In a recent conversation with a fellow MAPP (MSc in Applied Positive Psychology) student we found ourselves covering the full range of typical positive psychology themes; hope, resilience, love, gratitude, forgiveness, authenticity, growth, compassion. My colleague said she felt that these topics were rarely talked about in general society. That may be true, but I hear these issues explored every Sunday, in church. I am not the first person to suggest that the VIA classifications of strengths and virtues read like a list of “the fruits of the spirit” (Galatians; 5 22-23). Indeed, given that the Bible was one of the texts used to derive Seligman & Peterson’s cross cultural classification of character strengths, that is hardly a surprise. However, talking about my beliefs in a positive psychology context still makes me uncomfortable.
Religion and Positive Psychology
A number of prominent positive psychologists have been clear that they don’t believe in God. For me, Positive Psychology (PP) research is an affirmation of my Christian beliefs. That is not to say that I believe PP either proves or disproves the existence of God, nor should it try to. Without uncertainty there is no need for faith, which is a key element of all religions. However, psychology still seems to shy away from discussion of religion and spirituality, despite the clear evidence of their importance to well-being. There are a number of mechanisms that could explain the relationship between religiousness, spirituality and well-being and these should be explored. However, the possibility that there might just be something more going on here should not be ignored either.
But Is It Science?
Perhaps, part of the issue is Psychology’s struggle to be seen as a serious empirical subject. The physicists in my family do like to tease me that psychology is not a real science and in a way they’re right, human complexities are really hard to study with any objectivity. In the dim and distant past when I studied psychology at undergraduate level, the focus was very much on cognitive and behavioural models with virtually no mention of conceptions of humanity or values. But we cannot escape our values as they influence even the questions we ask. This means we need to be explicit about them.
The Humanistic Basis of Positive Psychology
Positive Psychology in practice is based on the fundamental assumptions of Carl Rogers’ humanistic tradition. Rogers proposed that humans have an innate tendency to know what they need and move towards this “self actualisation” or personal fulfilment. However, ideal conditions of “unconditional positive regard” or nurturing and acceptance of the person, especially in relationships, are necessary, for this to happen. This process of growth towards “fully functioning” becomes disturbed when the social environment imposes “conditions of worth”, or conditional acceptance, on the person. Thus in order to develop we need to learn to listen to our inner voice of wisdom, and act in accordance with this resisting external pressures. This tradition is overtly not religious and is scientifically rooted, however, it is still value ladened. It is also consistent with Christianity and I have no difficulty in reconciling this position with my religious beliefs.
Know your values, live your values.
My scientific background still makes it hard for me to talk about values in psychology, why is that? Perhaps because any talk of values automatically makes us think of comparing our values to others or trying to get others to adopt our values. That is certainly not my intention. However, the more I read about PP the more convinced I become that we cannot escape our values and actually we have a responsibility to ourselves to explore what these are. This is a hard process, evolving over time and for me has been done in the context of my Christian beliefs and my psychological knowledge. My discussions with friends at church and Bible study are quite similar to MAPP weekend group explorations and both have been, and continue to be, vital for me in growing as a person.
What worries me is, if my colleague is correct and such issues are not typical conversation topics, how do people engage with understanding their values without the benefit of a MAPP course or a religious context? My fear for our society is that they don’t. The problem is that it is only when we are clear about our own values that we can try to act in accordance with them. It is when we live our values that we experience a sense of authenticity and create meaning for ourselves which allows us to flourish.
About the Author: Read more about Sarah Monk