1BN0ae.gr1ba1at7irv7ae/ S0S0.id2H2ee 1lod6f 7P8o0s3i2ti5v9e6 P4s5ychology ARTICLE
BARBARA S.HELD is the BarryN.Wish Professor of
Psychology and Social Studies at Bowdoin College in
Brunswick, Maine. She is the author of Back to Reality:
A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy
(1995), in which she provides theoretical and
philosophical analysis of the postmodern/linguistic
turn in psychotherapy. She is currently at work on its
sequel, in which she extends her philosophical critique
to interpretive trends in psychology. She has
served on several editorial boards, including the
Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. Her popular book
Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining
(2001), in which she challenges what she calls the “tyranny of the positive
attitude in America,” has garnered worldwide media attention. A clinical
psychologist, she practiced psychotherapy for many years. She lives with
her husband on the coast of Maine, although she escapes as often as possible
to New York City, where her kvetching is seen in a positive light.
This article explores three ways in which the positive psychology
movement’s construction and presentation of itself are negative.
First, the negative side is construed as the negative side effects of
positive psychology’s dominant, separatist message. Second, the
negative side is construed as the negativity that can be found within
the positive psychology movement. Here the author elaborates on
the negative or dismissive reactions of some spokespersons for the
movement to ideas or views that run counter to the movement’s
dominant message: (a) negativity about negativity itself, which is
explored by way of research in health psychology and coping styles;
and (b) negativity about the wrong kind of positivity, namely, allegedly
unscientific positivity, especially that which Seligman purports
to find within humanistic psychology. This constitutes an epistemological
position that contributes to “reality problems” for positive
psychologists. The author concludes with the implications of positive
psychology’s “Declaration of Independence” for psychology’s
Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 44 No. 1, Winter 2004 9-46
DOI: 10.1177/0022167803259645
© 2004 Sage Publications
much discussed fragmentation woes. She appeals to the wisdom of
William James for guidance in finding a third, more positive meaning
of positive psychology’s negative side. This third meaning can be
gleaned from a not-yet-dominant but more integrative message
emerging within the movement, one compatible with the reactions
of some humanistic psychologists to positive psychology.
Keywords: positive psychology; scientific realism; defensive pessimism;
fragmentation; postmodernism; optimism; negativity
Although positive psychologists claim to study what is good or virtuous
in human nature and call for a separate and distinct science
to do so (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003a; Seligman, 2002a,
2002b; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, 2001; Seligman &
Peterson, 2003;Sheldon&King, 2001;Snyder&Lopez et al., 2002),
there nonetheless is within that movement a negative tendency, or
what I will call a “negative side.” In this article, I explore three
senses or meanings of this so-called negative side of positive psychology.
First, the negative side is construed as the negative side
effects of the positive psychology movement, especially of its dominant,
separatist message. These side effects have been enumerated
before (e.g., Bohart & Greening, 2001; Guignon, 2002; Held,
2002a; Woolfolk, 2002), and so about these I will be brief. Second,
the negative side is construed as the negativity that can be found
within the positive psychology movement. Here I elaborate on the
negative or dismissive reactions of some (but not all) positive psychologists,
especially of some spokespersons for the movement, to
ideas or views that run counter to the dominant message of the
movement—in particular, (a) negativity about negativity itself,
which I explore byway of research in health psychology and coping
styles; and (b) negativity about the wrong kind of positivity,
namely, allegedly unscientific positivity, especially the “unscientific
positivity” that Seligman (Seligman, 2002a, 2002b; Seligman
& Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, 2001) purports to find within humanistic
psychology and that has been discussed in the Journal of
10 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is based on a paper presented at the 110th Annual
Convention of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, in August 2002, as
part of a panel entitled “Positive Psychology and the Human Condition.” I thank
David Bellows, Arthur Bohart, Rachel Hare-Mustin, Suzanne Lovett, Al Mahrer,
Julie Norem, Harvey Siegel, Hendrika Vande Kemp, and an anonymous reviewer
for helpful comments on earlier drafts.
Humanistic Psychology’s special issue on positive psychology (e.g.,
Greening, 2001, p. 4; Rathunde, 2001, pp. 146-147; Resnick,
Warmoth,&Serlin, 2001, pp. 78-80;Taylor, 2001, pp. 22-24). This is
an epistemological position that contributes to “reality problems”
for positive psychologists, problems that call for further consideration.
In my conclusion, I consider the implications of positive psychology’s
so-called “Declaration of Independence” (Snyder&Lopez
et al., 2002) from the rest of psychology for the much discussed
fragmentation woes within psychology. I also appeal to the wisdom
ofWilliam James (1902), both directly and as interpreted by Rubin
(2000), for guidance in finding a third, more positive meaning of
positive psychology’s negative side. This more positive meaning
can be gleaned from a not-yet-dominant, more integrative message
emerging within the movement.
Myaim is not to challenge the empirical findings that constitute
the positive psychology movement; there are, in my view, important
contributions to psychological science being made within
the movement’s ranks. Nor do I challenge the study of human
strengths in general, which, needless to say, is not necessarily
done in the movement’s name. Rather, my critique—or “discourse
analysis”—focuses upon the way in which those who have heretofore
spoken most vociferously on behalf of the positive psychology
movement present/promote the movement to the public and to the
profession of psychology. This “dominant discourse,” or dominant
Message with a capital “M,” as I now call it, is contrasted with a
not-yet-dominant discourse, or message with a lowercase “m,” just
emerging within the movement—or so I argue. This “second-wave”
message,as I now call it, challenges the dominant Message inways
sometimes quite consistent with challenges made by humanistic
psychologists in these pages.
The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude
On a panel at the American Psychological Association (APA)
convention in 2000 entitled “The (Overlooked) Virtues of Negativ-
Barbara S. Held 11
ity,” Held (2002a) lamented what she dubbed the “tyranny of the
positive attitude,” a problem that, she claimed, dominates the contemporary
American mind-set. By this she meant that our popular
culture and now—owing to the dominant, separatist Message
of some spokespersons for the positive psychology movement (e.g.,
Seligman, 2002a, 2002b; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000,
2001; Seligman & Peterson, 2003; Snyder & Lopez et al., 2002)—
our professional culture are saturated with the view that we must
think positive thoughts, we must cultivate positive emotions and
attitudes, and we must play to our strengths to be happy, healthy,
and wise.
The tyranny of the positive attitude lies in its adding insult to
injury: If people feel bad about life’s many difficulties and they cannot
manage to transcend their pain no matter how hard they try (to
learn optimism), they could end up feeling even worse; they could
feel guilty or defective for not having the right (positive) attitude,
in addition to whatever was ailing them in the first place. This is a
possible unintended consequence of trumpeting positivity,
whether in popular or professional circles (see Held, 2001, 2002a,
pp. 969, 986-987). For according to the wisdom of our popular culture,
what ails one in the first place might have been avoided, or at
least ameliorated, with positive thoughts. This popular message is
certainly reinforced by extensive research findings that reliably
demonstrate that optimism and positivity are linked to health and
longevity, whereas pessimism and negativity have the opposite
effect (e.g.,Brennan&Charnetski,2000;Byrnes et al.,1998;Larsen,
Hemenover, Norris, & Cacioppo, 2003; Peterson & Bossio, 2001;
Peterson, Seligman, Yurko, Martin, & Friedman, 1998; Raeikkoenen,
Matthews, Flory, Owens, & Gump, 1999; Taylor, Kemeny,
Reed, Bower, & Gruenewald, 2000). About this, more later.
