Positive Psychology Draws Acolytes, Skeptics

Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on positive human traits, is seen by proponents as an alternative to what they think is traditional psychology's preoccupation with negativity. Sounds harmless, but some people worry about the major financial backer of the movement, as well as the movement's spiritual aspects.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Robert Smith.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Robert, you've probably heard about that self-help book "The Secret." Oprah loves it. It's been a publishing sensation, on top of The New York Times bestseller list for seven months now.

SMITH: Been meaning to read it. Yeah.

BRAND: Okay. Well, here's a secret for you. The book is part of a multi-million dollar movement. It's called Positive Psychology, started in the '90s by people who thought psychology was just too focused on the negative, the bad things that happen in life.

Chantal Allan reports that critics worry, though, about the major funder of Positive Psychology. Supporters, though, say it works.

Dr. SONJA LYUBOMIRSKY (University of California, Riverside): I'm much more of an optimist and I'm generally a happy person.

CHANTAL ALLAN: Sonja Lyubomirsky has good reason to be upbeat about her work. She researches happiness. Her work at U.C. Riverside is at the forefront of Positive Psychology. It's a branch of psychology that looks at positive human traits.

Dr. LYUBOMIRSKY: People who are happy turn out to be more creative, more charitable, more productive at work. They earn more money. They have better health, strong immune systems. They even live longer.

ALLAN: Happiness is one of the emotions that positive psychologists study.

Dr. LYUBOMIRSKY: You can argue that Freudian psychology has a focus on what has gone wrong, you know, in your childhood, in your life. And it's really a huge focus on the negative, you know, sort of what your parents did that was wrong. And positive psychology has more of a focus on the positive side of life.

ALLAN: Love, joy, gratitude and optimism - all of these are being studied by positive psychologists. Some positive psychologists say the field bridges the gap between science and religion. This caught the attention of the John Templeton Foundation. It's an organization that funds studies that attempt to use science to explore spirituality.

(Soundbite of DVD)

Unidentified Man: For thousands of years, human beings have gazed in wonder of the world about them and asked, why are we here?

ALLAN: That's a Templeton Foundation DVD. Why are we here is one of the questions the foundation tries to answer. And seven years ago, the foundation started funding Positive Psychology, even though it hadn't been the group's focus.

Templeton senior vice president Charles Harper explains why.

Dr. CHARLES HARPER (John Templeton Foundation): In the history of the profession of psychology, there have been aversions to looking at religious communities or religious practices. And we have been interested to cross that boundary, to encourage psychologists to not exclude religious communities or religious practices, religious virtues, from their investigations.

ALLAN: Harper says the foundation gives around $10 million a year to positive psychologists. It also granted millions more to fund a Positive Psychology center in Philadelphia. It's all too much for Jim Coyne(ph).

Professor JIM COYNE (University of Pennsylvania): There are a lot of incentives now in psychology for claiming to be a positive psychologist.

ALLAN: Coyne can't get any money from the Templeton Foundation because he researches the downside of Positive Psychology. He's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. His research shows that breast cancer patients who use positive thinking strategies have difficulty accepting that they may have a terminal illness.

Prof. COYNE: And I'm particularly concerned that they feel responsible for having a cancer that isn't responsive to treatment because they haven't thought the right thoughts or done the right thing.

ALLAN: Coyne also worries the movement is too closely connected with religion, that there will be a push to fund studies that promote religion. After all, Templeton's founder calls himself an enthusiastic Christian and its president is an outspoken evangelical.

Prof. COYNE: Now, if a drug company was coming in and buying psychology in that fashion, everybody would be outraged. But if it's merely a foundation, it's somehow okay.

ALLAN: Templeton executive Charles Harper says his foundation doesn't advocate a particular position when deciding who gets grants. But then he points to research showing religious organizations are a significant hub for volunteering, philanthropy and community.

Mr. HARPER: Just looking at the American landscape, if a psychologist ignores the religious dimension of the positive, they are ignoring what a sociologist would see, it's about 50 percent of the bonds of connection in the United States. And that would be irrational for a profession to ignore.

ALLAN: One psychologist who hasn't ignored it is UC Davis Professor Bob Emmons. He's received almost $1.5 million from the Templeton Foundation. That's a big boost for his studies on positive emotions and religion. And he sees this as just the beginning.

Dr. ROBERT EMMONS (University of California Davis): Twenty-five years ago we didn't even use the term happiness. And I think spirituality is at a similar position. And two decades from now it'll be very commonplace, very accepted.

ALLAN: But John Shook with the Center for Inquiry doesn't want that to happen. He says positive psychology should stay in the secular realm.

Mr. JOHN SHOOK (Center for Inquiry): Positive psychology is, of course, a branch of psychology which has been safely scientific, empirical and naturalistic for 100 years. And the emergence of Positive Psychology and its interest in religion is not going to change that. Psychologists have been interested in studying religious beliefs and religious phenomenon for well over 100 years going back to great luminaries like William James.

ALLAN: Shook's an atheist and hopes Positive Psychology can prove that positive human traits aren't just for the religious.

Mr. SHOOK: For example, it may be possible that a person can have all of the character strengths that tend to lead towards long-term happiness entirely without any supernatural beliefs whatsoever.

ALLAN: But where Shook sees a collision between the scientific and the spiritual, others insist there could be collusion.

For NPR News, I'm Chantal Allan.

BRAND: And Chantal's report is part of the News 21 Project and USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: