively enduring organization of beliefs, feelings, and behavioral tendencies towards socially significant objects, groups, events or symbols” (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005, p. 150). Interventions designed to change one’s attitude may have more pervasive and enduring effects on positive transformation than interventions focused on behavioral or cognitive change. Attitude modification is an essential part of logotherapy and meaning therapy (Wong, in press-a).
Some mainstream psychologists also emphasize the importance of a holistic and existential perspective. For instance, Ryff et al. (2014) wrote,
The cure is thus not defined by the alleviation of emotional discomfort, or the attainment of some ideal feeling state, but by being able to take constructive action in one’s life—i.e., being able to live a full and meaningful existence, rather than be ruled by passing emotions. (p. 12)
The value-neutral position of the majority of positive psychologists naturally stems from scientism, the naïve belief that people can be treated as objects as in chemistry and physics. Even the American Psychological Association (2011) advocates a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) approach towards psychology. However, unlike objects, people have cultural differences and individual values. By virtue of PP researchers’ positivist paradigm and their commitment to empiricism, most of them naturally favor the philosophy of materialism and naturalism. Furthermore, they are not actually value-neutral, because they blatantly promote personal happiness as the most desirable end-value, even though the perils of pursuing happiness have been well documented. For example, Parks and Biswas-Diener (2013) have aptly stated that “work by Mauss et al. (2011) suggests that holding happiness as a goal makes it more difficult to achieve that goal—by telling oneself that one ‘should’ be happy, one is more easily disappointed by one’s own emotional experiences” (p. 159).
Finally, positive psychologists focus on the self rather than the collective. As Foody, Barnes-Holmes, and Barnes-Holmes (2013) have said, they “employ numerous self-referenced concepts, such as hypo-egoic self-regulation (Leary, Adams, & Tate, 2006); self-compassion (Neff, 2003); self-esteem (Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996); self-efficacy (Bandura, 1999); and self-worth (Crocker & Park, 2004)” (p. 166). Thus, positive psychologists appear to be just as guilty of promoting narcissism as the humanistic psychologists whom they have accused of doing the same thing.
Lack of a Comprehensive Theory
Much research energy has been directed towards conducting empirical studies that demonstrate that different variables are related to happiness and well-being. Seligman’s (2011) PERMA theory of well-being is, strictly speaking, not a formal theory, but rather a listing of phenomena that have been shown to be related to well-being (Wong, 2011b). One can easily add to this list without changing any part of the theory. A strong case can be made that grit (Duckworth, 2016) and spirituality (Koenig, 2011) are also important for well-being; thus, “PERMA” becomes “PERMAGS”. One can easily see that PERMA is not a theory that addresses a finite number of underlying mechanisms or basic conditions that are essential to well-being, but just a list which can be indefinitely lengthened.
Another popular theory in PP is Barbara Fredrickson’s (2001) broaden-and-build theory. Her theory is only related to the hypothesis that positive emotions will propel us in “upward spirals” towards creativity and optimal performance. It is not a general theory because it does not address the benefits of negative emotions as Wong (2012a) has, in his deep-and-wide theory. Wong hypothesized that negative emotions, especially frustrations and unfulfilled needs, can motivate us to dig deeper into our resources, leading to creativity and resilience. In short, too much energy within PP has been devoted to empirical research rather than theoretical development.
Positive Psychology’s Methodological Limitations
PP is dominated by the positivist paradigm and ignores other paradigms of truth claims, such as phenomenology, history or philosophy. Positivist researchers are necessarily reductionists and cognitive-behaviorists. However, it is worth remembering that any empirical finding is based on one person’s hypothesis, one person’s selection of independent and dependent variables, and a convenience sample, all of which have the potential to bias the findings. Thus, empirical findings may not be replicable because of methodological limitations, such as bias in sample selections, self-reports, or experimental manipulations, as well as in the personal, cultural, and historical backgrounds of the participants.
Furthermore, complex human phenomena such as meaning in life are reduced to simple operational definitions and “quick-and-dirty” psychological measures. As a result, PP findings have been criticized for being superficial, unrealistic, and lacking in external validity (Coyne, 2014; Coyne & Tennen, 2010; Coyne, Tennen, & Ranchor, 2010; Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013; Wong, 2011b; Wong et al., in press).
