Positive Psychology Conference

 Posted by on 9 August 2005 at 9:08 am  Uncategorized
Aug 092005

Don Watkins and I will be attending the 2005 Positive Psychology Conference in Washington DC from September 29th to October 1st. (It will be my second conference; I also went in 2003.) If you also plan to attend, drop me a line!

For those of you unfamiliar with positive psychology, this quick summary will give you some idea of its basic focus:

During its first century, psychology justifiably focused most of its attention on human suffering. Marked progress as been made in understanding and treating numerous psychological disorders – depression, anxiety, and phobias, to name a few. While alleviating suffering, however, psychology has neglected what makes life most worth living.

Positive Psychology is founded on the belief that people want more than an end to suffering. People want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play. We have the opportunity to create a science and a profession that not only heals psychological damage but also builds strengths to enable people to achieve the best things in life.

…Positive Psychology has three central concerns: positive experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.

Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of the strengths and virtues: the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom. Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.

Despite its self-conscious roots in Aristotle’s ethics, positive psychology has its share of flaws. For example, Shelley Taylor’s work on “positive illusions” (which I criticized in my “False Excuses” and “Dursley Duplicity” papers) is widely accepted — meaning that self-deception is regarded as often good (if not necessary) for the soul. Positive psychologists usually fail to differentiate pseudo-self-esteem from genuine self-esteem, in part due to the nominalism of their “operationalist” definitions. As a result, the self-destructive psychopathologies of those with pseudo-self-esteem are often attributed to high self-esteem. The concern for the flourishing of individuals transmogrifies itself into utilitarianism in the social realm, presumably via that primitive Millian fallacy of composition. Lacking the required clarity about the foundations of virtue, positive psychologists tend to use Aristotle’s method of appealing to widely-held virtues in our culture. Due to the substantial influence of altruism upon our culture, the result is a rather confused mess. Positive psychology also suffers from the same substitution of statistics for rational inquiry as in psychology generally.

Despite such flaws, positive psychology is substantially better than most of psychology, particularly in comparison to monstrosities like Freudianism or behaviorism! If you want to get a sense for some of the better work, I would recommend starting with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (The insights of book are not just interesting in the abstract; they lend themselves to application to your daily life.) Personally, I find some of the work in positive psychology to be of substantial interest as an adjunct to my work in ethics, in that it often highlights subtle consequences (both existential and psychological) of different principles of action. It’s also refreshing to step out of the ingrown world of academic philosophy, even if only into the ingrown world of academic psychology.

Unfortunately, attending the Positive Psychology Conference will prevent me from watching the full Serenity movie (opening on September 30th!) with the folks from Front Range Objectivism with whom I first discovered Firefly. However, I will not despair, since Don is also a fanatical fan.

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