The Dark Side of Positive Psychology

I have been a wellness coach for almost exactly 10 years. And along the way, I have gotten thoroughly immersed in positive psychology.  Which, if you didn’t know, is a fairly new field of study typically said to be pioneered by Dr. Martin Seligman in the late 1990s.  It’s all about reaping the benefits that can be had from focusing on the good in life, and where you want to go in the future, rather than on unpacking all the stuff that has happened in the past as more traditional psychology models tend to encourage.  I’ve see it work for plenty of individuals over the years – there’s a lot of benefit to placing your focus on what you do well already and the good things that you want to bring into being.

Right now I’m reading a book called America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.  Midway through the book, Dr. James Coyne, in an interview with author Ruth Whippman, shared the name of a lecture he was to be giving the following week.  It was “Positive psychology is for rich white people.”

In my work as a coach, I recommend ‘practicing gratitude’ on a regular basis, regularly help people take ownership of their choices, and often encourage calling out the positives in life while staying present in the moments as they unfold.  These strategies have made a difference for many of the folks I have worked with, so I know positive psychology has plenty of benefits.

Plenty of benefits IF you were born into privilege.  

At the job I held for many years as a corporate health coach, I worked with people who had…corporate jobs.  They didn’t all enjoy their jobs and I’m sure some of the people who participated in the coaching program had financial issues.  But they were talking to me because they had a job with benefits.

In the private coaching sphere, many coaches charge upwards of $100 or more per hour for a coaching session.   Wonderful progress is surely made and many benefits had from the interactions..for those who can afford to invest hundreds if not thousands of dollars in their ‘personal growth.’

In the job I have now, I work with individuals who purchase a weight loss app on their smartphone.  Most wouldn’t describe themselves as “rich”.  But they have the extra money to purchase an app on a smartphone.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

The positivity culture of America tends to advocate for finding happiness from within, choosing how you perceive and respond to your life situation, and creating your own reality.  But there’s not a lot of room for finding happiness from within, practicing gratitude, and creating your own reality if your reality includes working three jobs as a single dad to keep insurance on the car that acts as a home for you and your kids, all while trying to avoid getting trailed by a policeman for parking in the wrong place.  Worrying about where your kids’ next meal is coming from is bad enough without the extra anxiety of ‘driving while black’ in America.

 “Positive psychology’s heavily promoted message that circumstance is unimportant and that with enough individual effort we can control our own happiness is a subtly toxic one, both for individuals and societies.” ~Ruth Whippman

I think I’m with Dr. Coyne on this one.  Positive psychology does tend to cater to the rich (and often white) crowd.

We need positive thinking, gratitude, and presence, certainly.  But so many more people need systemic change and the acknowledgement of extreme disparity before they can begin to reap the benefits of such happiness inducing techniques.

Call out the good, for sure.  And then call out the bad so we don’t overpower what needs to shift by too much positive thinking.


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