Positive Psychology for the entire country?

Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington School, has brought out a pamphlet laying out a vision for a new 'politics of optimism'. It’s a vision that draws heavily on ancient philosophy and on Positive Psychology, and is worth a read.

Seldon argues that only a handful of British governments have genuinely shaped the nation, while most of them simply responded to events. The Coalition government, he argues, has so far failed to shape the national agenda, but it could do so, if it revitalised the much-derided concept of the ‘Big Society’, and used it to focus on building four key values: goodness, trust, optimism and forward-thinking. We are going to be materially poorer over the next decade, he argues, but we can become mentally, morally and spiritually richer, if the government pursues the right policies.

Seldon is one of the key figures in the politics of well-being - the political movement that I have written about for the last four years or so - because he brings together in his own person the world of politics (he has written biographies of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown), education (he is the headmaster of Wellington), and the psychology of well-being (he was the first headmaster to introduce well-being classes, and is also one of the founders of Action for Happiness, which campaigns to spread Positive Psychology in British society).

There are many areas where I agree with Seldon. The reason I first got into the politics of well-being, many years ago, is because I fell into depression and social anxiety in my last year at school, and remained very depressed and anxious all the way through university. It took me several years to work out what was wrong with me, and how to escape that dark valley, using ancient philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I wish I had come across the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy and CBT at school and university - it would have saved me a lot of suffering - and my hope is that future generations will have this possibility.

Seldon agrees so far. He writes that British universities suffer from

often poor levels of pastoral care, especially for students in their difficult first year away from home. More than 76,000 students who started at universities in 2008 failed to graduate in the summer of 2011, a national drop-out rate of 21%. Depression and anxiety amongst undergraduates is increasing at an alarming rate: the numbers who reported mental health difficulties rose by 270% in the first five years of this century, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency [actually, the latest figures show a rise of 450% in students reporting mental health difficulties over the last decade] . Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing appropriate levels of pastoral care for undergraduates, and to ensuring that the quality of student support, as well as academic enrichment, equals the best universities in the US, if the trickle of British students currently crossing the Atlantic to study at university is not to become a torrent....Universities, like schools, need and shape young hearts and minds, not give them a sludgy amalgam.

He likewise thinks schools need to focus not just on academic achievement, but also on building ‘character’:

Education Secretary Michael Gove, and still more his Department for Education have locked themselves into a view of schools: either they promote ‘educational standards’ or all-round or ‘holistic’ education. Trying to do the second will be at the expense of the first. In fact, as the evidence of successful schools in Britain clearly shows, it is those schools that focus firmly on values and breadth of educational experience which secure the best results and educate their young people to the full. David Brooks, author of The Social Animal (2011), allegedly ‘required reading’ for the cabinet, said of schools: “If you don’t focus on character and behaviour, then the results of handing out money are always going to be disappointing”. State schools like West Kidlington primary school in Oxfordshire or King’s Langley, a secondary school in Hertfordshire, show that embracing values and ‘character’ education can transform a school and its results. South Korea is one of many countries whose education systems have been redesigned to embrace character development and creativity, not as a bolt-on, but as an integral part the school experience for its young people.

And he thinks this sort of character-building should carry on in adult life. The government, he suggests, should roll out a large-scale programme of Positive Psychology to teach ‘optimistic thinking’ to the nation’s six million public sector workers:

In 2009, Martin Seligman with his team from the University of Pennsylvania began to introduce positive thinking to the US Army. A ten-day master resilience trainer (MRT) course provides face-to-face resilience training, imparting the skills to sergeants for their own use as well as for them to teach the skills to their soldiers. This ‘train the trainer’ model has been evaluated and has been found to be successful in enhancing the mental health of the US Army, the cause of widespread concern.

There are six million public sector workers in Britain. The government should trial the resilience techniques which Seligman is teaching the US Army on selected groups of them. Prison guards, the police or NHS staff could be the place to start. School teachers too would benefit from learning more about this thinking. It involves learning how to detect ‘inaccurate’ thoughts, evaluating the value of those thoughts and how to challenge negative beliefs by considering alternative patterns of thinking. It teaches a variety of strategies useful in solving problems, and coping with difficult and stressful situations and emotions. Participants learn techniques to enhance assertiveness, to improve their negotiating skills, to boost decision-making and deepen their ability to relax and simply ‘let go’. Seligman’s programmes have been extensively evaluated, and while his approach has detractors in the academic world and beyond, the training would nevertheless be valuable in bringing greater optimism and human warmth into public services.

