Positive Psychology and Buddhism

Positive Psychology has only emerged as a defined field of study in psychology in the last decade or so. Martin Seligman is credited with its birth. Martin Seligman was elected as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. He chose “positive psychology” as the theme for his term.

Seligman had a few predecessors in this field including people like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm but they seemed not to have the impact of Seligman and his Hungarian colleague Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

I had previously been impressed with Csikszentmihalyi. When trying to come to grips with some of the aspects of human motivation, my colleague Dr Phil Harker directed me to Csikszentmihalyi’s insightful book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities.”

Whereas mainstream psychology had looked at people with debilitating issues of mind, like anxiety, depression, neurosis, obsessions, paranoia, delusions etc and sought to give them relief from their disabilities, positive psychology was concentrating on how to make people thrive.

As Seligman said “I realized that my profession was half-baked. It wasn’t enough for us to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, what are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”

D T Max in the New York Times wrote:

“Positive psychology brings the same attention to positive emotions (happiness, pleasure, well-being) that clinical psychology has always paid to the negative ones (depression, anger, resentment). Psychoanalysis once promised to turn acute human misery into ordinary suffering; positive psychology promises to take mild human pleasure and turn it into a profound state of well-being.”

There has been some misunderstanding about this movement, which Seligman admits he contributed to. One of the initial books he published in this genre he titled “Authentic Happiness”. Unfortunately many people associate happiness with smiles, laughter and the pursuit of hedonic pleasures. More recently he concluded that the state that he was hoping people to achieve was not so much “happiness” but the state the Greeks called “eudaimonia” which roughly translates as “flourishing.” Indeed Seligman titled a recent book “Flourish” with that in mind.

In my own writings I have generally used the term “well-being” to describe the objective of positive psychology. Buddhism sees its objective as the removal of suffering, which is similar, but still constrained by the use of a negative definition. As well as the modern proponents of positive psychology, I have also been influenced by Buddhist writings. Perhaps the most influential of such writing for me was that wonderful book by the Buddhist Monk (and ex-French geneticist) Matthieu Ricard, “Happiness”.

It is interesting that the British counterpart to the American Positive Psychology movement established the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge University led by Nick Baylis.

Returning to Seligman however, he came to the conclusion that the platform for well-being, (using my terminology), came from:

• Experiencing pleasure (but this has only a short term impact) and in the longer term,
• Engagement in such a way as to enter into the state of “flow” as described by Csikszentmihalyi,
• Cultivating a sense of meaning in our lives, which essentially is attained by being dedicated to causes greater than ourselves.

The last point is of great interest and significance to me. It touches our spirituality. I have defined spirituality elsewhere as “our need for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives”. The great proponent of this point of view in relatively recent times was the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Drawing on his experience of treating and living with the Jews interred by the Germans in the concentration camps of World War II, after the war he published his famous book “Man in Search of Meaning.”

Frankl wrote:

“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”

And again:

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

It is inherent in our nature, once our physical needs are met, to want to make a contribution. This often leads us to altruism. This is somewhat surprising in the context of traditional thoughts about evolution. However, modern evolutionary psychologists have elicited good evidence to show that altruism promotes long-term group survival.

Altruism is promoted by Buddhism (and of course other religions). Indeed the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, show compassion. If you want to be happy, show compassion.”

In his book mentioned above, Matthieu Ricard proposes that altruism promotes the well-being not only of its recipients but especially of the altruist.

Buddhism also preaches detachment and warns us that attachment to hedonic pleasures whilst providing temporary distraction leads to longer-term suffering.

What I like about positive psychology and Buddhism is that they both provide pathways to a greater sense of well-being. They, in this way, provide techniques for self-help.

Now I have gone to great pains in previous writings to point out that many who suffer from mental illness will not find relief from these sources. There are many who will continue to need the assistance of psychiatrists, psychologists and drugs. But there are many more of us who can improve our sense of well-being by adopting such practices.

There is no doubt that we all start from different places. Because of our genetic endowment we each seem predisposed to a certain range of well-being possibilities. There is probably nothing we can do to shift that range. However, by using the techniques of positive psychology or Buddhist mindfulness we can certainly try to ensure that we at least can access the highest levels of well-being available to us.

The impact of positive psychology has found its way into education. In Australia, under the guidance of Seligman, teachers at the Geelong Grammar School have been appropriately trained and positive psychology techniques adopted in their class work.

In my book, “Froth and Goblets” I have tried to show how both the tenets of modern positive psychology and ancient Buddhism might be applied to help someone with depression.

On a broader front, it is clear that most who pursue happiness look in the wrong places. Most end up on the hedonic treadmill where any experience of happiness is merely fleeting and we then seem compelled to pursue the next pleasure or distraction. In fact, as I have written elsewhere, (and contrary to the exhortation in the American Declaration of Independence) it is unlikely that happiness can be achieved by pursuing it directly. As I have Augustus say in the book:

“Happiness is like a cat. You can coax and cajole it but it will pay you no attention. But if you disregard it, it will be soon rubbing itself against your legs.”

Those who have read my blogs will recollect I have often quoted Dr Phil Harker’s formula for the attainment of psychological maturity, the second step of which is “forget yourself”. This aligns directly with the recommendations of both positive psychology and Buddhism regarding altruism.

Well-being then seems to me a manifestation of a mind in order. This modern development in psychology and the ancient tradition of Buddhism provide us with the tools to help us in this process.

4 Replies to “Positive Psychology and Buddhism”

  1. And so, just in case you might be tempted to think that all wisdom resides in Buddhism, be mindful of the words of say (pick one of the Christians, primarily a do-er rather than a talker) Mother Teresa:
    “The fruit of silence is prayer
    the fruit of prayer is faith
    the fruit of faith is love
    the fruit of love is service
    the fruit of service is peace”

    1. I am sorry Jack if you got the impression that I am promoting the wisdom of Buddhism exclusively. If you go back through my blog essays over the last few years you will see that as well as Buddhism I have quoted tracts from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Vedanta and other wisdom traditions. I only focussed on Buddhism in my latest blog because I chose to incorporate some of its precepts into my latest book.

      I used the vehicle of Buddhism because I believe that Buddhism is more about psychology than other traditional religions. The objective of Buddhism is to overcome human suffering. The objective of Christianity is individual salvation. Because I don’t believe there ever was a “fall” I am ambivalent about the need for salvation in this sense. That is not to say that Christianity doesn’t contain useful precepts. Just like the Buddha, the purported utterances of Jesus Christ are also insightful regarding the nature of the human condition. The parables of Jesus are a wonderful contribution to the wisdom traditions of the world.

  2. For an alternative view on Mother Theresa, I recommend reading The Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens.

    Much debate exists about whether providing something to another in the pursuit of ones own well being is true altruism.

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