A Jungian Analyst Takes Positive Psychology for a Test Drive
People have asked me what I think about the new Positive Psychology movement—a trend in psychology to research and apply what makes us healthy and happy rather than what’s wrong with us. College courses and self-help books on the subject are both very popular. In reading about positive psychology I found that while the ideas aren’t really new, there is a lot to like in the values and goals, and that while there is significant overlap with the values of Jungian therapy, there are also important differences.
In some ways Carl Jung could be considered a predecessor to the movement: he emphasized growth, development and individuation as lifelong processes, and he focused on the meaning of problems and their possible direction rather than their causes. While many use Jungian analysis to work through problems, many enter it to become more fulfilled.
But there are also differences between the two approaches. First of all, positive psychology is not meant to replace psychotherapy. Though the ideas may be used to alter the therapeutic approach, the self-help it proposes is not intended as a cure for depression or any other mental health issue. And while there is overlap between Jungian analysis and some of the values that Positive Psychology espouses, the journey they suggest to get there is quite different. It seems to me that there are omissions on the positive psychology map that would leave some people lost.
But first, here is a short some of the things I like about positive psychology:
It emphasize values that most philosophers and spiritual teachers have been advocating for millennia: relationships, compassion, meaning and purpose, gratitude, contributing to the greater good, savoring the present, a sense of accomplishment, and reframing difficult events as opportunities for growth.
I appreciate that they say that becoming happy is going to take some effort. Neither therapists nor self-help writers should entice people with promises of easy gains. Barbara Fredrickson, one of the leaders in the movement, suggests that it’s like moving a river, and lists activities to help you move it.
Those therapists adopting this approach emphasize working with clients as self-healers. Rather than looking suspiciously for their defenses and resistance, they look for the client’s natural tendency to want to grow, an attitude that resonates deeply with a Jungian approach. Martin Seligman, the founder of the movement, suggests that we look for the ancient strengths within. Jung would have called these the archetypes of the unconscious.
Their approach also focuses more on the present and future than the past. While I feel that deep change does require understanding of how the past affects us in the present, I also believe that it is possible to focus too much on the past.
Here is a short list of some of the differences between the two approaches:
If Positive Psychology uses research as its GPS, Jungians use the life events, relationships, symbolism, unconscious and dreams of the individual client, along with the more ancient record of mythology, for guidance. Research is great, but it’s important to remember that it’s based on statistics: with it we can conclude “for many people XY or Z seems to work.” The problem is that these ideas may not work for everyone.
Please don’t get me wrong: if you can read the book, keep up with the exercises and be happier, by all means go for it. But their ideas could also be misconstrued as to who and what they apply to: for many getting happy isn’t so simple, and for others it could shortchange a deeper process.
Positive psychologists have chosen not to focus on the unconscious, that deeper layer of the psyche that houses our devils and our angels. While their exercises may impact the unconscious and result in change, they don’t attempt to understand or develop a relationship with the inner world. It appears to me more like an attempt to control the unconscious rather than cooperate with it. This may become an issue for two reasons: “negative” unconscious issues left unrecognized can cause problems such as depression and anxiety, and positive unconscious possibilities left unrecognized can leave us feeling unfulfilled.
For instance, consider the possibility of an underlying shadow side to a depression. (The shadow is the part of us that we don’t acknowledge to ourselves or to others). If in addition to the more obvious low-self esteem there is also anger, a self-destructive tendency, a fear of betraying others if you are happy, a feeling that you don’t deserve to be happy, secondary gains of attention or reward for suffering, or even an investment in punishing the world with your suffering, a self-help book on happiness probably isn’t going to turn things around, and you’ll probably need some help in understanding what’s underneath to break the pattern. Relating to the unconscious this way can free energy which is otherwise destructive.
The other issue is that for some people, not having a connection with their inner world leaves them feeling unfulfilled, sterile and soulless. When people learn from a dream, find a myth that resonates with their personal experience, or dialogue with a part of themselves they had been alienated from, they experience a sense of wholeness that makes life fulfilling. Looked at this way, depression is actually a call to go inside and see what’s missing. In fact, for many this is the path to the sense of meaning that positive psychology suggests is so important. I don’t believe they would actively discourage this sort of inner work, but some of their cognitive exercises run contrary to it.
I feel that positive psychology has a lot to offer. But I see it not as a final resting place for psychology or the individual, rather as a wave in the ongoing dialectic between the dark and the light. Hopefully in the long run this will help us to avoid the extremes, and instead to hold the opposites together.