Positive Psychology: Prescriptive or Descriptive?
Until the turn of the 20th century, most of psychology focused on how individuals survived under conditions of adversity. It was largely a field that had a self-help stigma attached to it; rarely did it study the conditions in which normal individuals were happy or happiest. The 2000 paper, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” by Martin E. P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, changed this. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi called for psychology to shift its attention from “curing mental illness,” to “making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling.” From this, positive psychology has come to study and understand the “valued subjective experiences… [of] well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present).” Along the way, it has produced several great books that have outlined its findings, and pushed the positive psychology movement as a whole.
This being said, the positive psychology movement seems to have branched into two groups: those that prescribe, and those that describe. Martin Seligman, who has written a couple of books – Authentic Happiness and Flourish – that outline prescriptive theories that aim to improve happiness and well-being (two very different things according to Seligman, but not important here), represents the former group. As the head of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, Seligman is obviously a big proponent of the prescriptive side of positive psychology. As he explains in the introduction to Flourish:
Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapost, giving positive psychology exercises to tenth graders in a classroom, parenting little kids with positive psychology, teaching drill sergeants how to teach about post-traumatic growth, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all make people happier (2).
The later group has resisted this self-help attitude. As Dan Gilbert warns in the introduction to his book Stumbling on Happiness, “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy.” As I said, psychologists in this camp are more concerned with describing happiness – that is, figuring out what makes happy people happy – than they are with prescribing happiness. There are two possible reasons for this. First, they are skeptical of evidence which demonstrates that the findings of positive psychology actually can help people become happy. Second, they believe it is difficult to say that someone has become happier because they read or studied positive psychology literature – correlation does not equal causation, in other words.
These two points are valid, and I am especially concerned by the second one because it is a thorn in a lot of positive psychology research. Consider this. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves is much more beneficial for our well-being. In their words, “spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending).” So from this we conclude that happy people tend to frequently spend money on others. But here is the question: does spending money on others cause people to be happy? Or do people spend money on others because they are already happy? An interesting question that could be applied to a number of positive psychology studies. For example, one of the biggest findings to come out of the positive psychology movement is that the happiest people have the strongest social relationships. But again, is it that strong social relationships cause people to be happy? Or is it that people have strong social relationships because they are happy?
This is a key question in terms of the descriptive/prescriptive debate. If the correlations between happy people and the activities they participate in are not causal, then there is a big opportunity for people like Seligman who are interested in prescribing happiness. They can identify the characteristics of happy people, and simply tell others to adapt these characteristics (this is what Flourish is about). But if the correlations are causal, then it seems that it would be difficult for psychologists to be prescriptive. In other words, even if psychologists know that people have strong social relationships because they are happy, it doesn’t follow that they would know how to improve sociability.
Ultimately, more time is needed. Positive psychology is young, as I have mentioned, and like any field in its infancy, a few more decades of research will work out the kinks.
Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 5-14 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5
Dunn, E., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness Science, 319 (5870), 1687-1688 DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952