Positive Psychology’s Dominant
Message and Challenges to It
Whether research about the salutary effects of positivity has
been done in the name of positive psychology, some who speak for
the movement deploy that research without nuance or ambiguity
in their dominant, polarizing Message: Positivity is good and good
for you; negativity is bad and bad for you. (Indeed, Seligman’s call
for a separate and distinct science of positive psychology rests on
12 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
this foundational assumption.) Farewell to individual differences;
one size fits all. Or so the dominant Message—especially as articulated
by Seligman,whomI quote in due course—appears to me, but
evidently not only to me: An emerging but still nondominant message
of some members of the movement (I take them to be members
in virtue of their authorship of chapters in edited books
about—or issues of the American Psychologist devoted to—the
movement’s progress) gives evidence of the dominant Message by
expressing dissatisfaction with it. This discernable but not-yetunified
voice of protest suggests to me a desire for a more nuanced
and integrative—a less separatist or polarizing—message, one
that makes contact, though only implicitly, with some of the postulates
of humanistic psychology set forth in every issue of the Journal
of Humanistic Psychology. Consider the following statements
made by authors of chapters in Aspinwall and Staudinger’s new
edited book entitled A Psychology of Human Strengths: Fundamental
Questions and Future Directions for a Positive Psychology
(2003a), and note among them the dialogical impulse for the integration,
holism, dialectic, realism, engagement, and contextuality
that characterizes the responses of humanistic psychologists to
positive psychology’s dominant, separatist Message of polarization
(e.g., Greening, 2001; Rathunde, 2001; Resnick et al., 2001; Rich,
In their own chapter, editors Aspinwall and Staudinger (2003b)
give advance notice of the emerging message:
In trying to define and study human strengths, it is crucial to
acknowledge contextual dependencies. . . . Another central task for a
psychology of human strengths is to understand whether and how
positive and negative experiences depend on each other and work
together. Thus, a call for the scientific study of . . . positive states . . .
should not be misunderstood as a call to ignore negative aspects of
human experience. That is, a psychology of human strengths should
not be the study of how negative experience may be avoided or
ignored, but rather how positive and negative experience may be
interrelated. . . . Indeed, some philosophical perspectives suggest
that the positive and negative are by definition dependent on each
other; that is, human existence seems to be constituted by basic
dialectics. (pp. 14-15)
It would be a major mistake to assume that all that is positive is
good. . . . Instead, efforts to understand when positive beliefs are
linked to good outcomes, when they may not be, and why will yield a
more realistic and balanced view. (p. 18)
Barbara S. Held 13
In a chapter entitled “Three Human Strengths,” Carver and
Scheier (2003) stated,
The picture of human strength as reflected in persistence and performance
is a familiar one. . . . Commitment and confidence interact
to foster persistence and perseverance, even in the face of great
adversity. These ideas form the cornerstone of a good part of what is
touted as “positive psychology” (e.g., Ryff & Singer, 1998; Seligman,
1999; Snyder & Lopez, 2002; Taylor, 1989). . . . Discussions of these
theories usually emphasize the positive—the idea that continued
effort can result in attaining desired goals. . . . Put simply, the
attempt is to turn pessimists into optimists. . . . [However,] a critical
role in life is also played by doubt and disengagement—by giving up.
(pp. 88-89)
Even perseverance and giving up, which seem so antithetical, may
notbe. . . .Apsychology of human strengths is no less than a psychology
of human nature. (p. 98)
In a chapter subtitled “On theVirtues of the Coactivation of Positive
and Negative Emotions,” Larsen et al. (2003) wrote,
Given that negative emotions do affect health outcomes, it is likewise
understandable that [traditional] lines of research have
treated negative emotions as something to be avoided or at least
diminished, rather than dwelled on. . . . The thesis of this chapter,
however, is that this discomfitting mode of coactivation [of positive
and negative emotions] may allow individuals to make sense of
stressors, to gain mastery over future stressors, and to transcend
traumatic experiences. (pp. 212-213)
Although positive psychology has made it clear that an exclusive focus
on negative emotions [i.e., “negative psychology”] is insufficient,
the present perspective implies that an exclusive focus on positive
emotions may also ultimately prove insufficient. (p. 222)
In a chapter entitled “Ironies of the Human Condition,” Ryff and
Singer (2003) stated,
Recently, we have witnessed a drumroll on behalf of positive psychology.
Chastised for its preoccupation with human failings, the
field of psychology has been admonished to attend to human
strengths. . . . However,we also underscore the need to move beyond
false dichotomies that separate positive and negative features of the
human condition. [We argue for an appreciation of] inevitable dialectics
between positive and negative aspects of living. (pp. 271-272)
14 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
Human well-being is fundamentally about the joining of these two
realms. . . .Positive psychology will fulfill its promise not by simply
marking what makes people feel good, hopeful, and contented, but
by tracking deeper and more complex processes. . . .We propose that
these challenges of “engaged living” are the essence of what it means
to be well. (pp. 279-282)
And last but not least, in a chapter section entitled “What’s
Wrong With a ‘Positive’ Psychology Movement?,” Carstensen and
Charles (2003) wrote,
Readers may expect that we’d be delighted by the prospect of positive
psychology. But we see as many problems as advantages.
Deconstructing the scientific status quo and revealing evidence that
negative presumptions have guided much of the research is one
thing. Carrying a banner for a movement forcing the pendulum to
swing in the other direction is quite another. . . .The lesson in this is
not to . . . join a movement to be more “positive.” Rather, it is to generate
an even-handed characterization of the problems and strengths
associated with aging. Scientific psychology should not have an
objective to prove or disprove positive aspects of life. It should
instead seek to understand psychological phenomena in their totality.
. . .We cannot do it by succumbing to a polemical movement to
search for the positive. . . . Social scientists must study the strengths
of older people, but just as surely they must understand the
problems of older people. (pp. 82-84)
The second-wave/nondominant message contained in the above
quotations makes common cause with the message contained in
the following quotations of contributors to the Journal of Humanistic
Psychology’s special issue on positive psychology. Laura
King’s quotation is especially noteworthy, given her receipt of a
Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2001:
Another pitfall of focusing on positive emotional experience as definitive
of the good life is the tendency to view any negative emotion as
problematic. Thus, the experience of distress, regret, and disappointment
are often viewed as negative experiences, certainly to be
avoided. How realistic is it to expect that adults will weather all of
life’s storms with nary a regret? . . . Yet, the focus on the maximization
of positive affect and the minimization of negative affect has led
to a view of the happy person as a well-defended fortress, invulnerable
to the vicissitudes of life. . . .Perhaps focusing so much on subjective
well-being, we have missed the somewhat more ambivalent
truth of the good life. (King, 2001, pp. 53-54)
Barbara S. Held 15
Humanistic psychology is also nondualistic. From its holistic perspective,
polarizing psychology into “good” and “bad” splits the fullness
of the paradox . . . and therefore misses the complexity and nuances
of the phenomenon. Holistic, humanistic psychology understands
that the good, or the positive, takes its meaning from its
dialogical relationship to “the bad” or “the negative.” (Resnick et al.,
2001, p. 77)
If we take all of the above quotations from Aspinwall and
Staudinger’s (2003a) edited book in concert as a discernable message,
we may be tempted to think (with optimism) that the rapprochement
some humanistic psychologists have called for (e.g.,
Rathunde, 2001; Resnick et al., 2001; Rich, 2001) is in reach.1Imyself
am not quite so optimistic, especially since positive psychology
leaders Seligman and Peterson (2003) reiterated the movement’s
dominant Message,with all its rhetoric of separatism/polarization,
in their chapter (entitled “Positive Clinical Psychology”) in
Aspinwall and Staudinger’s (2003a) book:
The science of positive psychology, aswe see it, has three constituent
parts: the study of positive subjective experience, the study of positive
individual traits, and the study of institutions that enable the
first two (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). In this chapter we
shall discuss possible changes that a science of positive psychology, if
successful in becoming a discrete approach within the social sciences,
would likely wreak on the field of clinical psychology. (p. 305)
The professional press of APA Online, the Monitor on Psychology,
and the American Psychologist has reinforced the dominant
Message (not least through announcements of Templeton Positive
Psychology Prize winners). So has the extensive popular press coverage
of positive psychology, where, for example, the positive psychology
movement made the cover of the September 3, 2001, issue
of the U.S. News and World Report and the September 16, 2002,
issue of Newsweek. The professional press is seemingly no accident:
As Eugene Taylor (2001) boldly proposed, “Seligman appeals
to science but relies on public support through the prestige of his
position in the APA” (p. 26). In due course, I give more examples of
the press coverage. Just here note that in the science section of the
New York Times on November 19, 2002, there was an article entitled
“Power of Positive Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging.” The
“it seems” is a clue; although one would never guess from this headline
that about half of the article was devoted to research with
16 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
opposite findings: for example, “cheerfulness . . . was linked to
shorter-than-average life span” (attributed to Dr.Howard S.Friedman),“
older pessimists were less likely than the optimists to suffer
from depression” (attributed to Dr. Derek M. Isaacowitz), “cantankerousness
. . . has been found to be a protective characteristic
among the elderly. . . . Those who were ornery and argumentative
with the nursing home staff members lived longer than those who
were not” (attributed to Dr. Morton A. Lieberman).
