Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Positive Psychology (continued)

This is a response to a reader's comment on my post about positive psychology:

Here's a brief response to some of your points:

1) I don't think there's anything wrong with focusing on pathology or weaknesses. In fact, I consider this type of focus to be essential. Imagine an engineering project in which structural weaknesses or failures were ignored, with a great big smile or a belief that "everything will be fine." Many a disaster has resulted from this kind of approach. I think of the space shuttle disaster, for example.

The insight from positive psychology though, in my opinion, has to do with re-evaluating the balance between a focus on "positivity" vs. pathology.

In depressive states, the cognitive stance is often overwhelmingly critical, about self, world, and future. Even if these views are accurate, they tend to prevent any solution of the problem they describe. It is like an engineering project where the supervisor is so focused on mistakes and criticism that no one can move on, all the workers are tired and demoralized, and perhaps the immediate, relentless focus on errors prevents a different perspective, and a healthy collaboration, which might actually definitively solve the problem.

2) I believe that pronouncements of the "right or wrong" of an emotional or intellectual position are finally up to the individual. It is not for me, or our culture, to judge. There will be all sorts of points of view about the morality or acceptability of any emotional or social stance: some of these points of view will be very critical or judgmental to a given person, some won't. I suppose there are elements of the culture that would harshly judge or criticize someone who appears too "happy": perhaps such a person would be deemed shallow, delusional, uncritical, vain, etc. I prefer to view ideas such as those in "positive psychology" as possible instruments of change, to be tried if a person wishes to try them. CBT, medications, psychoanalysis, surgery, having "negative friends" or "ditching them", etc. are all choices, change behaviours, or ways of managing life, which I think individuals should be free to consider if available, and if legal, but also free to reject if they feel it is not right for them.

In terms of the "gimmicky" nature of positive psychology, I agree. But I think most of the ideas are very simple, and are reflected in other very basic, widely accepted research in biology & behaviour. In widely disparate fields, such as the study of child-rearing, education, coaching, or animal training, it is clear that recognition and criticism of "faults" or "pathologies" is necessary in order for problems to be resolved. Yet the mechanism by which change most optimally occurs is by instilling an atmosphere of warmth, reward, comfort, and joy, with a minority of feedback having to do with criticism. The natural instinct with problematic situations, however, is often to punish. Punishing a child for misbehaviour may at times be necessary, but most times child punishments are excessive and ineffectual, often are more about the emotional state of the punisher rather than the behavioural state of the child, and ironically may reinforce the problems the child is being punished for. Punishing a biting dog through physical injury will teach the dog to be even more aggressive. I find this type of cycle prominent in depressive states: there may be a lot of internal self-criticism (some of which may be accurate), but it leads to harsh self-punishment which ends up perpetuating the depressive state. I find the best insights of "positive psychology" have to do with stepping out of this type of punitive cycle, not by ignoring the negative, but by deliberately trying to nurture and reward the positive as well.

3) The research about so-called "depressive realism" has always seemed quite suspect to me. In a person with PTSD (a disorder which I consider highly analogous to depression and other mental illnesses), very often there is a high degree of sensitivity to various stimuli, that may, for example, cause that person to be able to have better vigilance regarding the potential dangers associated with the sound of footsteps in the distance, or of the smell of smoke, etc. Often times, though, this heightened vigilance comes at great expense to that person's ability to function in life: a pleasant walk, a work environment, or a hug, may instead become a terrifying journey or a place of constant fear of attack.

Similarly, in depressive states, there may be beliefs that are, on one level, accurate, but on another level are causing a profound impairment in life function (e.g. regarding socializing, learning, work, simple life pleasures, spirituality, etc.).

With regard to science, I do not find any need to say that "positive psychology" etc. is about a biased interpretation of data. Instead, my analogy would be along the lines of how one would solve a complex mathematical equation:
-a small minority of mathematical problems have a straightforward answer. If one was to look only at precedents in data, one might conclude that there is no definable answer for many problems. A cynical and depressive approach would be to abandon the problem.
-but most complex problems today require what is called a "numerical analysis" approach. This necessitates basically guessing at the solution, then applying an algorithm that will "sculpt" the guess closer to the true answer. Sometimes the algorithm doesn't work, and the attempted solutions "diverge." But the convergence to a solution through numerical analytical methods is the most powerful phenomenon in modern science. It has permitted most every single major advance in science and engineering in the past hundred years. It is basically analogous to positive behavioural shaping in psychology. It is not about biased interpretation of data, it is about using a set of "positive" tools to solve a problem (in the mathematical case, to get numerical solutions; in the psychological case, to relieve symptoms, to increase freedom of choice, and to expand the realm of possible life functions available).

4) Some of the experiments are weak, no doubt about that. I don't consider experiments evaluating superficial cross-sectional affect to be relevant to therapy research. Experiments which evaluate the change in symptoms and subjective quality of life measures over long periods of time, are most relevant to me. I consider "positive psychology" to be just one more set of ideas that may help to improve quality of life, and overall life function, as subjectively defined by a patient.

In my discussion of this subject, I am not meaning to suggest that so-called "positive psychology" is my favoured therapeutic system. Some of the ideas may be quite off-putting to individuals who may need to deal with a lot of negative symptoms directly before doing "positivity exercises." But I do think that some of the ideas from positive psychology are important and relevant, and deserve to be adopted as part of an eclectic therapy model.

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