This is certainly a bold vision. But I really can’t see that last idea flying. Can you imagine - the Coalition government is cutting public sector budgets across the board, but it finds (let’s say) £1 billion to give to Martin Seligman and the University of Pennsylvania, to train public sector workers to think optimistically? 'Sorry, guys, we're cutting your pensions, but hey, here's a free course in thinking positively'. I can't see Unison signing up to that.

For one thing, the course which Seligman designed for the Pentagon was designed to prevent soldiers from getting post-traumatic stress disorder. Is PTSD a big problem in the British public sector as well? The Pentagon’s resilience-training course, which cost around $180 million, hasn’t even been properly evaluated yet. It was rolled out without a pilot programme, such was the Pentagon’s eagerness to cope with its epidemic of post-conflict suicide among veterans. Despite this lack of hard evidence, and despite the fact the course was designed to combat PTSD, Seldon wants to roll out resilience training to the entire nation - children, undergraduates, public and private sector workers. Well, you have to admire his optimism.

There’s no need for me to be overly-cynical. I myself was greatly helped by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and as I’ve said, the reason I got into this whole area was a belief that CBT - and the ancient philosophy that inspired it - should become more widely known and available. Positive Psychology is, to a large extent, repackaged CBT. So I agree with Seldon that our schools and universities shouldn't just prepare people for the marketplace - but should teach young people some ideas, techniques and approaches to the good life.

But it’s all a question of how you do it.

My problem with Positive Psychology is that it tries to turn ancient philosophy into too rigid and prescriptive a science. Where CBT aims merely to remove the symptoms of mental illness and to teach people how to transform their emotions, Positive Psychology claims to be an objective science of flourishing. That's a much bolder claim. The US Army’s resilience course, for example, makes every American soldier take a battery of computerised questionnaires, which supposedly measure their ‘emotional and spiritual fitness’. And if the soldiers score too low, a box appears saying: ‘Spiritual fitness may be a problem area for you. Please study the relevant self-development modules’. The priest is replaced with the spiritually-enlightened laptop.

Positive Psychology over-instrumentalizes well-being, has too reductive and amoral a definition of well-being, and relies too heavily on simplistic questionnaires in its efforts to measure well-being. It replaces human relationships with automated box-ticking. Politically, it grants too much authority to the 'scientific expert', and takes away too much autonomy from the citizen, who is forced to fit into a pre-fabricated version of well-being. It leaves no room for the individual's reasoning, or choice, or consent - which in my opinion are an important part of the good life. The political roll-out of Positive Psychology carries real risks of being illiberal and intrusive, and if Seldon is to be taken seriously, he needs to deal with those concerns head on.

My vision is not so far from Seldon’s, but it tries to find a better balance between the ancient idea of the good life or eudaimonia, and a modern, pluralist and liberal politics. It recognises that well-being is not a simple concept that can be easily defined and measured by empirical science. Rather, it embraces the plurality of philosophical definitions of well-being, and asks that we treat citizens as rational adults, who deserve the right to be brought into the conversation as equals, and shown some of the various different approaches - then left to make up their own minds as to how to define the good life.

We can still teach people the basic techniques of well-being - meditation, for example, or the Socratic method used in CBT - while also empowering them to discuss the various different approaches to well-being: Buddhist, Christian, Stoic, Epicurean, Aristotelian - and the arguments between those approaches. Well-being is not a straightforward concept which we can define scientifically and objectively, and the world would be a much more boring place if we could.

My ideal course in the good life would combine two of the most popular courses at Harvard: Tal Ben Shahar's course on Positive Psychology, and Michael Sandel's course on Justice. It would combine the well-being science of Ben Shahar's course, with the opportunity for ethical reasoning found in Sandel's course. Empiricism balanced with practical reasoning. Science balanced with the humanities. Not one version of the good life, but many. That's what I would like to see taught in schools, universities, and adult learning centres.