Parks and Biswas-Diener (2013) were also aware of the limitations of focusing on laboratory experiments:
Positive interventions, as they are studied in the laboratory, arguably bear little resemblance to those used by people in the real world. Most research studies ask participants to practice a single activity in the exact same way over the course of some time period at the exclusion of other activities (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). (p. 158)
In view of the above, it could be potentially harmful for PP practitioners to base their interventions on blind belief in the empirical findings of a couple of studies. In the long run, psychological research findings need to be evaluated in the light of our overall knowledge of human nature and behavior based on history, philosophy, literature, religions, social and biological sciences, the totality of psychological research, and our own lifelong experience.
Dependence on “Quick-and-Dirty” Measures
PP research depends heavily on the development of simple and unvalidated measures of complex human phenomenon. PP assessments seldom follow through the elaborate test-construction procedure which often takes much more time and effort (e.g., Wong, 1998; Wong, Reker, & Peacock, 2006). A recent publication from George and Park (2016) presenting a measure of existential meaning—the Multidimensional Existential Meaning Scale (MEMS)—is a perfect example of such “quick-and-dirty” measures, as supported by the following detailed critique:
Conceptual Problems. In order to develop a valid measure of existential meaning, one needs to examine all the relevant research. If one only has a superficial understanding of existential meaning and arbitrarily generates items to fit one’s limited conception of existential meaning, it is unlikely that the resulting measure would have the necessary construct validity to be useful. As DeRobertis (2016) wrote, “Humanistic psychologists have repeatedly shown that they have the ability to be visionary, only to have their creativity coopted and bastardized to fit the positivist paradigm” (p. 20). By ignoring the vast humanistic-existential literature, and yet employing its constructs, it is inevitable that their operational definitions often suffer from a lack of construct validity.
George and Park (2016) did not seem to be familiar with the broader literature on existential meaning (e.g., Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Emmons, 2005; Reker & Chamberlain, 1999; Wong, 2012b; Wong & Fry, 1998) and failed to show a deeper and broader understanding of existential meaning, which happened to be their research focus. As a result, their characterization of the three main themes of existential meaning—Comprehension, Purpose, and Mattering—was both superficial and biased. This conceptual problem provided a questionable foundation for item generation and their theoretically-oriented test construction.
Procedural Problems. Both the data collection procedure and the test construction procedure of George and Park (2016) were not clearly described to allow for replication. The procedure problems occur at all levels, from item generation to validity testing. Simply producing statistically significant results is meaningless if the items and scales have no validity.
From the standpoint of test construction, it seems very strange that the authors focused on demonstrating the validity for three subscales before they demonstrated the validity of the overall scale. If the scale as a whole is not valid, then there is no point in demonstrating the validity of the subscales. It remains questionable whether the scale as a whole really measures existential meaning.
Test Construction Problems. We have no confidence that the items used by George and Park (2016) truly reflect all the important aspects of existential meaning. The 43 items generated by unnamed “experts” show an absence of items germane to existential meaning. This raises the issue whether any of these experts had expertise in existential literature, because they do not properly reflect major themes in the existential psychology literature.
Moreover, some of the items sound contrived and unrealistic, characteristic of items generated by armchair academics. Wong (the first author of the present chapter) has interviewed thousands of people regarding their understanding of existential meaning; no one really believes that “even a thousand years from now, it would still matter whether I existed or not” (Item #4). Similarly, no one has ever said that “whether my life ever existed matters even in the grand scheme of the universe” (Item #11). This item suggests that the universe would be affected if I was not born. Real people’s sense of significance does not come from such abstract hyperboles.
Another critique of George and Park (2016)’s study is that their sample consisted entirely of undergraduate students, with a mean age of 19. At such a young age, most students are still trying to figure out who they are, what they want to do with their lives after graduation, and how to “fit in” in this complex and quickly-changing world. After teaching and counseling students for more than 30 years, Wong has never heard any student say, “My life makes sense.” It would be more appropriate to have presented participants with items such as, “I am trying to make sense of my life even when life often seems unfair and crazy.”
Test Validation Problems. To establish the validity of their test, it would have been logical for George and Park (2016) to correlate their Comprehension Subscale with the Sense of Coherence Scale (Antonovsky, 1993). Instead, they chose to correlate this subscale with the variable of dogmatism using the DOG Scale (Altemeyer, 2002). Is there any evidence in the literature that a sense of coherence is related to dogmatism? In fact, according to existential psychology, the opposite is true. One of the main themes of existential psychology and philosophy is that in order to make sense of life, one needs to be open to life experiences and open-minded in making sense of these life experiences. It is more likely that existential meaning is related to Openness (from the Big Five personality factors) than to dogmatism.