Is it fair to hold the movement’s leading members responsible
for the way the press presents their message? I know of no objections
from them to any of the press coverage,although somemay be
trying to mitigate the “tyrannical” tone of the dominant Message
by claiming that the science that supports it is merely descriptive,
not prescriptive (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003b, p. 18;
Seligman, 2002a, pp. 129, 303). This, despite Seligman’s (2002a,
pp. 130, 261) prescriptive inclinations. In any case, Snyder&Lopez
et al. (2002) expressed concern about media hype in the final chapter
of the Handbook of Positive Psychology:
In the excitement that may be associated with this new and invigorating
approach, it may be tempting to overextrapolate so as to convey
a sense of the progress that is being made. This can be even more
possible when a person from the news media is almost putting words
in our mouths about the supposed discoveries and advances that
already have occurred. Contrary to this “breakthrough” mentality,
however, science typically advances in the context of slow, incremental
increases in knowledge. Therefore . . . researchers must be very
careful to make appropriate inferences from their data. Claims that
go beyond the data are never appropriate, and they can be especially
damaging to the credibility of a new field. When one positive psychologist
makes an unwarranted claim, this undermines the trustworthiness
of all positive psychologists and the “movement” more
generally. Accordingly, we must carefully monitor both our
colleagues and ourselves. (pp. 754-755)
Which positive psychologists have made unwarranted claims? The
authors do not say, but they sound like they have some in mind. At
the least, they sound worried.
Aspinwall and Staudinger’s edited book nonetheless gives hope
that a less separatist incarnation of the movement may be on the
horizon. Chapters by Aspinwall and Staudinger, Carstensen and
Charles, Cantor, Carver and Scheier, Ryff and Singer, and Larsen
et al. all find virtue in giving negativity of one sort or another its
due—for example, finding value in a focus on problems as well as
Barbara S. Held 17
strengths, in (defensive) pessimism, in giving up, or in the
coactivation of positive and negative emotions. These authors are
critical of the dominant Message, as the quotations of them provided
earlier indicate. But their more nuanced message is not, by
my lights, the movement’s dominant Message, at least not just yet:
For example, in Authentic Happiness, Seligman (2002a) himself
finds little use for negative experience; there his remains a stance
lacking in nuance, a stance I discuss in due course.And so, a fundamental
question for some positive psychologists remains a technical
one: how to get the negatively inclined (by nature, nurture, or
both) to develop more positivity—for their own good.Yet some positive
psychologists sometimes seem to have difficulty taking their
own advice. As Taylor (2001) put it in discussing Seligman’s nowfamous
dismissal of humanistic psychology (see Greening, 2001,
p. 4; Seligman, 2002a, 2002b; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000,
2001), “Seligman may have to cultivate a more positive attitude
toward the very movement he now wishes to exclude” (p. 27). In his
review of the Handbook of Positive Psychology,M. Brewster Smith
(2003) summed up the negativity to be found in positive psychology
succinctly: “A substantial part of the message of positive psychology
is negative” (p. 160).
I amcoming to believe that lurking within the positive psychology
movement there exists a dark side—a shadow of sorts—owing
to a failure to acknowledge (its own) negativity. Because a case has
been made for “The (Overlooked) Virtues of Negativity,” first by
critics of positive psychology (Held & Bohart, 2002) and now by a
second-wave message from within the ranks of the positive psychology
movement (e.g., Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003b;
Carstensen & Charles, 2003; Carver & Scheier, 2003; King, 2001;
Larsen et al., 2003; Ryff&Singer, 2003), this is not necessarily bad.
Negativity is, after all, a normal and at times adaptive aspect of
human nature, and so the negativity even of positive psychologists
may be said to have its virtues. The question, rather, is this: What
are some positive psychologists negative about? To be sure, some
are negative about negativity itself. And some are also negative
18 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
about the wrong kind of positivity. I call these “Negativity Type 1”
and “Negativity Type 2,” respectively.
Negativity Type 1: Negativity About Negativity
On the surface, it appears that prominent positive psychologists
hold balanced views about positivity and negativity. In Learned
Optimism, Martin Seligman (1990) said one should not be a “slave
to the tyrannies of optimism. . . . We must be able to use pessimism’s
keen sense of reality when we need it” (p. 292). In Authentic
Happiness,Seligman (2002a) said, “Positive Psychology aims for the
optimal balance between positive and negative thinking” (pp. 288-
289). And he recently reported that, among the elderly, “extreme
optimists may be more at risk for depressive symptoms than pessimists
when faced with negative life events” (Isaacowitz & Seligman,
2001, p. 262). Christopher Peterson (2000) warned of the risks of
unrealistic or blind optimism. He resolved that “people should be
optimistic when the future can be changed by positive thinking but
not otherwise” (p. 51). Lisa Aspinwall said, “It would be premature—
and likely incorrect—to say that all positive beliefs and
states are salutary” (Snyder & Lopez et al., 2002, p. 754). She later
A second caution [in developing a psychology of human strengths]
involves the possibility that there are situations and contexts where
attributes or processes that work as strengths in one setting may be
liabilities in another, and vice versa. . . . Among certain people . . .
and in some non-Western cultures . . . pessimism has been found to
be adaptive rather than dysfunctional, because it promotes active
problem solving. (Aspinwall & Staudinger, 2003b, p. 18)
Despite these nods to negativity (and acknowledgment of the
limits of positivity), when Seligman reportedly said in the Monitor
that the positive psychology movement “does not replace negative
social science and psychology, which are flourishing enterprises
that I support” (Kogan, 2001, p. 74), his pledge of support failed to
reassure. First, his professed support for so-called negative psychology
is not the same as finding virtue in the experience of negative
events and the expression of negative thoughts and feelings,
virtue which is found by various authors in Aspinwall and
Staudinger’s (2003a) edited book, who seem to be in search of a
more dialectical approach to positive psychology. Finding virtue in
Barbara S. Held 19
the experience/expression of life’s negatives is not accomplished by
Seligman, who sticks to the movement’s nondialectical dominant
Message in his chapter in that same book: “Positive emotion
undoes negative emotion. In the laboratory, movies that induce
positive emotion cause negative emotion to dissipate rapidly
(Fredrickson, 1998)” (Seligman&Peterson, 2003, p. 306).Compare
this message with the one given in Larsen et al.’s (2003) chapter,
where the independence of positive and negative emotional systems
is emphasized (Seligman himself acknowledges this elsewhere
[2002a, pp. 56-57]), as is our need for an optimal balance in
the coactivation of positive and negative emotional systems to
attain beneficial health and coping outcomes when faced with
In Authentic Happiness, Seligman (2002a) reinforces his negative
views about negativity, including the (defensive) pessimism
and/or negative emotion in which Aspinwall and Staudinger, Cantor,
and Larsen et al. find virtue. For example, he says, “Pessimism
is maladaptive in most endeavors. . . . Thus, pessimists are losers
on many fronts” (p. 178); “Positive emotion . . . has consequences
that are broadening, building, and abiding. Unlike negative emotion,
which narrows our repertoire to fight the immediate threat,
positive emotion advertises growth” (p. 209); and “Depression
readily spirals downward because a depressed mood makes negative
memories come to mind more easily. These negative thoughts
in turn set off a more depressed mood, which in turn makes even
more negative thoughts accessible, and so on” (p. 210). He then
goes on to make the case for an “upward spiral of positive emotion”
(pp. 210-211). Larsen et al. (2003), by contrast, say we must keep
negative emotions and memories of negative events in working
memory long enough to organize and integrate them, which may
allow individuals to “transcend traumatic experiences” and “transform
adversity to advantage” (p. 213). This sounds to me like the
potential for growth from engaging the negative that Seligman
denies over and over.
Health psychology and longevity. One “trump card” of the positive
psychology movement is the empirical link between positive
affect and attitudes, on one hand, and health/longevity, on the
other hand. Indeed, as described earlier, this research forms one
foundation of the movement’s dominant Message: Positivity is
20 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
good (for you), negativity is bad (for you). Even Larsen et al. (2003),
in setting up their argument on behalf of the health and mental
health benefits of the coactivation of positive and negative emotions,
state that “one of positive psychology’s most impressive lines
of research has examined the beneficial effects of optimism on
health and well being” (p. 219).For instance, an article in the Monitor
reported that Barbara Fredrickson, winner of the top
Templeton Positive Psychology Prize in 2000, found that “positive
emotions help undo the detrimental effects of negative emotions
on the cardiovascular system” (Azar, 2000). And an APA Online
(“Psychologists Receive,” 2002) press release reported that the top
Templeton Prize in 2002 went to Suzanne Segerstrom, who found
that “optimistic dispositions and beliefs” are linked to the “functioning
of the immune system.” Here we find no hint of the secondwave,
integrative message, such as the one given by Larsen et al.
(2003). Exemplary of the popular press is this headline from the
Maine Sunday Telegram (February 27, 2000): “Happier Means
Healthier: Optimists Live Longer, and Optimism Can Be Cultivated.”
And recall the New York Times (November 19, 2002) piece
entitled “Power of Positive Thinking Extends, It Seems, to Aging.”
