Always look on the bright side of life. In search of what makes life worth living
By Ilan Preskovsky
Since Sigmund Freud revolutionised the fields of psychology and psychiatry in the late 19th century, the understanding and application of the mental-health sciences has almost exclusively been about curing mental illness and, in general, combating the negative aspects of the human mind: those that are destructive, dysfunctional, and debilitating. As the years passed and Freud’s theories became increasingly known for being massively influential, but inaccurate or, at the very least, incomplete depictions of the human psyche, this trend did slowly start to balance itself with more holistic views of what makes a human being tick. The advent of humanistic psychology in the mid-20th century, in particular, rejected the idea of human beings as little more than the sum of their drives, behaviours, or even thoughts, and started to view the human being as a complete and complex organism, made up of both positive and negative aspects.
As Abraham Maslow, one of the pre-eminent humanistic psychologists; famous for his Hierarchy of Needs theory, put it: “The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, the darker, meaner half.” (Motivation and Personality, 1954)
It was an eloquent, audacious statement made by someone who was both greatly informed by psychology’s past and well aware of its failings and limitations. It was a call for a radical revolution in the field, one that would not only redefine the way psychologists would view their patients/clients, but would transform the scope and reach of the science of psychology itself.
It would, however, be disingenuous to claim that the main thrust of the way psychology and psychiatry have been practised has shifted from curing a person’s negative aspects to enhancing and encouraging his virtues. To this day, people go to therapy to address things that are – or are at least perceived to be – “wrong” with them. The reasons for this are, presumably, perfectly self-evident and the benefits of therapy in addressing one’s problems cannot be overstated. It’s also certainly true that thanks to the substantial influence of more positively-focused and holistic schools of psychology (humanistic; existentialist), the way therapists deal with their clients’ deficiencies, weaknesses, or mental illnesses does often involve an emphasis on their strengths, virtues, and aspirations.
And yet, even with these major strides in place, is there a place for an aspect of psychology that deals entirely with the positive sides of a person; that would not be tainted by being viewed through the prism of mental illness?
Enter Positive Psychology
The answer came twenty years ago when Martin Seligman, a renowned psychologist responsible for coining the theory of “Learned Helplessness” chose the idea of “positive psychology” as the theme for his term when he was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. The term itself came from Maslow’s book, Motivation and Personality, and Seligman and his co-founders of the positive psychology movement, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Christopher Peterson, and Barbara Fredrickson, built on the foundations laid by Maslow and humanistic psychology to create something that would, at long last, address the non-pathological, mentally-healthy areas of the human psyche head-on. Over the past two decades it has been an area in psychology dedicated purely to, as Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi defined it, “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life,” or, even simpler, by Peterson’s definition, “the scientific study of what makes life worth living.”
If positive psychology is to be the yin to “negative” psychology’s yang then it’s hardly surprising to find out that there is an awful lot to it; too much, in fact, to do it justice in even this fairly lengthy article. Oddly enough, perhaps, the easiest way of getting some idea of what positive psychology is, probably means taking a look at what it isn’t.
It is not, for a start, an extension of the self-help movement, which for every work based on actual clinical psychological research there are a hundred that are little more than the work of charlatans promising the earth and delivering little more than what most of us probably knew already. Like the rest of psychology, positive psychology is based on empirical, scientific research (though, of course, like the rest of psychology, there is a limit to just how much science, which is based on reproducible and observable phenomena, can capture something as wildly unpredictable as the human being – though that’s a discussion for another day) and is subject to peer-review and is initiated by people with extensive backgrounds in the field.
It is also not – and Peterson, in particular, is quick to stress this – a replacement for traditional “negative” psychology. While it might augment and offer fresh perspectives to areas that are normally the purview of “negative” psychology – which is to say, mental illness and pathology – none of the founders of positive psychology ever envisioned it as a viable alternative method to dealing with, say, schizophrenia or severe clinical depression. By its very definition, it was specifically set up to deal with areas of human existence and the human psyche that have not been covered – or were at least under-covered – by traditional psychology.
It’s also not naive enough to believe that human beings are entirely good any more than it believes that human beings are entirely bad. Indeed, though it started off with a focus purely on positive emotions and the more altruistic, fundamentally good aspects of the human being, with the so-called Second Wave of positive psychology (as spearheaded by Paul Wong and expanded upon in the textbook: Second Wave Positive Psychology by Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, and Worth (2015)) it started to reintroduce the negative aspects of the self to see how it both conflicts with and enhances our positive sides.
Positive Psychology in Action
With all this in mind, then, what exactly is positive psychology, in more concrete terms, and how does it work? At its most basic, positive psychology and its inquiry into the positive aspects of the human psyche rests on three pillars, according to Seligman and Peterson: positive experiences (happiness, joy, love), positive individual traits (gratitude, compassion, resilience), and positive institutions (taking the above ideas and applying them to groups, organisations, and institutions), while Peterson also added positive relationships as a key area in which positive psychology is concerned.
These fundamentals were then turned into a system that has turned out be the core of positive psychology. PERMA (originally introduced by Seligman in Authentic Happiness (2002) and expanded upon in Flourish (2011)) deals with and investigates what “the good life” is for most people and how one would go about achieving such a state. Seligman identifies three levels of “the good life” (eudaimonia, to use its more clinical term) that are worth considering: 1) the pleasant life, which deals with basic enjoyment of what life has to offer; 2) the good life, which is effectively satisfaction in how one engages with life; and 3) the meaningful life, which – well, this one is significantly more complicated and is the reason why these three definitions of “the good life” were expanded a decade later into the five-tiered PERMA model.
