Is there a role for positive psychology in conflict situations?
I have just returned from Kurdistan (Iraq) where I visited several Yazidi families, many of which lost their children or family members under siege near Mount Sinjar this December. This trip forced me to reflect on the role positive psychology could play in conflict situations. While no supporter of ISIS, I can nonetheless see how youth are irresistibly drawn to its membership ranks as fighters. They are offered a salary (important in conditions of poverty where there are few available and meaningful employment opportunities), a sense of belonging with individuals who share a desire for identity and meaning. Moreover, these youth exercise their self-efficacy in ways that are not afforded otherwise, a fact especially salient in societies where low socio-economic and uneducated youth see no role for themselves nor hope for social mobility. Finally, slick recruitment campaigns showcasing jihadi chic allow youth to feel they are part of a larger political and social movement.
What do we need to be mindful of?
Until these social, political, economic and psychological needs can be met with equally engaging and sustained forces, the future is not rosy. As the world grapples with containing/combating ISIS, what happens to internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and ordinary unaffected (so far) citizens? How are IDP and refugee families integrated and absorbed into new surroundings when they may not speak the local language and are considered outsiders in a tribally oriented host society? What happens to these same host societies who are forced to accept IDPs and refugees in overwhelming numbers (as is the case in Lebanon where a third of the population consists of refugees)? When resources are strained to begin with, intolerance, violence, and lack of empathy grow. Aid workers along with security personnel, like the Peshmerga, members of the Iraqi army and other international forces sometimes also pay with their lives. When ISIS is finally defeated, what to do with fighters and child soldiers who have committed atrocities, and/or who still maintain ideological loyalty to terror groups? Like it or not, events in one part of the world eventually affect us all: what will be our professional and personal response?
Is positive psychology a Western endeavor?
I have no answers for these questions and as I watch the Black Hawk helicopters continually circle the city, I can only reaffirm what I have said in previous writings, positive psychology seems to be a Western endeavor rooted in comfortable, conflict-free societies with little to offer individuals living in dire situations that have few possible solutions. This is not a criticism, but a statement of fact. I challenge positive psychologists (including myself) to ask hard questions, look beyond our circumstances, and empirically research and apply what we can to help prevent these situations from emerging at all and help when they do. This will involve concerted efforts across community, health, educational, clinical, social and even forensic branches of positive psychology. To be truly relevant to the lives of people everywhere, we must broaden our focus to see and experience what they do. Otherwise, the claim of irrelevancy will continue to hold true. Are we up to the task?
Dr Louise Lambert