Particularly prominent are the much heralded findings of Shelley
Taylor’s research team: Unrealistic optimism predicts greater
longevity. According to Taylor et al. (2000),
HIV-seropositive gay men who were unrealistically [italics added]
optimistic about the future course of their infection were better
adjusted and coped more actively with their situation than those
who were less optimistic. . . . Unrealistically [italics added] optimistic
beliefs are associated prospectively with somewhat greater
longevity. (pp. 102-103)
And so optimism, especially unrealistic optimism, is to be endorsed.
(About the realism of the optimism, more later.) This, says
the hermeneutic philosopher Charles Guignon (2002), is a good example
of a particular strategy for justifying value claims:
Positing some set of nonmoral goods, such as physical health, longer
life or subjective feelings of well-being, and then trying to show that
the ideals in question are conducive to achieving or sustaining those
goals. . . . Thus, a great deal of research on optimism, hope, altruism
. . . aims at showing that there are clearly defined and precisely
measurable outcomes from expressions of these traits. (p. 90)
Barbara S. Held 21
To be sure, the waters are deeper than they seem, for there also
exists research which contradicts the well-supported link between
positivity and health/longevity. We have already considered Larsen
et al.’s (2003) “coactivation model of healthy coping” (p. 217).
Another example is Hybels, Pieper, and Blazer’s (2002) finding
that older women who are mildly depressed (i.e., they have a
subthreshold level of depression) are more likely to live longer
than nondepressed or more highly depressed women (p = .002).
The relationship did not hold for men, although Friedman et al.
(1993),who used a data set from a seven-decade longitudinal study
begun in 1921 by L. M. Terman (Terman & Oden, 1947), reported
that people (especially men) who were conscientious as children
lived longer, whereas those who were cheerful as children (defined
as optimism and sense of humor) died younger (also see Martin et
al., 2002). Moreover,Friedman et al. (1993) emphasized the importance
of attending to individual differences, by cautioning “against
overgeneralizing from short-term studies of coping to long-term
(life span) styles for reacting. Rather, analyses of the particular
challenges faced by particular individuals during their life may
provide better information about what itmeans to be healthy” (p. 184).
Even positive psychologists DavidWatson and James Pennebaker
(1989) questioned the link between positivity and health/longevity
when they said that people high in “trait negative affect”
complain of angina but show no evidence of greater coronary risk or
pathology. They complain of headaches but do not report any increased
use of aspirin. . . . In general, they complain about their
health but show no hard evidence of poorer health or increased mortality.
(p. 244)
Given the large body of data that links positivity of various
kinds to health and longevity (and negativity to illness), it would
be foolish to make too much of these contradictory findings, except
to question how such contradictory evidence is handled by spokespersons
for the positive psychology movement. My point is that
findings such as these tend not to become part of the dominant
Message, which seems to me and others to eschew the dialogical
impulse found in the movement’s more nuanced/dialectical secondwave
message and in the response of some humanistic psychologists
to the dominant Message.Moreover, if longevity is, as Guignon
(2002) suggests, positive psychologists’ criterion for cultivating
certain tendencies, then these new data should be taken seriously
22 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
by positive psychologists. But given Seligman’s negativity about
negativity, I would be surprised if Hybels et al. (2002) or Friedman
et al. (1993) were to be considered for a Templeton Positive Psychology
Prize for finding that some forms of negativity, or at least
the absence of positivity, may be conducive to longevity.
Coping styles: The case of defensive pessimism. In her many
research articles and in her book The Positive Power of Negative
Thinking, Julie Norem (2001a, 2001b) provides compelling evidence
for the benefits of the coping strategy known as “defensive
pessimism.” Defensive pessimists set their sights unrealistically
low and think about how to solve potential problems in advance of
the daunting task. Most important, Norem has found that defensive
pessimism can work to enhance task performance for those
riddled with debilitating anxiety. Her data are conclusive: Trying
to make defensive pessimists function like strategic optimists,who
set their sights high and prefer not to think about potential problems,
erodes the functioning of defensive pessimists, as does trying
to make strategic optimists function like defensive pessimists. In
short, one size does not fit all. Because constructive coping is one of
the positive psychology movement’s alleged interests, one might
expect positive psychologists to celebrate Norem’s breakthrough
findings as a positive contribution to coping. But celebration has
hardly been their response.
Instead, Norem has typically either been ignored—she is not
even cited, let alone given a chapter, in the Handbook of Positive
Psychology (Snyder & Lopez, 2002)—or she has been dismissed
explicitly. For example, in the Handbook, Carver and Scheier
(2002) andWatson (2002) speak of the possibility of changing those
with negative temperaments (whether caused by genes, early environment,
or both). Watson advocates focusing outward—doing
rather than thinking, perceiving our goals to be important, and
understanding the cycles of energy and lethargy we all experience
(p. 116). Carver and Scheier cautiously advise cognitivebehavioral
therapies to call attention to, challenge, and eradicate
the irrational, “unduly negative,” “automatic thoughts” in the
minds of pessimists (p. 240). As they say, “Once the [pessimistic]
beliefs have been isolated, they can be challenged and changed”
(p. 240). (Although Carver and Scheier, 2003, also seem to question
“the attempt to turn pessimists into optimists” [p. 89].) Never mind
that Norem’s defensive pessimism has been demonstrated reliably
Barbara S. Held 23
to be a constructive coping strategy; Carver and Scheier incline
toward an affirmative answer to their own question, “Is optimism
always better than pessimism?” (p. 239). Although, to be fair, they
seem here to be speaking of dispositional pessimism (which is
trait like) rather than defensive pessimism (which is a domainspecific
strategy to cope with anxiety). (Still, the two—dispositional
pessimism and defensive pessimism—are moderately correlated,
according to Norem, 2001a). In a previous article, Scheier and
Carver (1993) certainly acknowledged that “defensive pessimism
does seem to work,” in that defensive pessimists perform better
than “real [i.e., dispositional] pessimists, whose negative expectations
are anchored in prior failure” (p. 29). But they also went on to
say that “defensive pessimism never works better than optimism”
and has “hidden costs”: “People who use defensive pessimism in
the short run report more psychological symptoms and a lower
quality of life in the long run than do optimists. Such findings call
into serious question the adaptive value of defensive pessimism
[italics added]” (p. 29).
Norem readily admits that there are benefits and costs of both
strategic optimismand defensive pessimism(Norem, 2001b;Norem
&Chang, 2002). So we may ask why the negatives of defensive pessimism
are considered true negatives, whereas the negatives of
strategic optimism tend to be ignored by positive psychologists
who compare defensive pessimism to dispositional optimism, instead
of to strategic optimism, which is what Scheier and Carver
appear to do in the quotations of them just above. After all, comparing
defensive pessimism to strategic optimism would be the more
appropriate comparison, given that Norem’s constructs are more
situation specific than dispositional. Moreover, to appreciate the
virtues of defensive pessimism, Norem and Chang (2002) say we
must acknowledge the presence of the trait (or dispositional) anxiety
that precedes the use of defensive pessimism. That is, although
“strategic optimists tend to be more satisfied and in a better mood
than defensive pessimists,” it would be mistaken to “conclude that
strategic optimism is clearly better than defensive pessimism,
even if defensive pessimists often perform well,” because this conclusion
“ignores the crucial point that people who use defensive
pessimism are typically high in anxiety” (p. 996).Thus, they say,we
must “compare defensive pessimists to other people who are anxious
but do not use defensive pessimism” (p. 997).When Norem and
Chang make that comparison, they find that
24 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
Defensive pessimists show significant increases in self-esteem and
satisfaction over time, perform better academically, form more supportive
friendship networks, and make more progress on their personal
goals than equally anxious students who do not use defensive
pessimism. . . . This research converges with that contrasting strategic
optimism and defensive pessimism to suggest quite strongly that
taking away their defensive pessimism is not the way to help
anxious individuals. (p. 997)
Yet taking away their defensive pessimism is what Scheier and
Carver (1993, p. 29) seem to me to imply, in the spirit of the dominant
There is cause for optimism nonetheless in the more integrative,
less dismissive second-wave message: Editors Aspinwall and
Staudinger (2003a) include a chapter by Nancy Cantor (2003),who
cites the benefits of the defensive pessimism she herself researched
with Julie Norem. Still, positive psychologists who continue to
deliver the dominant Message of polarization to which humanistic
psychologists rightly object (e.g., Resnick et al., 2001, p. 77) advocate
the use of cognitive therapy to challenge and change the allegedly
automatic unrealistic negative thoughts of pessimists.
Seligman (2002a) himself advocates the “well-documented method
for building optimism that consists of recognizing and then disputing
pessimistic thoughts” (p. 93): “The most convincing way of disputing
a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect.
Much of the time you will have facts on your side, since pessimistic
reactions to adversity are so very often overreactions” (p. 95). But
what about the (automatic) unrealistic positive thoughts of optimists?
