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Positive PsychologyReview - Positive Psychology
Exploring the Best in People
by Shane J. Lopez (Editor)
Praeger, 2008
Review by Peter B. Raabe, Ph.D.
Mar 24th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 13)

I believe these four volumes have arrived at a very opportune time in American history. After eight years of academic analysis and media criticism of what was wrong with former US president George W. Bush's internal and foreign policies, president Obama is promoting a new, positive approach, both in regards to domestic issues and US relations with the rest of the world. With his emphasis on what can be done to improve things on both fronts, Obama is exemplifying an approach advocated by many mental healthcare professionals:  that of applying the principles of positive psychology to both the intra- and inter-personal problems encountered in their own clinical practices.

Positive psychology, like the current "change" called for by Obama's government, is about shifting focus away from an analysis of what has gone wrong to an appreciation and promotion of what is left that's going right, and about moving therapeutic efforts away from a mere criticism of the suffering patient's status quo to suggesting how things might be improved.  The aim of positive psychology is to be forward-looking, optimistic, and empowering.  In the words of one of the authors, "Positive psychology aims to alter mainstream psychology's emphasis on human weaknesses and diseases by advocating a greater focus on positive human qualities" (Vol. 2 p. 155).  Of course it acknowledges the fact that any situation in an individual's past that is at the root of problems in the present needs to be adequately dealt with.  But it says to the therapist, "Don't stop there."  Instead of just diagnosing and dwelling on weaknesses, it's about finding and building on strengths.  Once a problem from the past has been dealt with, positive psychology advocates that therapists and their patients develop--in a nutshell--affirmative action toward the future.

The first volume, sub-titled "Discovering Human Strengths," focuses on the central tenet of positive psychology, that of finding and making the most of each individual's various strengths.  This volume argues that, although it may seem that bad events outweigh the good, this is a perception that can be counteracted with a more realistic view of life's occurrences.  The authors argue that "the negative bias found so consistently in the literature does not require the adoption of a pessimistic view of the human condition" (p74).  Their point is that dwelling on negative events can make it erroneously seem as though negatives are in the majority.  This volume also addresses the question of when wisdom can be achieved (is it only available to the elderly?);  whether courage is something a person is born with or can in fact learn;  and whether a pessimistic or optimistic attitude and approach to life can affect a person's physical health. 

The second volume is titled "Capitalizing on Emotional Experiences."  Here the reader is helped to see the importance to therapy of issues such as gratitude, empathy, helping behavior, and emotional intelligence.  While these issues are discussed in terms of their emotional impact, the emphasis is on the importance of personal behavior in one's attempt to alter the direction of one's life.  In other words, positive psychology doesn't just advocate internal changes or improvements; it fosters an optimistic approach between individuals in their outward behavior, with the argument that this improved behavior will improve the quality of life for all involved.  Two chapters in this volume which I found personally interesting were, first, the chapter on "allophilia" which refers to love or caring of others beyond mere toleration.  I teach my students that toleration is always from a position of power, and that acceptance--or "allophilia" as Pittinsky and Maruskin, the authors of chapter 8 in this volume call it--is a much more humane and inclusive approach to human differences in values and beliefs.  I also found the last chapter, titled "Re-envisioning Men's Emotional Lives: Stereotypes, Struggles, and Strengths" particularly interesting in its exploration of the social constructionist notion "that gender, femininity, and masculinity are practices that are performed in social situations" as opposed to simply being genetically inherited behavioral traits (p. 157. Italics in the original).  Positive psychology, again, rather than dwelling on the negative elements of masculinity, advocates the positive aspects and significant meaning behind masculine behavior.

The third volume, titled "Exploring the Best in People" continues the theme of the last chapter in the previous volume.  This chapter points to some unexpected areas as possible sources for optimism and growth, for example after loss and adversity, the break-up of a relationship, a romantic conflict, and career disintegration.  This last topic, discussed in Chapter 7 titled "Career Flexibility for a Lifetime of Work" is especially relevant in today's economically uncertain times.  Something as simple as accepting help with a job search can--as illustrated by example in this volume ( p. 136)--make a big difference between surviving in a chaotic job market and ending up homeless.  And while the author (Ebberwein) acknowledges the fact that discrimination is certainly alive and well in the job market, he encourages job seekers to anticipate discriminatory reading of their résumés  and job applications by making sure they highlight their strengths to such an extent that the objects of discrimination (such as age or color) go unnoticed.  This chapter also discusses the benefits of storytelling--or "venting" as my son calls it--after a particularly negative experience in order to lessen the impact that a negative experience may exert on future projects. 

The fourth and final volume titled "Pursuing Human Flourishing" is, in a sense, the summing up and conclusion of the arguments and reasoning of the previous three volumes.  The chapters in this volume are, in my opinion, less analytical and more prescriptive.  Here the authors discuss topics such as the criteria of complete mental health (chapter 1), the question of whether money can buy happiness (chapter 3), the education or learning of a positive attitude (chapter 5), and the recipe for a successful family (chapter 7).  The final chapter is a summary of the philosophy behind positive psychology.  Author Tayyab Rashid discusses the fact that negative psychotherapy has exerted a tremendous amount of power over the past century, leaving patients feeling helpless and dejected.  The alternative--positive psychology--will, according to Rashid, lead instead to a life that is pleasant, engaged, meaningful, and full of happiness. 

These volumes are very reader-friendly, with little difficult technical jargon.  They read as though they are meant for a general, non-professional audience.  Each volume contains a number of personal mini-experiments with which the reader can find out more about his or her own personal attitude toward life and its many problems--or are they challenges?  But a word of caution:  Some of the web sites to which readers are directed in order to administer self-tests are not free; they require payment.  Each volume also has a good independent index, which allows every volume to stand on its own as a user-friendly research resource. 

I must admit that I found nothing new or startlingly revealing in any of these volumes.  Most of the arguments presented on behalf of a positive approach to psychology seem rather obvious and common-sensical.  Still, it's compelling and affirmational reading.

One other problem that I have with these four volumes is the fact that the information has been published as four separate small volumes instead of one large one.  A previous book title Positive Psychology, edited in part by Shane J. Lopez (the editor of the present four volumes) was published in one volume of around 600 pages.  It sold for $59 US.  The current four volumes total around 750 pages and sell for $400 US.  That's quite an increase in price for only an additional 150 pages.  The information in these four volumes is organized in such a way that owning all four volumes amounts to a well-rounded useful source on positive psychology.  But the expense of purchasing all four volumes will unfortunately ensure that few practitioners will have access to the entirety of all that information. 

© 2009 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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