George and Park (2016) also hypothesized that the Purpose Subscale is related to sensitivity towards reward and punishment. This is also a highly questionable hypothesis, because meaning-oriented purpose, in contrast to success-oriented purpose, is intrinsic, not contingent on reward and punishment (Wong, 2012c). Emmons’ (2005) goal striving analysis would be a more appropriate validity test.
In sum, different relationships of the subscales with inappropriate variables say nothing about the validity of the subscales. Furthermore, George and Park (2016) really needed to demonstrate the concurrent, discriminant, and predictive validity of their overall scale first.
Analogous critiques to the above can be applied to most of the measures used in PP research, although this question is beyond the scope of this chapter. It represents a huge waste of resources when invalid measures are published and used widely in research, because they do not really advance the understanding of phenomena, such as existential meaning in this example. It is also potentially harmful when the resulting findings based on such quickly developed and simple-minded measures are then used to guide the practice of PPIs.
According to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), scientific findings in psychology can “transcend particular cultures and politics and approach universality” (p. 5). However, such confidence is unwarranted, since “PP is probably more culture-bound than other sub-disciplines of psychology because what is positive requires a priori value judgments based on social norms and cultural context” (Wong, 2013, p. 1021). There is increasing evidence that cultural values and beliefs influence such matters as what constitutes the good life and optimal functioning (Haidt, 2005; Leong & Wong, 2003; Lopez, Edwards, Magyar-Moe, Pedrotti, & Ryder, 2003; Snyder & Lopez, 2002).
Recently, Parks and Biswas-Diener (2013) reported that some gratitude exercises (e.g., the Gratitude Visit) may backfire with Asian-American students. Similarly, Layous, Lee, Choi, and Lyubomirsky (2013) found that South Koreans benefited significantly less from practicing gratitude than did Americans. With respect to Indian parents and family elders, Singh (2015) wrote the Atlantic article “I’ve Never Thanked My Parents for Anything,” in which he described how, within the Indian family circle, saying “Thank you” can be construed as meaning “Thank you for whatever you did for me. Goodbye forever!”
Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan (2010) argued that behavioral scientists have been making broad claims about human behavior that are based on a small and exceptional group of individuals: those characterized by being Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (what these authors referred to as WEIRD). There is no reason to believe that findings based on such WEIRD samples can be generalized to non-Western cultures.
Limitations of Positive Psychology Interventions
As originally defined by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000), PPIs are “effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities” (p. 5). Positive psychotherapy (PPT) is defined as aiming at “directly and primarily building positive emotions, character strengths, and meaning” (Seligman, Rashid, & Parks, 2006, p. 775). Parks and Biswas-Diener (2013) broadened this definition in terms of three broad focuses of positive intervention as follows: “(1) interventions that focus on positive topics, (2) interventions that operate by a positive mechanism or that target a positive outcome variable, and (3) interventions that are designed to promote wellness, rather than fix weakness” (p. 141). Duckworth, Steen, and Seligman (2005) concluded with confidence that PPIs had mounting empirical support by contending that “positive interventions are justifiable in their own right,” but suggested in addition that “positive interventions may also usefully supplement direct attempts to prevent and treat psychopathology and, indeed, may covertly be a central component of good psychotherapy as it is done now” (p. 629). However, such confidence is unwarranted, given the replication and methodological problems that have been demonstrated (Coyne, 2014; Tavris, 2014).
Hayes (2013) demarcated the important difference between content and process or form and function. Whether any content serves a positive function is a matter of context. Thus, what constitutes a PPI all depends on the context:
There are healthy ways to relate to emotions, positive and negative, and these depend on context; there are healthy ways to act, and sometimes these are not merely ‘the more virtue the better’—it depends on context. . . . The list where this has been shown to be true is impressive. A recent article by McNulty and Fincham (2012) documents this fact in some detail. (p. 306)
Recently, the definition of PPIs has become much more balanced and nuanced. Rashid et al. (2014) provided a detailed description of PPT:
PPT doesn’t purport to oversimplify this complexity. It weighs symptoms and strengths, vulnerabilities and opportunities, skills and deficits realistically—without minimizing or ignoring either. In this regard, Positive Psychotherapy is a misnomer; we would prefer to call it a balanced therapy—but it is far less appetizing than PPT. In striking the balance, PPT equally considers positive emotions and strengths and negative symptoms and disorders. (p. 162)
However, a careful examination of their actual session-by-session description of a typical PPT program reveals little evidence of a balanced approach that pays equal attention to symptoms, weaknesses, and negative emotions. Most of their sessions cover the typical PP variables, such as positive emotions, character strengths, and gratitude. Their only reference to the dark side is about “bad memories.” Consistent with their positive bias, bad memories are interpreted as being bad for you: “the role of bad memories is discussed in terms of how they undermine one’s resilience” (Rashid et al., 2014, p. 164). In contrast, from a meaning perspective, bad memories can be good, if one learns to confront and transcend one’s bad memories and make a coherent narrative out of them (Wong & Watt, 1991).