(More about this in the next section.) These are not the target
of challenge for positive psychologists. Indeed, Seligman extols
the virtues of “positive illusions” (p. 200), owing to their salutary
consequences: “It is [the job of Positive Psychology] to describe the
consequences of these traits (for example, that being optimistic
brings about less depression, better physical health, and higher
achievement, at a cost perhaps of less realism[italics added]” (p. 129).
Thus, the realism of the thoughts is evidently not the determining
factor in this matter. And yet, positive psychologists of all stripes
tout their dedication to rigorous science, with all the realism
and objectivity such science bestows upon their claims. Moreover,
Seligman, though actively promoting the power of positive illusions,
also finds a “reality orientation” (p. 142) in everyday knowing
to be virtuous. It therefore appears that there is equivocation
Barbara S. Held 25
about realism itself, or “reality problems,” as I shall now call them,
among positive psychologists.
Negativity Type 2: Negativity About the Wrong Kind
of Positivity: “Unscientific Positivity” and
Positive Psychology’s “Reality Problems”
The charge of unscientific positivity and the response of humanistic
psychologists. Positive psychologists ground their quest for
positivity in a modern/conventional science of psychology—with
all the warrant and conviction that scientific realism and objectivity
impart. As Sheldon and King (2001) define it in their introduction
to the special section on positive psychology in the American
Psychologist, “[Positive psychology] is nothing more than the scientific
study of ordinary human strengths and virtues” (p. 216).2 They
liken the science of (positive) psychology to other “natural and
social sciences” (p. 216). And in his introductory chapter in the
Handbook of Positive Psychology, Seligman (2002b) says, “[Positive
psychology] tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to
the unique problems that human behavior presents in all its complexity”
(p. 4). In both quotations, the science of (positive) psychology
is set forth in conventional terms. There is, for example,no special
antirealist/antiobjectivist or postmodern meaning given to
(positive) psychological science.
Moreover, the now-famous dismissal by positive psychologists of
another movement grounded in positivity, owing to that movement’s
alleged failure to attain scientific grounding, makes the
point. In their introductory article in the January 2000 issue of the
American Psychologist devoted to the positive psychology movement,
Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) acknowledged and
appeared to praise the “generous humanistic vision” (p. 7) of the
humanistic psychology movement. But they then went on to dismiss
humanistic psychology as unscientific, lamenting its allegedly
seminal role in the nonscholarly, nonscientific, and narcissismpromoting
literature of the self-help movement that regrettably
now dominates the psychology sections of our bookstores: “Unfortunately,
humanistic psychology did not attract much of a cumulative
empirical base, and it spawned myriad therapeutic self-help
movements. In some of its incarnations, it . . . encouraged a selfcenteredness
that played down concerns for collective well being”
(p. 7).
26 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
Bohart and Greening (2001) responded to this charge persuasively,
by calling attention to the scientific research tradition and
empirically warranted knowledge base of humanistic psychologists.
About the charge of self-centeredness, they replied,
We wish that Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) themselves
had done a more scholarly job of investigating humanistic psychology.
Neither the theory nor practice of humanistic psychology is narrowly
focused on the narcissistic self or on individual fulfillment. A
careful reading of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow would find that
their conceptions of self-actualization included responsibility
toward others. . . . Blaming them for misinterpretations of their
ideas makes no more sense than blaming Seligman for potential
misinterpretations of his ideas on optimism (e.g., one could misuse
this idea to blame the victim for not having the proper optimistic
attitude to achieve self-improvement in the face of massive social
oppression or injustice.3 (p. 81)
In their rejoinder, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2001)
repeated their dismissal of humanistic psychology nonetheless by
emphasizing positive psychology’s dedication to “replicable,cumulative,
and objective” science (p. 90): “We are, unblushingly, scientists
first” (p. 89). Seligman (2002b, p. 7) reiterates this message in
his introductory chapter in the Handbook of Positive Psychology:
“They [Allport, 1961; Maslow, 1971] somehow failed to attract a
cumulative and empirical body of research to ground their ideas.”
And he does so again in Authentic Happiness (2002a): “The reasons
for [humanistic psychology] remaining a largely therapeutic
endeavor outside of academic contact probably had to do with its
alienation from conventional empirical science” (p. 275). As Smith
(2003) put it in his review of the Handbook, “He [Seligman] refers
to the emphasis on positive functioning by Allport (1961) and
Maslow (1971) but otherwise ignores humanistic psychology as not
adequately based in research” (pp. 159-160). In my opinion, this
dismissal can be understood in the context of positive psychology’s
dominant, separatist Message: If one claims that one’s movement
constitutes a “discrete approach within the social sciences”
(Seligman & Peterson, 2003, p. 305), then one must eliminate competing
approaches that can challenge that distinction. Because
humanistic psychology cannot be eliminated on the basis of its
focus on human potential and growth, another basis must be
found. And so one was: its alleged failure to constitute a scientific
Barbara S. Held 27
In the special issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology
devoted to positive psychology, Eugene Taylor (2001) rebutted
“Seligman’s Three Marks Against Humanistic Psychology” (p. 17),
namely, that humanistic psychology “generated no research tradition”
(pp.17-21), that it “has created a cult of narcissism” (pp. 21-
22), and that it is “antiscientific” (pp. 22-24). Regarding the latter,
Taylor made this point:
After 1969 . . . the content and methods of humanistic psychology
were appropriated by the psychotherapeutic counterculture, causing
the humanistic movement in academic psychology to recede. . . .
Seligman mistakes this group for the original personality theorists
who led the humanistic movement for more than a quarter of a century
in the academy and were concerned first and foremost with
generating a “rigorous” research tradition—variously called personality,
personology, and a science of the person (Allport, 1968; Rogers,
1964). (p. 23)
Along with Taylor, some in that same issue of the Journal of Humanistic
Psychology defend the scientific status of humanistic psychology
by challenging Seligman’s/positive psychology’s allegedly
“reductionistic/positivistic” approach to knowledge acquisition, and
by calling for more epistemological discussion/debate and selfreflection
about how science should be conducted (e.g., Rathunde,
2001; Resnick et al., 2001). Although he lauds Seligman’s placement
of the “discriminating person above the blind dictates of
science” (p. 25), Taylor (2001) takes Seligman to task for failing
to grasp the contradiction (of “injecting a value judgment into
an allegedly value-free system”) that this placement carries in
the context of his alleged adoption of a “reductionistic determinism”
(p. 25):
The crux of the matter appears to be whether the scientist’s model of
reality is a better substitute for reality than one’s personal experience.
According to the humanistic viewpoint, one can only acquiesce
to the equal power of both objective analysis and subjective experience
when one’s theory becomes self-reflexive in a reexamination of
what constitutes objectivity. Reductionistic epistemology may be
required to launch a science, but in its mature phase, all sciences,
even the most exact ones, must confront the underlying philosophical
issues of the fundamental relation of the subject to the object.
Seligman’s theories about positive psychology contain no such
reflexive elements as yet, so the theory must be judged as still being
in its infant stages.4 (pp. 23-24)
28 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
This call from humanistic psychologists for positive psychologists
to reflect upon their own epistemological (and ontological)
assumptions will be addressed in due course—although just here I
confess little optimism about a positive response from Seligman to
the humanists’ call. In any case, the message of positive psychologists,
both dominant and second-wave, is clear: A conventional/
modern scientific realism/objectivism is central to positive psychology’s
claim to a new and improved approach to studying what
is good or virtuous in human existence.
Positive psychology’s “reality problems.” Despite the call for a
conventional scientific realism and objectivism and the dismissal
of humanistic psychology owing to its alleged failure to adhere to
that standard, some leaders of the positive psychology movement
proclaim the virtues of having unrealistic optimism/expectations.
Recall, for example, Taylor et al.’s (2000) report of the correlation
between unrealistic optimism and greater longevity in HIV
patients. Here, then, we may begin to explore the “reality problems”
of positive psychologists: Positive psychologists stand their
movement on the rock of scientific realism and objectivity when
they make their truth/reality claims with all the conviction that
scientific realism and objectivity warrant. But at the same time,
they sometimes tout the benefits of holding beliefs that are themselves
unrealistic. Although no contradiction emerges just yet, a
double epistemic standard surely does: The standard of securing
objective/unbiased evidence is necessary for warranting scientific
knowledge but not everyday knowledge, which requires only a
pragmatic standard ofwarrant, namely, whether one’s beliefs have
beneficial consequences (see Held, 2002b).
