BY JILLIAN BRODIE
In a culture that breeds anxiety and thrives on negativity, it is not hard to believe that all Americans, including college students, are feeling overwhelmed with the idea of surviving.
In a society where the trends are contained in VH1 specials on celebrity mug shots, peeping tom coverage, drugs busts and rehab it is difficult to portray positive psychology as sexy.
Yet contrary to the youth addicted to pessimism and self-destruction, there is some mainstream attention for positive psychology. With this attention comes harsh critiques, misinterpretations and stigmas; as the revolution for living a balanced and positive life grows, there is a coup rising and ready to give everyone the ‘oh so grand’ argument for misery.
First coined and framed by Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.”
Positive psychology does not attempt to treat mental illness but is a reaction to the opposite spectrum of the human existence that is cliché and ever so annoying: why life is worth living.
Seligman had believed that since World War II, psychology only focused on problems and how to fix them. He believes we can build on the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. Now, there is not only a complete understanding and connection to treatment, but also a way to move on.
Positive psychology has goals: positive emotions, positive individual traits and positive institutions (which is also to say how to understand all emotions and differentiae between negative and positive).
Holly H. Schiffrin, a psychology professor at UMW said, “there is now a recognition that it is healthier as well as more cost effective to invest resources in keeping people healthy, both physically and mentally, rather than intervening after the fact.”
So does one have to ignore human suffering to engage in positive psychology? It seems a convenient and blissfully ignorant lie.
One critic, Leah McLaren, a feature writer and columnist with The Globe and Mail, said, “what irritates me is the notion that point of view is all that matters… As if switching from the proverbial glass is half empty to one that is half full, we could actually change the world.”
In order to explain her undying efforts against positive psychology, Barbara Held, a professor of psychology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., cited a study by a University of Texas psychologist, who found that depressed patients who vent in journals heal much faster than those who “steamrolled it over with a mantra of pep.”
But Held does not understand that positive psychology embraces modern tactics to define and explicate feelings. She uses the phrase ‘a manrta of pep’ as if to diminish the efforts of positive psychology in the quest for happiness as an association with unintelligence.
Many professors at the UMW, in all majors, are actually integrating certain techniques of positive psychology into the curriculum. Schiffrin teaches a positive psychology senior seminar and also has, for the past three years, supervised research teams on or related to the subject.
Associate Professor of Art History Joseph Dreiss also uses the practice of mindful meditation or contemplative practice to study art.
“I am interested in introducing students to the idea of contemplative practice as an approach to the study of art … to augment but certainly not replace, traditional art history methods,” Dreiss said.
Mindful meditation is the awareness of one’s own thoughts and actions—the contemplative practice and control of the mind. By using mindful meditation within the curriculum, students are not only active in the course and content, but also may find positive effects on other parts of their lives.
It seems as if the craze and quest for a better way to live is catching on with college students. Harvard’s most popular class is Tal Ben-Shahar’s positive psychology course, yoga classes are full on college campuses and students and professors are discussing positive psychological tactics within their curriculum.
Yet optimists’ and pessimists’ battles continues, extremely polarized and filled with poisonous biases. One can make the choice: mire in depression, anxiety, and negativity or to learn to accept those feelings and thoughts as passing, never denying them in the least. We may not be able to control anything, but we have the power to control our state of mind. It never hurts to feel not only a bit of joy, but also the health benefits of life with little or no stress.