Positive emotions. The most basic level of a good life is the pursuit of positive, rather than negative emotions. This is the least effective level on its own, as the simple pursuit of positive emotions can be nothing more than base hedonism, which is not what positive psychology is about, but being able to fully experience positive emotions is a crucial aspect in the well-being that comes out of the next four tiers.
Engagement. This level emphasises the need to be fully engaged in what one does in life if one is to have any hope of living the “good life”. This applies most obviously to work, but any constructive activity in which you lose yourself fully (as in when you lose track of time while doing it) and to which you are fully committed is a crucial part in creating a sense of well-being. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow” – which is that perfect state of being when you’re so involved in an activity that you reach an almost Zen-like state of mind, one that is neither too bored, nor too overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Relationships. Positive ones, obviously. This one is so obvious, in fact, that it barely needs to be expanded upon. All people are, to some extent or another, social animals and cultivating good, healthy, positive relationships is one of the most important ingredients in any sort of “good life”.
Meaning. Hearkening back to the crucial work done by Viktor Frankl in his creation of Logotherapy, which was based on his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust and the idea that the difference between those who had at least some chance of surviving the camps and those who would, in effect, lay down and die, all came down to whether they found meaning in their life, no matter how horrible it happened to be. Thank G-d, most of us aren’t tested on those levels, but meaning is so crucial a part in creating a good life for the simple reasons that human beings are meaning-seeking beings and that we aren’t always happy and things don’t always go our way, so it’s crucial that we have a sense of meaning in our life to pull us through even our darkest times.
Accomplishment/Achievement. This is somewhat tied to engagement, of course, but is about the outcome more than the process. This can include anything from promotions at work to creating a piece of art to bettering oneself from one year to the next. Ruthless ambition at all costs is certainly no key to any sort of positive life but wanting to achieve goals in life and satisfaction in your accomplishments are key parts in creating true well-being in life. Interestingly, in Dr Frankl’s definition of meaning, accomplishment is, in fact, one of the three general categories through which human beings find meaning in life.
Needless to say, this is just the framework within which positive psychology works. Like all new areas of study, even this framework is constantly being better and better refined, but, even within it, positive psychologists are using various research methods to better understand the makings of a “good life” and in using their findings to help their clients get the most out of their always all-too-brief existence.
Positive Psychology and Judaism
Keen-eyed readers – and probably even not so keen-eyed readers – may well notice that there is a lot that’s awfully familiar about the findings of positive psychology. Religious readers, in particular, will note that what positive psychology is really trying to do is to approach values that are usually the domain of religion through an empirical, scientific method. Judaism, in particular, shares many, many parallels with the findings of positive psychology. This isn’t too surprising. Seligman, like many, many psychologists, is Jewish and he’s working in a field that was, by a vast majority, spearheaded by Jews in its formative years. Indeed, rather than a replacement for religion, like something like secular humanism – which is, for all intents and purposes, a religion for atheists and agnostics – positive psychology has a wide space for religion and, in fact, even views some sort of religious (even secular religious) or spiritual dimension as being an incredibly important tool in creating a life of meaning. It’s yet another step in bringing together the world of science and belief, without ever losing sight of the distinction between the two.
The intersections between Judaism and positive psychology are, frankly, too numerous and too large to fully or even partially explore here. Instead, I’ll take a look at just a couple of the most powerful parallels and perhaps offer some sort of insight into how Judaism feeds into positive psychology and how positive psychology can improve religious practice.
Mindful living: regardless of whether you are aware of its origins in the positive psychology movement, you’ve no doubt heard of mindfulness; one of the big buzz words in today’s self-improvement movement. It’s a concept that plays into almost all of the levels in the PERMA model and it comes down to living a life of great awareness of yourself, of those around you, and of the universe in which we find ourselves. It’s about removing anxiety by focusing on the present, by immersing oneself in one’s actions, and in never losing sight of your place in the world.
How does this fit into Judaism? Well, some have argued – and it’s an argument that I’ve never heard bettered, let alone refuted – that the chief purpose of living a Torah life and fulfilment of the mitzvot is all about mindfulness. It’s about living a life of, as Rabbi Joshua Abraham Heschel called it, “radical amazement”. At the same time, Maimonides argued in the Guide for the Perplexed (Vol 1, Chap 6) that performing mitzvot without mindfulness – “of what is their purpose?”, going so far as to argue that prayer without mindfulness is not considered prayer and one has not fulfilled his obligation.
“The Dark Side”: Here’s an interesting one. The so-called Second Wave of positive psychology, as discussed above, reintroduced the “dark side” of the human psyche into positive psychology, not to undermine it but to get a greater appreciation of the better angels of our nature by looking at our demons. It’s about the importance of our “bad” aspects, our base drives, our shadow selves as Jung put it, in informing our positive aspects. It’s all about, in short, the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, that is of such importance in Judaism. While much focus is placed in Judaism on overcoming the yetzer hara, but it’s also seen as being absolutely crucial in our central quest of improving ourselves and drawing closer to Hashem. Without the evil inclination, we would have nothing to overcome; we would never have a chance to better ourselves. It is only by recognising, embracing, and either overcoming or transforming our personal demons that we have any hope of becoming our best selves and living a meaningful life.
This, literally, is just two of countless intersection between Judaism and positive psychology. No doubt, even in my very basic introduction to positive psychology, you, dear reader, will have thought of numerous parallels between it and Judaism. If you’re looking for more information on this exciting new area in the science of psychology and its relationship to Judaism, there is a metric tonne written about it on the web. Visit: https://www.jewishpositivepsychology.com/ for a particularly good beginner’s resource on this subject.