by Garrett Okonek
Psychology has been similar to medicine for a long time. Both have traditionally looked for illnesses in patients, then have used specific treatments formulated for those ailments. In medicine, the focus is on sicknesses of the body, which are tangible and are usually caused by a specific thing, such as a virus or an injury. However, psychologists deal with sicknesses of the mind. Mental illness is sometimes caused by specific things, like chemical imbalances of the brain or head injuries, but more often results from a variety of causes, like a traumatic childhood or a recent death in the family. Diagnoses can still be made, but someone who is described as being depressed may only be saddened more by this.
Positive psychology argues that focusing only on a patient’s diagnosis leads to an incomplete understanding of their condition, and that mental illnesses can be cured (or at least alleviated) simply by cultivating happiness. But for this approach to work, that happiness has to be genuine. It can’t be blissful ignorance or delusional optimism, one has to accept the imperfections in the world and learn how to be happy in spite of them. Positive psychology is only truly effective when the happiness fostered in a patient is authentic.
Happiness is generally defined as an emotional state of enjoyment and satisfaction. It can be a feeling that lasts for a second or the whole day, it can bring tears to your eyes or a smile that’s barely noticed, and it can change a person’s life. Positive psychology aims to foster happiness to help people better themselves. However, Barbara Ehrenreich, a critic of the practice, argues that it doesn’t always create true happiness, resulting simply in a delusional optimism instead (2009). So what is happiness exactly? What is “authentic” happiness? Michael Dambrun of Clermont University, and Matthieu Ricard of the Mind and Life Institute define it as this: “Authentic happiness is understood here as an optimal way of being, a state of durable plenitude based on a quality of consciousness that underlies and imbues each experience, emotion and behavior, and allows us to embrace all the joys and the pain with which we are confronted” (2011). The authentic happiness that positive psychology attempts to create isn’t just having a positive outlook on life and doing things that make you happy, it’s a way of thinking that allows people to transcend the challenges they face through a sense of inner-peace and contentment.
Happiness really isn’t such a challenge to experience for most people. Many things can make a person happy, such as watching a good movie, going on a hike, or visiting an art museum. Relying on external stimuli to create happiness doesn’t work in the long run, though. These activities aren’t always available, and their absence can make a person sad. Real happiness lasts. To experience authentic happiness one must cultivate inner-peace and contentment. Contentment can be thought of as being able to accept the circumstances of your life. While a person can and should try to change the things in their life that bother them, they need to accept that there are some problems that are beyond them. This doesn’t mean that these problems should be ignored, just that a person should be okay with their existence. Inner-peace is basically the feeling you get from being a “good person.” Compassion is a huge part of this, along with selflessness and other pro-social values. Authentic happiness isn’t something that is created by things that happen, it’s created by the person that they happen to.
Authentic happiness is integral to positive psychology, and without it the happiness that is created is illusory and fleeting. Many critics argue that positive psychology is just about being optimistic and doing enjoyable things, but that’s simply inaccurate. Positive psychology changes lives by showing people what true happiness really is.
Dambrun, M.; Ricard, M. (2012). Measuring happiness: from fluctuating happiness to authentic-durable happiness. Review of General Psychology, 15, 2, 138-157
Ehrenreich, Barbara. (2009). Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. “Positive psychology: The science of happiness.” NY: Picador
Garcia, D., Moradi, S. (2011.) Adolescents’ temperament and character: A longitudinal study on happiness. Springer Science + Business Media, 13, 931-946