Positive psychologists could reply that the venerated scientific
objectivity is limited to the empirical relationships that obtain
between holding certain beliefs on one hand and well-being/
longevity on the other hand. So it does not matter whether the
(beneficial) beliefs themselves are objectively true or unbiased, so
long as the scientific findings are assuredly so. In short, they might
simply say (as in effect they do) that it is scientifically/objectively
true that people benefit from holding beliefs that are themselves
biased or not objectively true. (To the extent that scientific knowing
depends upon objectivity in everyday knowing [see Held, 1995;
Pols, 1992], what is to prevent the endorsed positive illusions from
Barbara S. Held 29
infecting their scientific knowledge?) But if the double epistemic
standard poses no reality problems for positive psychologists, then
why,we may ask, do they work hard to convince us that the positive
illusions/optimistic bias they propound are not at odds with epistemological
realism? What might motivate these efforts?
Two answers to this psychological question seem possible, and
they are not unrelated. First, by claiming that positive illusions/
optimistic bias can be realistic, or at least not all that unrealistic,
(a) the standard for everyday knowing then squares with (b) the
standard for scientific knowing; the latter is, after all, what is said
(repeatedly) to distinguish the movement from prior “positive psychology”
movements, which are judged inferior scientifically. The
double standard, though not itself contradictory, may also create
discomfort byway of its link to a bona fide contradiction, one which
provides a second possible answer to the psychological question of
why positive psychologists insist on the realism of positively
biased beliefs: (a) on one hand, positive psychologists proclaim the
benefits of positive illusions and (unrealistic) optimism in the context
of everyday knowing. Recall Seligman’s (2002a, p. 129) claim
that optimism is good for us, even at a “cost perhaps of less realism.”
Yet, (b) on the other hand, he also says that “learned optimism
. . . is about accuracy” (p. 96) and that having a “reality orientation”
in the context of everyday knowing is good. Seligman
(2002a, p. 142) lists “judgment”and “critical thinking” as strengths
(in everyday knowing) that give rise to the virtues of wisdom and
knowledge: “By Judgment, I mean the exercise of sifting information
objectively and rationally. . . . Judgment . . . embodies reality
orientation. . . . This is a significant part of the healthy trait of not
confusing your own wants and needs with the facts of the world.”
Of course, part (b) of the second possible answer to my psychological
question contradicts not only part (a) of that same answer, but
also generates conflict between the objectivity that is required for
scientific knowing and the positive (pragmatic) bias that is preferred
for everyday knowing.
Here, evidence of arguments about the alleged realism of positive
illusions and optimistic bias is in order. Snyder, Rand, King,
Feldman, and Woodward (2002), for instance, say that if their
“high-hope people” (who, according to Snyder, Sympson, Michael,
& Cheavens, 2001, share some, but not all, features of optimists)
are unrealistic, it is only mildly or slightly so:
30 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
We believe that high-hope people do make use of positive illusions
that influence their views of reality . . . but that they do not [italics
added] engage in blatant [italics added] reality distortion. . . .
[Rather, they] slightly [italics added] bias that reality in a positive
direction. It is useful to examine this “bias” in the context of Taylor’s
(1983) work on positive illusions. . . .These slight [italics added] positive
illusions include overly positive self-conceptions, an exaggerated
perception of personal control, and an overly optimistic
assessment of the future. (p. 1005)
Snyder et al. (2002) go on to say,“Having high hope means that a
person may have a slight [italics added] positive self-referential
bias, but not an extreme [italics added] illusion that is counterproductive”
(p. 1007). Here, the qualifiers “slight,” “not blatant,” and
“not extreme” are emphasized, whereas in the quotation of Taylor
et al. (2000, pp. 102-103) presented earlier, no such qualifiers are
used. There, Taylor et al. speak of “unrealistic optimism,” not of
“slightly unrealistic optimism.” Moreover, Taylor and Brown (1988)
spoke of “positive illusions” and “overly positive self-evaluations.”
Contrary to Snyder et al. (2002), Taylor and Brown referred to
these as “substantial biases” (p. 200). On the other hand, Taylor
herself has also spoken of a “situated optimism,” one that stays
within “reasonable bounds”: “Optimism, even unrealistic optimism,
is not unreasonably so”(Armor&Taylor, 1998,p. 349).There
evidently is some equivocation about just how unrealistic “unrealistic
optimism” is. For example, Sandra Schneider (2001), in seeking
a conceptual basis for “realistic optimism,” casts Taylor’s optimism
on the extreme or unrealistic end of the spectrum, whereas
Baumeister’s optimism is characterized by her as occupying a
“middle ground,” owing to his call for “an optimal margin of illusion”
(pp. 250-251). (To be sure, the question of just how much people
distort reality positively, and the correlation between the
degree of that distortion and optimal functioning, is, as Taylor and
Brown demonstrate, an empirical one.)
Other positive psychologists have dealt with impending reality
problems by going further: Those who have an optimistic bias are
found not only to be realistic without qualification but also to have
more wisdom.For example,Segerstrom said,“[Some say] optimists
are naïve and vulnerable to disappointment when they come face
to face with reality. My evidence suggests that optimists are not
naïve; they are however, wiser in expending their energies” (“Psychologists
Receive,” 2002). In the Handbook of Positive Psychology
Barbara S. Held 31
(Snyder & Lopez et al., 2002), Lisa Aspinwall, who won a Templeton
Positive Psychology Prize for her reformulation of optimism
(Azar, 2000), said, “Happier and Wiser: Optimism and Positive
Affect Promote Careful Realistic Thinking and Behavior” (p. 754),
although she also acknowledged that not “all positive beliefs and
states are salutary” (p. 754).
Even if it is indeed the case that an optimistic bias is pragmatically
useful in coping with life, the psychological question
remains:Why do positive psychologists work hard to convince that
an optimistic bias and epistemological realism/objective knowing
are not at odds? I have suggested two possible reasons, which may
be summed up in this way: If positive illusions and optimistic bias
are shown to be realistic in all senses—that is, they are not only
pragmatically useful but are also objectively grounded—then reality
problems owing to the double standard between everyday and
scientific knowing are eliminated. So too is the contradiction of
finding virtue (within the context of everyday knowing) both in
having positive illusions and in having a reality orientation, because
these then allegedly become one and the same. That is, if an
optimistic bias is compatible (enough) with an objectivist epistemology,
then any contradiction arising from the endorsement of
objectivity in everyday knowing and the endorsement of a positive
bias in everyday knowing can be said to be lessened, if not eliminated
In an article entitled “In Search of Realistic Optimism: Meaning,
Knowledge, and Warm Fuzziness,” which appeared in the
March 2001 section of the American Psychologist dedicated to positive
psychology, Sandra Schneider took the bull of positive
psychology’s reality problems by the horns. To me, she sounds
slightly postmodern, although I am quite certain that was not her
intent. Her stated intent was to preserve the conceptual distinction
between realistic and unrealistic optimism, and so, I think, to
solve the reality problems I have just set forth. I do not think she
succeeds in her intended mission, however, because she challenges
the idea of objectivity itself, at least implicitly, a challenge that
32 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
undermines the scientific realism/objectivism of positive psychology.
Of course, many postmodernists, especially radical social constructionists
and constructivists, also challenge the idea of objectivity.
But unlike Schneider and other positive psychologists, they
reject all scientific realism and objectivity. Indeed, they happily
dismiss even the possibility of objective knowledge of reality, often
preferring a pragmatic standard of warrant (e.g., see Held, 1995,
1998, 2002a, 2002b).
Contrary to any such postmodern doctrine, Schneider (2001)
commits herself to a form of realism both by affirming a conventional
psychological science and by seeking a realistic form of optimism,
an optimism that expressly incorporates attention to reality’s
constraints (which constraints are for her and others in the
movement [e.g., Taylor, Aspinwall, Segerstrom], unlike for radical
postmodernists/constructionists, presumably knowable with some
objectivity). The latter she attempts by pleading the distinction
between “fuzzy meaning,” which “arises from interpretive latitude”
(p. 252), and “fuzzy knowledge,” which “arises from factual
uncertainty or lack of information” (p. 253). But in defining realistic
optimism, she conflates epistemology (which concerns the nature
of knowledge and of knowing) with ontology (which concerns
the nature of being or existence—of reality itself). Her conflation
derives from insisting sometimes that reality itself is fuzzy (an
ontological matter about existence), and at other times that knowledge
of reality is fuzzy (an epistemological matter about knowing),
or both. Regarding “fuzzy reality,” she speaks of “the fuzzy nature
of reality” (p. 251), “the fuzzy boundaries of reality” (p. 257), and of
how “reality can be fuzzy” (p. 252). Regarding her conflation of
“fuzzy reality” (ontology) with “fuzzy knowledge” (epistemology),
she says that “reality is fuzzy in these instances [where we lack
complete causal models] because of our uncertainty about the
situation of interest” (p. 253). Notice here that it is our lack of
certainty/knowledge (an epistemological matter) that literally
makes reality itself fuzzy (an ontological matter).5 And she goes on
to say, “One specific, objectively verifiable state of affairs may not
exist and . . . even if it did [a (partly) ontological matter about existence],
people might lack the necessary tools to become completely
aware of it [an epistemological matter about knowing]” (p. 252).
