Learn the differences
It is very common for people to confuse Positive Psychology with positive thinking. I don’t blame them. I believe it is the fault of those who chose to call the new field of research positive psychology. A very unscientific name, loaded with a value judgement that wrongly makes the impression as if other streams of psychology are negative. To better reflect the true nature of Positive Psychology, perhaps a more suitable name is Strengths Psychology, or Well-being psychology.
Can we really equate well-being or strengths with positive thinking?
Not at all. I see them as profoundly different approaches to life when compared on some core aspects.
The goal of positive thinking is to feel good. It claims that if we simply think positive thoughts and speak nice words we will make ourselves and others feel good. This version of happiness is what the founders of Positive Psychology argued against so they set the goal on flourishing. Happiness is not just about living a pleasant life. It is about living our values and fulfilling our strengths through engagement, coping and contributing. Here lies the power of Yes. Achieving that involves two essential life skills: acting rather than avoiding, and tolerating pain and unpleasant feelings. Ultimately, Self-fulfilment takes hard work, discipline and resilience.
The positive thinking approach is driven by a strong sense of idealism and fixed judgements of how things should or shouldn’t be. Strengths Psychology is not based in idealism; rather it is a realistic and pragmatic approach. It’s focus is ‘what is,’ ‘what really matters to us’ and ‘what works’. It looks at complexity of situations by integrating both the pleasant and the unpleasant aspects of life. The Strengths based approach regards emotions such as fear and anger as not simply negative, but essential for survival. Weaknesses, failures, losses and other ailments are not negative. They are integral part of being alive, of our nature as human beings.
Positive thinking and the self-esteem movement walk a similar path. A whole generation was raised on the belief that saying positive words to children will help them build healthy self-esteem. When teachers operate on this belief they spare parents and children the feedback that might offer a reality check and help them improve. Growing up in a culture of positive self-esteem people may not learn to appreciate mistakes and failures as milestones of their growth. The price is the shame that they might feel when they get things wrong and poor level of resilience. The psychology researcher Dweck explains in her seminal work on Mindset (see my blog) how focusing on self-esteem has damaged a whole generation. Her research shows how appreciation for effort and hard work supports growth and learning more than glowing words for good results. From strengths-based perspective our self-worth is not to be defined by what is going on in the heads of others, but rather by how we capitalise on our strengths. We are happy when we dare to express and share the abundance that we are.
Feeling uncomfortable with the ‘negative’ parts within themselves, positive thinking people tend to use strategies to keep these aspects in the dark basement of the mind – far away from the light of awareness. They may deny the existence of flaws, they may avoid conflict and confrontation and at times they may use a spiritual path to bypass the “negative” sides within themselves and in life. The nature of our unpleasant aspects is that if we are shamed by them and therefore hide them they tend to be projected onto others and sour relationships with others. This mechanism is exposed when positive thinking people over react with an overly harsh tone towards those who express a complaint, judgment or criticism. With their self-righteous tone they often shame the other person for being ‘negative’. Obviously, not a ‘positive’ thing to do.
In the Strengths psychology one of the hallmarks of well-being is self-acceptance. We want to acknowledge and accept vulnerability, weaknesses and feelings of hurt, anger and fear within ourselves so that we can be at peace with them rather than feel ashamed.
When we are faced with certain life challenges a bias towards ‘positivity’, optimism or over-trusting can be a dangerous trap. Some of the strengths in the list of 24 strengths can focus at times on ‘negative’. Yet, they contribute to our healthy coping mechanisms. A few examples:
Perspective/wisdom enables us to look at complex matters from various points of view, including their dark sides, hence reach a more balanced view of situations.
Social intelligence enables us to read people motives and recognise when people should or shouldn’t be trusted.
Critical thinking and healthy skepticism enables us to examine the evidence with care before rushing to conclusion.
Courage enables us to deal with conflicts and confront issues rather than avoiding or sugar-coating them.
Prudence enables us to acknowledge risks and avoid them.
The beauty in the message of Positive Psychology can be summed simply: When you capitalise on your strengths there is always more than one person who will benefit.
You may also want to watch this TED talk on Optimism Bias