Moreover, there is no evidence that meaning is included in Rashid et al.’s (2014) PPIs, even though they claim that PPT is designed to build “positive emotions, strengths, and meaning [emphasis added], in addition to undoing symptoms” (Rashid et al., 2014, p. 161). Thus, even in the latest development of PPIs, they remain basically the typical positive-only interventions seen before, in spite of the more balanced definition.
Critique of Specific Interventions
PPIs may not be as effective as originally claimed. This chapter has already alluded to the lack of strong evidence for PPIs because of small sample size, the lack of statistical power, and the replication problems. Here is a more specific example of the lack of long-term benefits of PPIs. Weis and Speridakos (2011) conducted a meta-analysis of hope enhancement strategies, involving 27 studies reported over 17 years with a total of 2,154 participants. They concluded that the meta-study produced “only modest evidence for the ability of hope enhancement strategies based on these models to increase hopefulness or improve life satisfaction among participants and no consistent evidence that hope enhancement strategies can alleviate psychological distress” (p. 10). Weis and Speridakos were disappointed that hope-enhancing strategies had such “small overall effects” in both increasing the hope levels of the participants, as well as improving their life satisfaction scores. However, perhaps their greatest disappointment was at the finding that hope-enhancement strategies did not reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, or psychological distress.
PPIs may involve risk factors. Coyne (2014) suggested that PPIs could be harmful in certain situations:
If depressed persons try these [PP] exercises without feeling better, they are accumulating more failure experiences and further evidence that they are defective, particularly in the context of glowing claims in the popular media of the power of simple positive psychology interventions to transform lives. Some depressed people develop acute sensitivity to superficial efforts to make them feel better. Their depression is compounded by their sense of coercion and invalidation of what they are so painfully feeling. (para. 2)
There are also risk factors related to optimism. Unrealistic optimism about future health outcomes has been associated with “higher risk, poorer knowledge of and attention to health risk information, greater use of defense strategies when processing such information, and more risky behavioral intentions and actual behavior” (Chang, 2008, p. 6). Interestingly, a meta-analysis of 75 studies found that “depressive realism” could have a valid voice, and depressed people judge their prospect of events more accurately than do non-depressed people (Oettingen, 2000).
Furthermore, cognitive empathy can have a negative utility. Goleman (2007) wrote, “Those who fall within the ‘Dark Triad’—narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths—can be talented in this regard . . . talented political operatives no doubt have this ability in abundance” (para. 3). Emotional empathy can also have a deleterious effect, when people who cannot handle their own distressing emotions are prone to enter the state of empathic distress, fatigue, or burnout. Observed cases of “vicarious trauma” prove that after repeated exposures to other people’s traumas, there appears a change in the helper’s view of themselves and the world (Saakvitne, Pearlman, & Abrahamson, 1996). Singer et al. (2006) suggested that it is possible to have empathy for people who are deliberately unfair.
Some PP experiments may lead to misguided PPIs. For example, Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) investigated whether engaging in an act of kindness per day for a week or five acts of kindness in a single day leads to increases in well-being, and concluded that the latter course of action was more effective. To translate this finding to practice, does this mean that one should refrain from doing a kind deed, even when the situation demands it, so that one can cash in more happiness by doing all one’s “quota” of kind deeds in one day? In other words, does this study encourage callous calculation devoid of compassion? Does it incentivize people not to be good Samaritans? Wouldn’t we rather encourage people to perform random acts of kindness every day, because this is good for both the person who practices it and for society?