Thus, Schneider makes her case for realistic optimism either by
(a) eroding the concept of reality itself (p. 253), (b) diminishing our
cognitive access to any existing reality (fuzzy or not), or (c) both of
Barbara S. Held 33
these maneuvers. In seeing reality itself as so fuzzy/in flux that we
often cannot get (nonfuzzy) access to it (p. 252), Schneider seems to
align herself somewhat with the much more extreme philosophy of
postmodernists/constructionists, some of whom (e.g., Fishman,
1999, p. 1306) defend their epistemological antirealism (the doctrine
that we can have no objective or knower-independent knowledge
of reality whatsoever) on the basis of their ontological views.
But to whatever extent she leans in their direction, she also undermines
the realism/objectivity necessary for the nonfuzzy knowledge
(of nonfuzzy reality) that she uses to support her own truth/
reality claims about the objective existence of a realistic form of
optimism! Indeed, she subverts the objectivity of the modern/
conventional psychological science claimed by positive psychologists
to ground their movement (Held, 2002a).
To be fair, many postmodernists go much further than Schneider
by seeming to eliminate all or much of reality’s constraints in
their quest for liberation and transcendence. The philosopher
Charles Guignon (1998) summarized the appeal of such a radical
constructionist/antirealist epistemology succinctly: “Part of the
appeal, no doubt, lies in the exhilarating sense of freedom we get
from thinking that there are no constraints on the stories we can
create in composing our own lives. Now anything is possible, it
seems” (p. 566). For example, constructionist therapist Michael
Hoyt (1996) said, “The doors of therapeutic perception and possibility
have been opened wide by the recognition that we are
actively constructing our mental realities rather than simply
uncovering or coping with an objective ‘truth’ ” (p. 1) (for more quotations,
see Held, 1995, 1998, 2002a).
Optimistic, antiobjectivist claims like the one quoted just above
are not incompatible with reasons given by Schneider for a realistic
form of optimism. However, there is more direct evidence of a
convergence between positive and postmodern psychologies. One
exemplary indication of positive psychologists’ inclination to incorporate
the postmodern psychology movement into their own
appears in the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez,
2002), which contains a chapter by constructivist movement leader
Michael Mahoney (2002) entitled “Constructivism and Positive
Psychology.” There, Mahoney finds much in common between the
two movements despite constructivism’s explicit rejection of (and
positive psychology’s embrace of) the objectivist or realist epistemology
of modern (psychological) science.The editor of the Journal
34 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
of Constructivist Psychology was clear about this when he said,
“Like SC [social constructionism], constructivism takes as its point
of departure a rejection of ‘objectivist’ psychologies, with their
commitment to a realist epistemology, correspondence theory of
truth, unificationist philosophy of science” (Neimeyer, 1998, p. 141).
And working it the other way around, postmodernists Steven
Sandage and Peter Hill (2001) explicate the ways in which an
“affirmative” brand of postmodernism can help the positive psychology
movement make its alleged “constructive move beyond
some of the limitations of modernist psychology” (p. 242). Whether
positive psychologists stand ready to accept this postmodernist
antiobjectivist “help” remains to be seen. What strange bedfellows
they would make! And so it seems odd indeed that in the
Handbook (Snyder & Lopez, 2002) we find a chapter by a leading
proponent of postmodern antirealism but not by any humanistic
psychologists, some of whose epistemologies would surely be more
compatible with what positive psychologists propound (see Smith,
2003, p. 160) and towhose tradition positive psychology owes a debt.7
Of course, Seligman (2002a, 2002b; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi,
2000, 2001) did not criticize postmodern psychology as he did
humanistic psychology. In any case, I do not foresee him reversing
himself by reaching for the helping hand that humanistically
inclined psychologists have held out to positive psychologists,
whether in a dialogical spirit of holism, dialectic, integration, cooperation,
inclusion, and rapprochement (e.g., Follette, Linnerooth,
& Ruckstuhl, 2001; Rathunde, 2001; Resnick et al., 2001;
Rich, 2001) or with a modicum of indignation (e.g., Taylor, 2001,
pp. 26-27).
Prescriptions for psychology’s unification in response to its
alleged fragmentation problem abound (e.g., Henriques, 2003;
Slife, 2000; Staats, 1999; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001; Wertz,
1999). Michael Katzko (2002) diagnoses psychology’s fragmentation
problem on two levels. On one level, science is viewed as a
method of knowledge acquisition. Here, epistemic values prevail in
the form of “implicit values concerning proper scientific conduct”
Barbara S. Held 35
(p. 263). One example he gives of an epistemic value is the current
tendency among researchers to emphasize the uniqueness or distinctiveness
of their findings, a tendency that, Katzko says, results
in relabeling phenomena in novel terms and thus in an exaggerated
sense of theoretical disorder or fragmentation. On the second
level, science is viewed as a society in which theories function as “a
process of group formation” (p. 267). Here, for instance, ideology
and social cohesion—the power of the movement—supplant the
epistemic value of (open-ended) inquiry. This is a social/political,
not an epistemic, value, and Katzko likens its expression more to
religion and war than to science (cf. Gist&Woodall, 1998).He calls
those who adopt this social value “scientist-warriors” rather than
the “archetype of the scientist-explorer” (p. 268) in search of truth
(cf. Haack, 1996). Katzko (p. 269) suggests it is important to keep
the two values distinct rather than hiding behind the epistemic
value while enacting the social value.
Although Seligman pays at least lip service to what he calls
“negative psychology” and there is no reason to deny the honest
search for truth among the legions of “scientist-explorers” within
the positive psychology movement, he nonetheless heads a movement
with great determination. He and other spokespersons for
the movement have worked hard to differentiate their movement
not only from humanistic psychology but from the rest of psychology
(and social science) as well. Recall the separatist, polarizing
rhetoric of his chapter in Aspinwall and Staudinger’s (2003a)
edited book, where in the spirit of the dominant Message he
defines positive psychology as a “discrete approach within the
social sciences” (Seligman & Peterson, 2003, p. 305), even as
authors of other chapters broadcast their more dialogical, secondwave
message of holism and integration. So it should come as no
surprise that in their concluding chapter of the Handbook of Positive
Psychology, editors Snyder and Lopez literally declared positive
psychology’s independence: The chapter is entitled “The Future
of Positive Psychology: A Declaration of Independence” (Snyder
& Lopez et al., 2002, p. 751). There they speak of “Breaking Away”
(pp. 751, 753, 764) and refer to what used to be the discipline of psychology
as either the “weakness model” or the “pathology model,”
in contrast to the “strength model” of positive psychology:
It is our view . . . that the first stage of a scientific movement—one
that we would characterize as a declaration of independence from the
pathology model—has been completed. The broader field now real-
36 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
izes that the positive psychology perspective exists. This handbook,
which is built on our belief that a vital science and practice of positive
psychology should grow alongside the science and practice of the
pathology model, is yet another marker of this declaration of
independence. (p. 752)
The chapters themselves may contain nuance—for example, in
their chapter, Niederhoffer and Pennebaker (2002) say, “It is somewhat
ironic that the writing [about traumatic experiences] paradigm
is discussed as a feature of positive psychology. . . .Our paradigm
encourages participants to dwell on the misery in their lives.
We are essentially bringing inhibited or secret negative emotions
to the forefront” (p. 581). But one would never glean this (dialectical)
nuance from the editors’ rhetoric, which supports the dominant
Message to which Niederhoffer and Pennebaker themselves
seem to respond. Smith (2003) responded to the movement’s rhetoric
of polarization more directly in his review of the Handbook:
Spokespersons for the movement naturally exaggerate its novelty. I
think that advocates of primary prevention of mental illness had
quite similar overlapping objectives in view, although their focus on
mental illness sets off alarm bells to the more doctrinaire advocates
of positive psychology. And here I have trouble with the way the latter
polarize the contrast between their positive model and what they
call the pathological, weakness medical model or ideology. . . . The
repeated reference to the pathological, medical ideology in this
handbook strikes me as evidence that the advocacy of some [of] the
positive psychologists is more ideological than rational. (p. 162)
The rhetoric of some of positive psychology’s spokespersons
sounds to me like what we might well hear from Katzko’s (2002)
“scientist-warrior”: “A movement is defined by appropriating sets
of beliefs as its exclusive domain” (p. 267), in which the staking and
defending of territory rather than the search for similar meanings
or “descriptive generalization” obtains (pp. 266, 268). Recall that
so-called negative psychology and the weakness/pathology model
did not exist as such until Seligman, in a bold act of social construction,
so labeled and separated a large segment of the field. This
zealousness of some spokespersons for the movement may in part
account for what some perceive as the movement’s excessive or
tyrannical aspects, especially its polarizing negativity about negativity
and about all that went before (see Aspinwall & Staudinger,
Barbara S. Held 37
2003b; Bohart & Greening, 2001; Carstensen & Charles, 2003;
Held, 2002a; Smith, 2003; Taylor, 2001).
