Flourishing, Positive Psychology and Torture: Is Happiness a Warm Gun?

Happiness is a national obsession, the central topic in many bestselling books, and a boon for motivational speakers. In a world as complicated and disheartening as ours, who wouldn't want a method for feeling better?
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I am not a gloomy person, but I don't spend a single minute working at being happy. Happiness is a national obsession, the central topic in many bestselling books, and a boon for motivational speakers. In a world as complicated and disheartening as ours, who wouldn't want a method for feeling better?

The problem is that this happiness quest has a narrow and excessively self-centered focus -- me feeling better. The pursuit of happiness alone is an ultimately unrewarding vision of a full life, as even Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement that helped spawn the happiness industry now admits. "Happiness" is "so overused," he writes in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, "that it has become almost meaningless. It is an unworkable term for science, or any other practical goal such as education, therapy, public policy, or just changing yourself."

I completely agree.

In Flourish, Seligman seeks a better alternative. There are eight elements in his new model of well-being: happiness, flow, meaning, love, gratitude, accomplishment, growth, and better relationships. We flourish, according to Seligman, by having more of each element.

I'm glad that Seligman recognizes that happiness is a flawed foundation for a meaningful theory and has revised his original model. Still, his "new" view of flourishing is based on one of the core assumptions of his work on happiness, namely a relentless privileging of positive emotions and an avoidance of negative ones. Seligman's new theory neglects two vital elements: the inescapable challenges and suffering that we all face, and the troubling aspects of human beings and their relationships. You can't have a psychology of intimacy -- a central ingredient in a theory of flourishing -- while neglecting the upsetting aspects of relationships, including conflict, anger, and sadness.

Nietzsche recognized that every philosophy is disguised autobiography; a "personal confession... and an unconscious memoir." This provides a clue as to why Seligman remains stuck in his misguided model. The patriarch of a movement devoted to feeling better, Seligman is, by his own admission in Authentic Happiness, a "dyed-in-the-wool pessimist," a "grouch," even a "walking nimbus cloud."

Seligman comes by this honestly. He tells us that he idealized his strong, brilliant father, who suffered a stroke at the "height of his powers" when Seligman was 13 and became "permanently paralyzed" and "physically and emotionally helpless" for the rest of his life. Young Seligman may have felt devastated and helpless. I wonder if his theories of happiness and flourishing were built on the faulty foundation of a flight from suffering.

The subject of Seligman's early research in the 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania was "learned helplessness," the passivity induced by feeling that your actions are futile, that nothing you do matters. Seligman and a colleague exposed dogs to, in Seligman's words, "inescapable shocks."

"I have been a psychotherapist for 35 years," Seligman later wrote. "I am not a very good one -- I confess that I'm better at talking than listening." The approach Seligman uses to attempt to manage his learned helplessness and to help other people flourish -- cognitive-behavioral theories and techniques -- focuses on changing faulty and catastrophic thinking rather than understanding and coming to grips with the disturbing feelings that give rise to such thinking. Practicing psychotherapy for over three decades has taught me that evading one's vulnerability and pain -- instead of going into it and healing it -- leaves it relatively untouched.

Seligman emphasizes the importance of seeking meaning and purpose by serving something bigger than ourselves, but unless we integrate that quest with ethics and life-affirming values -- another topic not included in his conception of flourishing -- there is a danger that one's purpose could be aligned with unethical enterprises.

Seligman's work on learned helplessness "heavily influenced the psychological aspects of the Bush administration's torture program," wrote Jason Leopold in Truthout in 2011. While Seligman denies condoning torture, in May 2002 -- when the CIA began to employ brutal torture techniques against several detainees -- Seligman spoke about his learned helplessness experiments at one of the U.S. military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, and Escape) schools, (as Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker). Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell -- who have been called the "architects of the Bush administration torture program" -- were in attendance. Five months earlier, Seligman had met at his home with Mitchell and the CIA's then-director of Behavioral Science Research, Kirk Hubbard. Seligman claims he was completely unaware his theory of Learned Helplessness was used against detainees, and he denied ever engaging in discussions about the torture program with Mitchell, Jessen, or any Bush administration official. "There is no way I could ethically give trauma to other human beings," Seligman wrote in 1990. Still, after 9/11 his theories were used to devise new types of torture for suspected terrorists.

In 2009, Seligman's Positive Psychology Center received a "$31 million, no bid, sole-source Army contract" for training service members "to be psychologically resilient and resist 'catastrophizing' traumatic events." Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, notes Jim Rendon in an article in the March 25, 2012 New York Times Magazine, was "designed for quick implementation, not research," and has not been tested by even one pilot or study. Individual soldiers and civil rights groups have voiced growing concern about the constitutionality and efficacy of these initiatives. Because it is based on dubious assumptions of Positive Psychology, I am doubtful the army resilience training program will succeed.

As with his experimentation on dogs, Seligman's complicity in questionable ethical activities raises troubling concerns about a theory that purports to illuminate and embody human flourishing.

The focus within Positive Psychology on humans at their best is a useful corrective to Western psychology's imbalanced emphasis on illness in its first hundred years. But the conception of flourishing we need in the twentieth-first century must embrace the full spectrum of human experience, from how we live to what we feel, to loving deeply and living ethically.

Now that would make me happy.