Positive psychology has become the focus of considerable critical attention of late – a mark, perhaps, of its growing stature. However, I think there is a misconception in some of these critiques – the assumption that positive psychology necessarily excludes experiences we might designate ‘negative’, or at least ‘not positive’.
Positive psychology is not about being relentlessly happy or optimistic. It does not consider positive and negative emotions and thoughts as mutually exclusive binary opposites.
Think of the example of loss. In the acute stage, intense grief and anguish are not only ubiquitous but also unavoidable, and I am using loss to refer to all the losses that one encounters in life – loss of a loved one, loss of employment, loss of health, loss of youth, loss of an ideal, etc. However, later we often find that in the midst of our sadness and pining, comforting and mood-lifting memories of the lost person or experience come to us, unbidden and spontaneously. We can smile with affectionate reminiscence.
This notion of positive-in-negative, of positive emerging out of negative – and how that can be facilitated or sabotaged – has been addressed by Penn Positive Psychology Center Director of Education and Senior Scholar James O Pawelski. He suggests the world has space for two types of ‘superhero’ – people who fight negatives such as social inequality or poverty and people who seek out positives such as justice and harmony.
Pawelski’s superhero example identifies endeavors that may not attract the descriptor ‘positive’ but are also not inherently the opposite.
In a recent interview for the University of Pennsylvania newsletter Penn Current, he said: “If you are a therapist helping people who have anxiety or schizophrenia, is that negative? Of course not. It is very positive. The key is to distinguish between endeavors that are directly and indirectly positive.”
I will elaborate further on this in part two.