In The Varieties of Religious Experience,William James (1902)
devoted two lectures to “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness.”
This religion is surely one forerunner of the positive psychology
movement and, in my view, of the “tyranny of the positive attitude”
in general, whichmay be a side effect of both culturewide and professional
negativity about negativity, or Negativity Type 1 (Held,
2002a). These two lectures are followed by two lectures on “The
Sick Soul.” Near the end of the second of these two lectures, James
struggles with a difficult question:
We can see how great an antagonism may naturally arise between
the healthy-minded way of viewing life and the way that takes all
this experience of evil as something essential.To this latter way, the
morbid-minded way, as we might call it, healthy-mindedness pure
and simple seems unspeakably blind and shallow. To the healthyminded
way, on the other hand, the way of the sick soul seems
unmanly and diseased. . . . What are we to say of this quarrel? It
seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness
ranges over the wider scale of experience, and that its survey is the
one that overlaps. The method of averting one’s attention from evil,
and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will
work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally
than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its
successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious
solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy
comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one’s self,
there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical
doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to
account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be
the best key to life’s significance,and possibly the only openers of our
eyes to the deepest levels of truth. (pp. 162-163)
Positive psychologists might claim they do not deny “evil facts”
of any sort, that they indeed look reality right in the eye when, for
example, they strive to find “meaning in bereavement.” This meaning
is alleged to be all the more virtuous, owing to the link between
findingmeaning (in adversity) and longevity (Taylor et al., 2000,
p. 106).Positive psychologists might therefore agree that the unexamined
life is not worth living, not least because it may mean a
38 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
shorter life, if not a meaningless one. But if they face the negative
rather than deny it with “positive illusions,” as they now claim to
do when they redefine their optimism as actually being quite realistic
(Aspinwall&Staudinger, 2003b; Snyder et al., 2002; Snyder&
Lopez et al., 2002), or when, in the emerging nondominant secondwave
message, some embrace the potential for coping, health, and
growth to be found in negative experiences (e.g., Aspinwall &
Staudinger, 2003b; Carstensen & Charles, 2003; King, 2001;
Larsen et al., 2003; Ryff&Singer, 2003), then how (wemay ask) are
positive psychologists different from the negative psychologists
from whom spokespersons for the positive psychology movement
openly declare their independence? After all, when so-called negative
psychologists study what is wrong with us, they do so in the
positive hope of better living too. Whether negative psychology as
construed by Seligman consists in (a) studying what is wrong with
us or (b) finding virtue in the experience and expression of the negatives
of life, if at least some positive psychologists have begun to
advocate its inclusion in positive psychology,as I hope to have demonstrated,
then perhaps those who disseminate this second-wave
message are neither positive psychologists nor negative psychologists,
but rather positive negative-psychologists or negative positivepsychologists.
In either case, why not just call them psychologists?
As Smith (2003) concluded about the movement, “Its success
should result in its demise: Psychology in good balance would not
need advocates for positive psychology” (p. 162).
William James found virtue in negative experience, as does his
interpreter Jeffrey Rubin (2000), especially in discussing James’s
“Three Principles That Provide an Alternative to Pathologizing”
(p. 209) and his “Three Principles That Can Be Used When Pathology
Terms Are Employed by Others so That the Negative Effects
Associated With Their Usage Can Be Reduced” (p. 213). Of most
relevance is Principle 2 of the latter: “When pathology terms are
employed by others, argue against the simplistic notion that experiences
assigned a pathological label by the pathologizers are
really ‘bad’ experiences” (p. 215). Here Rubin describes the “valued
fruits” that James found in whatwas taken to be negative or pathological.
Rubin’s advice can be applied not only to Seligman’s term
negative psychology and to his tendency to pathologize negative
experiences in general, but also to my own term the negative side of
positive psychology. Accordingly, I can now find in the movement’s
second-wave message a third and more positive meaning of posi-
Barbara S. Held 39
tive psychology’s “negative side”—namely, the open acknowledgement
and appreciation of the negative side of human existence/
nature, a side that has heretofore been denied or dismissed by promoters
of the movement’s dominant Message. In this we have the
inclusive, integrative, dialectical approach many psychologists
have advocated since William James. And so this newer message
gives me hope, including the hope that positive psychology will
eventually acknowledge its debt to humanistic psychology (among
other traditions) without equivocation, just as some positive psychologists
now advocate the incorporation of negative human
emotion and thought in the movement’s science.
But if our field must remain divided along positive and negative
lines, I prefer (apropos of James) to cast my lot with the negative
psychologists. After all, Shakespeare’s tragedies are no lesser
plays than are his comedies, and his nuanced understanding of
human nature, with all its seeming contradiction, has hardly gone
uncredited.8 Making lemonade out of life’s many lemons is certainly
one way to make life meaningful, but it is surely not the only
1. I am not claiming that the ideas expressed in Aspinwall and
Staudinger’s (2003a) edited book did not exist prior to their publication
there, but rather that in virtue of their collection in this volume they have
attained a critical rhetorical mass, one that rises to the level of a
discernable message from some “faction” within the movement.
2. Sheldon and King (2001) seem to think that the focus on problems/
negativity they find in conventional psychology results from “psychology’s
reductionist epistemological traditions, which train one to view positivity
with suspicion, as a product of wishful thinking, denial, or hucksterism”(p.
216). They fail to see that reductionism favors neither positivity nor
negativity, but rather (at least in its conventional meaning) the search for
fundamental components/causes, which are often believed to be (molecular)
biological or even particle physical. That is, the doctrine of reductionism
is independent of any wish to emphasize human strengths or
weaknesses. Moreover, they imply that positive psychology breaks out of
psychology’s “reductionist epistemological traditions,” in virtue of studying
strengths. But as Eugene Taylor (2001) argued, positivism (which he
says underlies “the reductionistic epistemology of modern experimental
science”) is one of “Seligman’s three meanings” of the word positive and
constitutes a standard “Seligman invokes . . . regularly” (p. 15).
3. See Held (2002a, pp. 970-971) for more discussion of potential unintended
consequences of positive psychology.
40 Negative Side of Positive Psychology
4. See Pols (1998) and Held (2002b) for discussion of how a type of selfreflection,
that is, an inward agentic turn in the act of knowing, can help
justify the human capacity for objective knowledge.
5. Schneider (2001) could defend this by claiming that our knowledge
of reality (e.g., our discourse) determines or affects the reality we ultimately
get (see Held, 1998), but she does not make this social constructionist
6. As Fishman (1999) says about the pragmatic philosophy he propounds,
Philosophical pragmatism is founded upon a social constructionist
theory of knowledge. The world that exists independently of our
minds is an unlimited complex of change and novelty, order and disorder.
To understand and cope with the world, we take on different
conceptual perspectives, as we might put on different pairs of
glasses, with each providing us a different perspective on the world.
The pragmatic “truth” of a particular perspective does not lie in its
correspondence to “objective reality,” since that reality is continuously
in flux. Rather, the pragmatic truth of a particular perspective
lies in the usefulness of the perspective in helping us to cope and
solve particular problems and achieve particular goals in today’s
world. (p. 130)
7. Apropos of this, in the issue of JHP devoted to positive psychology,
there are articles by Laura King; by Kennon Sheldon,who like King won a
Templeton Positive Psychology Prize and who with King coedited a section
of the American Psychologist entitled “Why Positive Psychology Is
Necessary” (Sheldon & King, 2001); and by Kevin Rathunde (2001), who
“remains active in the positive psychology research network” (p. 135). Yet
to my knowledge there are no chapters or articles by humanistic psychologists
(writing as such) either in edited books about positive psychology
or in special issues of the American Psychologist devoted to positive
8. According to literary critic William Watterson (personal communication,
July 17, 2002), Shakespeare’s comedies differ from his tragedies
not byway of character but byway of generic principles governing closure:
The tragedies end with destruction, disintegration, and death for the protagonist,
whereas the comedies end with wealth, marriage, and living
happily ever after.
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46 Negative Side of Positive Psychology