Lack of Meaning Interventions
Given the mounting evidence regarding the vital role of meaning in well-being and healing (Batthyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Steger, Sheline, Merriman, & Kashdan, 2013; Wong, 2012b), we would expect that meaning-enhancing interventions would be important in applied PP. Unfortunately, meaning-oriented interventions remain underdeveloped and meaning interventions that do exist are largely ignored by positive psychologists.
Parks and Biswas-Diener (2013) were correct in pointing out that most meaning interventions involve personal narratives to make sense of traumatic or stressful events (e.g., Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999). In contrast, the benefits of expressive writing on positive experiences are less clear-cut. Lyubomirsky, Sousa, and Dickerhoof (2006) found that participants who wrote about a past positive event reported lower life satisfaction as compared to a control group. Writing about one’s positive future was beneficial (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006), but Parks and Biswas-Diener pointed out that even this approach did not work with some individuals. These findings show that a positive-only focus in expressive writing is misguided, in view of the overwhelming evidence of writing about trauma (J. B. Peterson & Mar, 2016).
Steger et al.’s (2013) chapter is most promising in recognizing the need to take a more holistic approach. Meaning-oriented interventions need to offer “‘larger and larger patterns.’ Meaning in life research directly addresses how behaviors and values, as a holistic unit, bring one’s life into harmony by serving a greater purpose” (Steger et al., 2013, p. 262). They recognize the following main themes that are closely related to logotherapy and meaning therapy:
- Mobilizing Values. The aim of this intervention is to identify and explore the values that clients can act on. For example, one can ask clients to talk about “what they stand for, what they believe in, what makes them proud about their own conduct, and so on” (Steger et al., 2013, p. 255). This line of questioning serves to push clients to discuss their values that benefit both them and the world.
- What the World Needs Now. This intervention strategy approaches the value issue from what the world demands of the client.
Continued dialogue can help clients find the most magnetic need in the world. When paired with the “mobilizing values” intervention, people can be helped to find a purpose they care about and articulate some rough ideas about how they would like to pursue it. (Steger et al., 2013, p. 256)
Importantly, Steger et al. (2013) recognized that meaning is inherently related to self-transcendental value:
Although most meaning in life theorists are agnostic about what kinds of meaning are “best,” several have argued that as people mature, their meaning in life becomes increasingly directed at a greater good that transcends their momentary, individualistic desires. This notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor used of people experiencing a mindful mindset (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007). (p. 261)
The good news is that meaning therapy (Frankl, 1985; Wong, in press-a, in press-b) has already developed interventions as anticipated by Steger et al. (2013). Cultivating the “meaning mindset,” reframing problems into larger meaningful contexts, and pursuing a goal of serving others or the common good are all examples of meaning interventions based on self-transcendence. The bad news is that these meaning interventions, initially developed by Frankl and re-introduced by Wong, still fail to attract much attention from PP researchers and practitioners.
The Need for PP 2.0
Wong (2009, 2011a) has spent many years of effort to advance existential PP (EPP) as the second wave of PP. EPP is primarily concerned with the existential issues of personal striving for significance in spite of the dark side of human existence. An existentially-informed PP will benefit from the deep and rich insights of the existential literature. Such effort is currently gaining acceptance in the PP community (e.g., Ivtzan et al., 2016).
A classic example of EPP is Emmons’ (1999) research on ultimate concern. He was faithful to the philosophical concept of ultimate concern, and yet was able to conduct rigorous scientific research on this concept. Similarly, Wong (2014) was able to translate Frankl’s concept of will to meaning into a testable meaning-seeking model.
A balanced PPT will meet clients in their dark valleys and use a variety of tools to help the clients overcome, transcend, and transform negatives into positives. Thus, the good life for clients can be best achieved by incorporating both painful struggles to overcome negative conditions and heroic strivings to realize one’s dreams and potentials in spite of constraints.
