Generous Orthodoxy  




Monday, October 15, 2007

Britney Spears and positive psychology

The first Britney Spears studio album since 2004 is to be titled "Blackout." Her label, Jive, says it "refers to blocking out negativity and embracing life fully."

This sounds like "positive psychology," which has become very popular in certain academic circles today (see "Happiness 101" by D. T. Max in the January 7, 2007 New York Times Magazine). The introductory class in this field was the most popular class at Harvard last year, attracting 855 students, not entirely because it is known as a "gut" course. At George Mason University one course is called "The Science of Well-Being." How does it differ from Norman Vincent Peale's hugely popular but largely discredited Power of Positive Thinking? Well, for one thing, Peale would not have encouraged the recounting of sexual adventures in the classroom as is apparently commonplace in colleges today. Also, positive psychology, being a subset of academic psychology, is presented in a far more sophisticated and "scientific" manner than Peale's popular ideas ever were. A course at George Mason University is called "The Science of Well-Being."

It should be acknowledged right away that positive psychology has some admirable aims. For example, it wants to persuade us to get off the "hedonic treadmill" (the craving for more and more pleasurable sensation). It also teaches the value of doing good for others and links this with values universally recognized in all cultures around the world. (George Hunsinger of the Princeton Theological Seminary faculty has an excellent article in the "torture issue" of Theology Today, in which he identifies the so-called Golden Rule as the ethical baseline to which all religions and ethical systems can turn for universal guidance.) There is an emphasis on gratitude, especially toward people who have been one's mentors, teachers, or supporters.

These excellent purposes should be examined, however, in light of an overall naïveté with regard to human nature. As other critics have noted, there is little room in the positive psychology program for individual complexity. The approach would "work" (if indeed it could be shown to work) only for those already tuned to such an upbeat view of life. Moreover, it simply does not appear to take account of the power of the forces that St. Paul called Sin and Death in our world. It seems to suggest that if we just follow certain prescribed patterns, our unruly psyches will fall in line. Paul knew this was not so ("the good I want to do is not what I do" --Romans 7)

The altruistic strategies recommended in the "Science of Well-Being" course resulted in some ludicrous examples. One student reported that she had given her waiter at Denny's a $50 tip. Another bought a homeless person a 12-pack of Natty Ice at a Seven-Eleven. Obviously these students had no contact with any communities that were deeply, seriously engaged in charitable work on a long-term basis. "Doing good is good for you," the mantra of the course, isn't a sufficient motivation for the serious work of commitment to the well-being of other people.

A clue to this weakness is found in the article; the reporter observes that positive psychology "embraces spirituality without making you go to church." This precisely identifies what's missing in such projects. One of the toughest ideas to put across, even to observant Christians, these days is the central importance of worship in community. A phrase like "going to church" doesn't come anywhere near conveying the formative influence of a real church--a group of people to whom one is organically connected as family members, as branches drawing nourishment from the same vine--the Vine that is the source of all created life, a personal reality who comes to us in love, whose love we return as we offer our adoration.

Finally, there is something suspect about the whole idea of positive thinking. John Keats, in a letter, coined the phrase "negative capability." This can be defined in many ways (Keats' biographer suggested "tolerance for ambiguity"); Keats himself suggested that it was the capacity for entertaining contradiction and doubts without rushing to a solution. I think of it in a theological context as a Christ-like willingness to suffer on behalf of others. I once knew a young man who was very generous and did a lot of "good deeds." However, his marriage was showing signs of difficulty (what marriage doesn't?). I referred him and his wife to the best counselor on my list. Later the therapist said to me that the husband was not going to stay in counseling because "he just wants to be happy." This was emblematic of a person who had no negative capability. The nice things he did for other people were extensions of his self-image; they did not incorporate the other. The marriage, of course, broke up.

“Embracing life fully” is a common expression in our culture. In England they say that someone has “lived life to the full.” I’ve noticed that many times this is used to describe a person who has slept with numerous people, perhaps abandoned a family or two, and run off to exotic locales (like, for instance, the mothers of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Sarah, Duchess of York). Is poor Britney Spears capable of “embracing life fully,” let alone “blocking out negativity”? The message of the gospel is that the Lord of life has entered the battlefield on our behalf, taking “negativity” onto himself since we were too weak to withstand it.

Christianity is not about "well-being" as the positive psychologists interpret it. When our Lord said, "Blessed are those who mourn" (sometimes translated "happy are those…") he was contrasting the eternal joy of life in God with the transitory life of this world. The sign of the Cross means a willingness to struggle without certainty of the outcome on this side of the Kingdom, to come alongside those who suffer, to take their part and help them if we can, to endure it along with them if we cannot: negative capability.