How new is Positive Psychology's focus on well-being?
Martin Seligman is undoubtedly a genius at attracting funding. But how good is his history of psychology?
His funding pitch usually begins with the insistence that he radically altered the direction of psychology when he launched Positive Psychology in 1998. In his inaugural speech as president of the American Psychology Association in 1998, he insisted that psychology had, since World War II, paid "almost exclusive attention" to pathology and illness. It's a claim he repeats in his 2011 book, Flourish, where he writes that Positive Psychology marked a "tectonic upheaval" in psychology, rescuing it from its exclusive focus on misery and illness.
This sounds so radical, so historically significant, that no layman or funder could resist letting out a whoop and signing a cheque: 'Of course psychology has always been too focused on illness and suffering! Just think of Freud and Krafft-Ebing. What a great idea, to set a bold new course for the heart of happiness and flourishing. Sign me up!'
But how accurate is Seligman's reading of the history of psychology?
I'm not an expert, not even close, in the history of psychology. But even to my layman's eyes, it seems obvious to me that this is an inaccurate and self-serving reading of the history of psychology, which vastly over-states the originality of Seligman's work.
In fact, as my friend Oliver Robinson recently pointed out to me, many of the greats of psychology were deeply interested in what constituted health, wellness and fulfilment. Think of Carl Jung's work on actualisation and individuation. Think of Abraham Maslow's work on the hierarchy of needs. Think of Galton's work on genius. Think of the work of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg and Robert Kegan on maturity and wisdom. Think of existentialist psychologists like Erich Fromm and Viktor Frankl's interest in love, meaning and transcendence. Think of William James' work on religious experience. All these psychologists were deeply interested in the question of what constituted mental health, wellness and fulfilment, and how to achieve it.
Seligman might make the argument that Aaron Beck's Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to which Seligman owes so much, was exclusively focused on treating illnesses, and that Positive Psychology used CBT techniques for the new goal of wellness or flourishing - and this is what makes Positive Psychology truly original and historically significant. But actually, Albert Ellis and his colleagues were using cognitive therapy to build resilience, thriving and mental health for several decades before Positive Psychology - and they were already teaching these techniques to kids in schools in the 1970s.
So much of Positive Psychology strikes me as marketing and hype, and this claim to historical originality is just another example of it. When historians look back at what was really useful and valid in Positive Psychology, I think they will decide it was mainly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, invented back in the 1950s. I don't think Seligman has added anything genuinely original or new since then - though he certainly has attracted a huge amount of money and media attention.