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Positive PsychologyReview - Positive Psychology
The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths
by C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez
Sage Publications, 2006
Review by Peter B. Raabe, Ph.D.
Oct 2nd 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 40)

Positive psychology is to mental health what good nutrition and exercise are to physical health.  Positive psychology is like preventative medicine.  While medical doctors focus almost exclusively on diagnosing and treating physical illness, psychotherapists have been making the mistake of focusing almost exclusively on diagnosing and treating so-called mental illness.  (I'm using the term 'psychotherapists' in the broad sense to include everyone from psychoanalysts to clinical psychologists to counselors)  That, in a nutshell, is the central premise of this book.  This premise drives the authors' thesis:  students of psychotherapy need to learn how to 'diagnose' not just the abnormal but normalcy, and then need to not just treat so-called 'mental illness' in their patients but help them to develop mental health and well-being.  Their argument suggests that today's conventional psychotherapist may be compared to a poor athletic coach who focuses on pointing out the mistakes made by his/her athletes without ever explaining how to improve on their performance. 

Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association, and positive psychology pioneer, explains in his 1998 essay that psychology has been seeing human beings as "passive foci" or simple stimulus/response mechanisms, whose actions are influenced by rewards and punishments, and "pushed around" by conflicts from childhood.  He proposed that positive psychology be "a new science of strength and resilience" in which individuals are seen as "decision-makers with choices, preferences, and the possibility of becoming masterful, efficacious..."  (p. 4-5).  This is psychology adopting what in philosophy has long been called existentialism:  the recognition that human beings can and should be considered active participants in shaping their own lives and life in general.  It is not only useful in overcoming the fear created by a belief in an oppressive unconscious, but also absolutely necessary in the recognition of moral responsibility. 

The authors are refreshingly candid about the problems inherent in the categorical diagnosing of mental illness.  They cite researchers who have found that so-called normal and abnormal emotional experiences are not discrete categories, and that the real-world challenge of making diagnoses by categorizing clients' behaviors shows "a lack of evidence of consistency and accuracy among practicing psychologists"  (p. 339).  What this means to positive psychology is that "normal" consists of a wide range of behaviors and attitudes whose diversity needs to be encouraged rather than criticized or, even worse, medicalized.  

The various chapters deal with issues that touch every aspect of "normal" life.  The authors offer both western and eastern perspectives on the intention and methods of positive psychology;  they discuss how human strengths are classified, measured, and enhanced; they discuss variations on what "living well" means both in terms of various cultures and during various stages in life.  They offer two large sections on the relationship of emotions and cognition to living a good life; they discuss the recently popular notions of "mindfulness" and "flow" and spirituality.  There is a chapter on pro-social behavior with detailed discussion of altruism, forgiveness, and empathy;  and there is a chapter on how to build lasting and meaningful relationships. 

Chapter 15 is particularly interesting in its focus on preventative approaches to problems that might arise in children, ethnic minorities, and the elderly.  Here the authors take the focus off the standard clinical tendency to locate the problem within the patient, and examine instead the many social factors that contribute to an individual's distress and happiness such as schooling, employment, and community.  And each chapter goes well beyond academic definitions and arguments, to real-life examples from stories in the news, and personal experiences.  The final section offers a look at the future of positive psychology with a number of short excerpts from relevant essays, not written by the book's authors, on topics such as spirituality, positive lessons learned from hurricanes, the role of positive psychology in healthcare, and "giving positive psychology away" which promotes the idea of positive psychology acting as a bridge between non-substantive self-help books and obscure academic writings. 

Every section has one or more self-tests and mini-experiments that allow the reader to understand his or her own psychological makeup a little better.  For example, in part five dealing with prosocial behavior, there are four self-tests that measure your approach to  inter-personal issues such as gratitude for what life has brought, revenge/forgiveness for wrongs suffered, and helpfulness to others. 

This book is meant to be an introductory-level course text with the usual course book features such as sidebars containing excerpts from newspapers and case studies, pictures of the researchers whose data is presented, artwork of historical figures, personal questionnaires to be filled in and mini-experiments to be tried out, a glossary at the end of each chapter, charts, diagrams, tables, and author and subject indexes.  These features also make it very accessible for independent study by non-academic readers and practitioners.  In fact this book is not only instructive of all the various facets of human-being, it's also an entertaining and enjoyable read because of its focus on the positive, happy, and fulfilling aspects of life that are typically absent from applied and clinical psychology books. 

While so many of the stories in its pages are entertaining, including a detailed description of the ordinary ("normal")  but heart-warming activities of one of the authors on a particular Saturday, the purpose of this book is to teach students and other readers to re-discover and bring out the best in both themselves and their patients or clients.  Interestingly, the authors encourage their readers to go beyond 'normal' as their goal.  This makes sense since so many people today consider a difficult and painful life to be quite normal.  Positive psychology is an attempt to help people aim beyond a state of life that is merely coping with hardships, to finding happiness and comfort.

I recommend this book to anyone involved in working within the broad field of mental health.  It may function not only as a solid introductory course text for students but also as a helpful handbook for those already active in the professional fields.

© 2007 Peter B. Raabe

Peter B. Raabe teaches philosophy and has a private practice in philosophical counseling in North Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of the books Philosophical Counseling: Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2001), Issues in Philosophical Counseling (Praeger, 2002), and Philosophical Counselling and the Unconscious (Trivium, 2006)


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