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Positive Psychology

This is inspired by the recent Houellebecq discussion. In sum, and in further praise of Houellebecq, I believe he is at least aware of the cutting edge of psychological thought, and incorporated it into “The Possiblity of an Island.”

From the book:

“The day’s orator was a very tall, thin, bald guy, impressively serious –when he tried to be funny, it was quite frightening. I called him Knowall, and he was in fact a professor of neurology at a Canadien university. To my great surprise, what he had to say was interesting, and even fascinating in places. The human mind, he explained, developed by the creation and progressive chemical reinforcement of neural networks of variable length, from two to fifty neurones, if not more. As a human brain contained several billion neurons, the number of combinations, and therefore possible circuits, was staggering –it went way beyond, for example, the number of molecules in the universe.

“The number of circuits used varied greatly from one individual to the next, which sufficed, according to him, to explain the countless gradations between idiocy and genius. But, even more remarkably, a frequently used neuronal circuit became, as a result of ionic accumulations, easier and easier to use –there was, in short, progressive self-reinforcement, and that applied to everything: ideas, addictions and moods. The phenomenon was proven for individual psychological reactions as well as for social relations: to conscientise mental blocks only reinforced them; trying to settle a conflict between two people generally made them insoluble. Knowall then launched a pitiless attack on Freudian theory, which was not only based on no consistent physiological foundations, but also led to dramatic results that were directly contrary to the chosen goal. On the screen behind him, the succession of diagrams that had punctuated his speech stopped and was replaced by a brief and poignant documentary devoted to the mental –and sometimes unbearable—sufferings of Vietnam veterans. They couldn’t forget, had nightmares every night, could not longer even drive or cross the street without assistance, they lived constantly in fear and it seemed impossible for them to re-adapt to normal social life. It focused then on the case of a stooped, wrinkled man who had only a thin crown of disheveled red hair and who seemed to be truly reduced to a wreck: he trembled constantly, could no longer leave his house and was in need of permanent medical assistance; and he suffered, suffered without end. In the cupboard of his dining room he kept a little jar, filled with soil from Vietnam; every time he opened the cupboard and took out the jar, he broke down in tears.

““Stop,” said Knowall. “Stop.” The image froze on the close-up of the old man in tears. “Stupidity,” continued Knowall. “Complete and utter stupidity. The first thing this man should do is take his bottle of Vietnamese soil and throw it out of the window. Every time he opens the cupboard, every time he takes out the bottle –and sometimes he does it up to fifty times a day –he reinforces the neuro-circuit, and condemns himself to suffer a little more. Similarly, every time that we dwell on the past, that we return to a painful episode –and this is more or less what psychoanalysis boils down to – we increase the chances of reproducing it. Instead of advancing, we bury ourselves. Whenever we experience sadness, disappointment, something that prevents us from living, we must start by moving out, burning photos, avoiding talking to anyone about it. Repressed memories disappear; this can take some time, but they disappear in the end. The circuit deactivates itself.”

—Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, translated by Gavin Bowd, Phoenix Paperback, London, UK, at 99-101 (2006).

After reading the book, I mentioned this part to a friend who responded that, yes, she understood this to be a valid criticism of psychology –or psychological therapy, and that newer schools of thought were coming to the fore.

Then, coincidentally, last month, more than a year after reading the book and having that conversation, but shortly after the posted discussion on Houellebecq and while you were on break, I heard a speech by Fr. Benedict J Groeschel, C.F.R., professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. I had actually brought my copy of “The Possiblity of an Island” with me to the speech. I wanted to see if Houellebecq was on to something. He was.

Basically, Fr. Groeschel, in a talk entitled “The New Positive Psychology,” offered a criticism of psychological practice from a Christian or religious traditional viewpoint. The profession, to its credit, however, Fr. Groeschel went on to explain, roughly about 20 years ago, re-evaluated itself and, led by a few exceptional psychologists, developed what is know as Positive Psychology: focus not on the symptoms and a search of the causes of problems in an effort to get a cathartic or understanding-type release, but on values, and virtues, and what goes into making a good life to move or grow away from the problems and towards a fuller, better, life. I immediately noted one of the leading names mentioned: Dr. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsyvania.

From Dr. Seligman’s website:

“…Positive Psychology, a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.”

As summarized by Fr. Groeschel:

“A Revolution in Psychology; Virtue Comes Back

“The moral philosophers of ancient times, especially the Greeks, and the Church Fathers and mystics were the first students of the mind; in fact, they were the first psychologists. They were interested in virtue, qualities of the human personality that moved people toward consistently good behavior, toward the “good life.” They were interested in character strengths like loyalty and perseverance, which are components of a virtuous life. Then, in the nineteenth century came behaviorism, with its denial of insight and dignity; its close companion was determinism, with its denial of virtue and freedom. This leads to something oddly called moral positivism, a theory that sees what most people think and do as right. Positivism is presumably that which does not need proof.

“The immense influence of popular (pop) psychology led many to deny the existence of character and virtue, or to substitute for them something called values clarification. This was a ritual for determining what people really wanted and getting them to recognize the contradictions inherent in their goals. Naturally, because virtue is always there, people often wove into values clarification various virtues, but they could not be identified as such. What has emerged is a group of people who are like a fleet of ships without rudders, compasses, or maps –or, better still, like a city without a foundation.

“However, more humanistic theories about human nature began to emerge –ideals related to free will, meaning, human relationships, culture, affirmation, and the recognition of the autonomous self. [Citation omitted]. Theorists with explicit religious and moral values, like Father Adrian van Kaam and Gerald May, also began to be read. Then a powerful voice for self-understanding, coupled with common sense, was raised, and Aaron Beck introduced cognitive psychology into therapy. This opened the door wider for concepts like freedom, personal responsibility, and even religious values. The idea that we are not merely a collection of our thoughts and impulses, that the individual may direct his or her thinking and behavior, seems obvious to many people, but actually Beck was a pioneer of the obvious that had been forgotten.

“Finally, by a logical historical process, positive psychology cam into existence, led by Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, and Christopher Peterson. They were joined by many others who began to embrace a positive psychology that was focused on human strengths rather than on weakness and pathology. Paul Vitz, in a most enlightening article addressed to readers who are not professional psychologists, sums up this important development. After evaluating negative psychology, he writes:

“What is needed to balance our understanding of the person is a recognition of positive human characteristics that can both heal many of our pathologies and help to prevent psychological problems in one’s future life. Positive psychology therefore emphasizes traits that promote happiness and well-being, as well as character strengths such as optimism, kindness, resilience, persistence, and gratitude. These positive characteristics, sometimes called “character strengths” or even “ego strengths” by psychologists, will be recognized by members of all major religions and by most philosophers as names for what used to be called “the virtues.” [Citation omitted.]”

“Vitz praises Peterson and Seligman, who invite psychology to “reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and informed societal discourse. By providing ways of talking about character strengths and measuring them across the life span, this… will start to make possible a science of human strengths that goes beyond arm-chair philosophy and political rhetoric. We believe that good character can be cultivated, but to do so, we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions. [Citation omitted.]”

—Groeschel, The Virtue Driven Life, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Huntington, Indiana, at 13-15 (2006).

To tie it back to Houellebecq, it appears that our French novelist gave a clever fictional criticism of the old “negative” psychology, in favor of the new, cutting edge, “positive psychology.”