The main theme of PP 2.0 is that in order to achieve healing and flourishing, one needs to confront the dark side of human existence. It is based on the logic of the dialectic interaction between positives and negatives, and the principle of self-transcendence. A balanced PP 2.0 believes that opposites not only co-exist but also complement each other (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015). Similarly, Wong (2015) argued that PP 2.0 is both necessary and inevitable; he has also shown how the dark side can be transformed to contribute to well-being (Wong, 2016b). The main differences between PP and PP 2.0 can be found in Table 1.
|Dichotomous and binary.||Dialectical and interactive.|
|Focuses on the positive only.||Focuses on both the positive and the negative.|
|Emphasizes positive emotions.||Emphasizes responsible action.|
|Avoids the topics of suffering and death.||Embraces the topics of suffering and death as a pre-condition for authentic happiness.|
|Flourishing achieved through focusing on the positive and avoiding the negative.||Flourishing achieved only through confronting and transforming the dark side of human existence.|
|Happiness oriented, self-fulfillment focused.||Meaning oriented, self-transcendence focused.|
|Direct pursuit of happiness.||Happiness is a byproduct of pursuit of meaning.|
|Truncated understanding of well-being.||Complete understanding of well-being in the midst of suffering.|
|Focuses on elements of well-being, such as behavior, cognition, affect, and so on.||Focuses on the whole person, taking a holistic and person-centered approach.|
|Detached from humanistic-existential psychology.||Informed by humanistic-existential psychology.|
|Based on the positivist paradigm.||Based on the pluralistic humble science perspective.|
|Based on empirical findings from psychological laboratories.||Based on empirical findings from both psychological and real-life “laboratories.”|
|Based on individualist culture.||Based on both individualist and collectivist cultures.|
In contrast to what we might call “PP as usual,” PP 2.0 takes a much larger view of the infinite human potentials for both good and evil, without being limited by positivist epistemology and methodology. PP 2.0 is inherently multicultural, existential, and attuned to the pain and suffering of marginalized or less fortunate people. If happiness is the public face of PP as usual, then meaning is the public face of PP 2.0. The science of PP 2.0 entails new practices in both research and interventions. It is holistic and encompasses existential-phenomenological methodology as well as clinical and historical case studies.
With respect to the promotion of meaningful instrumental activities, Proctor and Linley (2014) also advocated a balanced approach to developing both character strengths and relative character weaknesses. As well, they favour a more holistic approach:
Finally, spirituality, positive religious coping, and daily spiritual experiences have also been [shown] to be positively related to positive affect and life satisfaction among young people (Van Dyke et al., 2009). These results suggest that holistic approaches to increasing well-being should consider the use of positive religious coping strategies among youths who are religious and the role of spirituality in early adolescents’ psychological well-being. (Proctor & Linley, 2014, p. 209)
As Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the will has been succinctly summarized, “The things that we love tell us what we are” (Kreeft, 2012, p. 183). PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain. Consequently, first wave positive psychologists prescribe painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success. In contrast, PP 2.0 assumes that people are spiritual beings. Beyond our physical needs for pleasure and comfort (Freud) and psychological needs for power and fame (Adler), what we love and care deeply about reveals our hidden yearning for meaning and self-transcendence (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2016c). Therefore, second wave positive psychologists prescribe the long and hard road of pursuing self-transcendence (Wong, 2016d).
The biggest mistake in PP as usual is assuming that people are objects situated in a vacuum. Thus, the research on the pursuit of happiness and well-being is based on self-reports and experimental studies on young students without any reference to real life situations. It is doubtful whether PPIs based on these artificial empirical findings are relevant to the suffering masses. In contrast, PP 2.0 interventions—based on a broad and positive explanatory system regarding human nature or the human condition—can offer people infinite possibilities of meaning and hope in the midst of unavoidable suffering (Wong, in press-a). They seem more realistic and relevant to most people who are struggling with the hardship and seeming absurdity of human life. It is hoped that PP 2.0 will devote more research on existential positive interventions as the most promising direction to develop PPIs.
In recent years, we have witnessed a number of positive psychologists debunking the myths of PP (Biswas-Diener, 2013; Francis, 2012; Marsh, 2013; C. Peterson, 2012) as if these myths were merely due to misunderstandings and misapplications; but these problems are, in fact, symptoms of the fundamental problem of scientism. Against this backdrop, PP 2.0 is directly aimed at these errors. Scientism is replaced by a humble science (Templeton, 1998), because truths about human behavior and the human condition come from different paradigms of truth claims, from phenomenological research and philosophical inquiries. Positivism is replaced by a pluralistic perspective. Elitism is replaced by valuing the voice of research participants (Gergen, 2016; Wong, 2016a) and the “big tent” grassroots approach of valuing research from different disciplines. Thus, the emergence of PP 2.0 promises a very different kind of research, as well as interventions that are more relevant to real life for people in all cultures.
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This publication was partially supported by the research grant on Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life from the John Templeton Foundation in support of the humble approach to positive psychology.