In a BBC Radio 4 interview, Sir Bob Geldof described how his friends had helped him through the traumatic death of his daughter, Peaches. There was no heavy-duty therapy, no probing exploration of his darkest feelings. His musician friends simply stayed with him, playing the guitar or keyboards occasionally in spontaneous bouts of musical inspiration.
This could hardly be described as a positive experience. Geldof admits he was shattered, but in staying with him and refusing to abandon him in his sorrow (and maybe his rage), they accompanied him through an unutterably ghastly period, until his grief became at least tolerable and available for translation into words or music.
I would argue that Geldof’s friends were intuitively being positive psychologists. They did not invite him to express his anger or his darker feelings about the loss of his daughter, even though they would, as fellow humans capable of suffering loss and grief, be fully aware of the inevitable presence of such emotions and thoughts. They just stood with him until he was able to come through the blackest despair.
They maintained a kind of faith that, if they stood with him, he could pull through. Yes, positive psychology does emphasise optimism and courage. However, optimism and courage only derive meaning and value when brought into dynamic interplay with countervailing – but entirely human – tendencies: pessimism and defeatism.
In positive psychology, the latter are not caricatured as errors or distortions. They are the currents that must be met with countercurrents; despair, on occasion, is a defence against hope. Hope is often painful because it arises only when it is needed: in challenging circumstances. By comparison, despair is relatively painless: it cuts the tension between defeatism and innovative optimism.
Using the example of a terrorist with regards to where morals come into play, Penn Positive Psychology Center Director of Education and Senior Scholar James O Pawelski said: “This person might feel great [within the context of his group], but that positivity does not work for the community, the city, the country, the world. The frame of reference for which those activities are positive is very narrow. This helps us see that the positive is actually on a continuum.”
By permitting creative tension between countervailing tendencies but nurturing the optimistic and courageous, positive psychology is realistic, not idealistic; and the reality it discloses is full of potential.