Why are positive psychology academics so against the self-help movement? At the age of 14 I recall telling my mum that I felt a bit ‘fed up’, a little down and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I was dealing with a lot in my life at the time since we were caring for my mentally ill father at home after he had taken a major stroke two years previous. Times were tough and my mum was concerned that I was feeling this way. She took me to the doctor and my mum and I were shocked to find the doctor immediately offering to prescribe me anti-depressants without first offering any other treatment suggestions. I was 14. Most teenagers will experience emotions such as this without having to deal with a mentally ill father at home. We declined the offer of the prescription and went home together to embark of a more positive journey. One that offered a 14 year old girl more hope and equipped her with strategies she could use for the rest of her life that would help her cope with any adversity that came her way.
The first thing my mum did was buy me a poster that she placed opposite my bed so that it was the first thing I saw every day when I woke up. I wish I could remember what that poster said exactly but it was something to do with being grateful for another day and that poster helped me to realise that I was in charge of my emotions. I started reading self-help books such as Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ and Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’. I realised that books like this motivated me and helped me to focus. It felt like they ignited a flame inside me and I became very passionate about the power of our thoughts and how we could learn to overcome problems in our lives just simply by altering the way we think about them.
It was at this stage I realised I was eager to find out more about how humans could actually thrive and flourish in life. I have read everything from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Steven Covey) to Rhona Byrne’s ‘The Secret’, not to mention ‘The Magic’, ‘The Power’ and I am now enjoying ‘Hero’. I continue to love these types of books despite studying Positive Psychology. If you mention ‘The Secret’ in front of most positive psychology academics they will no doubt laugh at you, frown at you or try their best to make you feel slightly less intelligent than them for reading such books. Why are positive psychology academics so against the self-help movement?
The recidivism rate of people who buy and read self-help books is high. I am a true example of that – I continue to reoffend and buy more and more self-help books despite the fact that most of them say the same thing but in a different way. The Positive Psychology movement claims to be unfolding “the science of human flourishing and happiness” and continues to defy the self-help label. Yet as an individual who has a love and passion for both movements and has completed an MSc in positive psychology I see so many similarities between them both. Yes, positive psychology has empirical evidence to back up its claims and the plethora of research today is enabling more and more people, organisations and nations to learn how to flourish. Positive psychological interventions such as the best possible selves exercise can make people feel more optimistic yet almost every self-help book has taught me the same thing – to look to the future and visualise the best possible outcome in any given situation.
The difference being many self-help books link our thoughts to something bigger and more powerful than us, such as the law of attraction which states that like attracts like. It is the idea that if a person focuses on positive thoughts they attract positive experiences, likewise focusing on negative thoughts attracts negative experiences into your life. The law of attraction suggests that we are made up of energy and we have the power within us to make that energy either positive or negative. Napoleon Hill published two books on the law of attraction, The Law of Success in 16 Lessons (1928) and in 1937 he published one of my favourites, Think and Grow Rich where he hints that there is a secret to success and many believe his hidden secret is the power we have in controlling our own thoughts in order to be successful in life. And so it seems both positive psychology and the self-help movement agree that our thoughts are very powerful and positive thoughts enable us to achieve positive outcomes in life.
Likewise, every self-help book I have ever read has a chapter on gratitude and how grateful people are the most successful and happiest people alive. Is this too not what positive psychology states? I love the science behind positive psychology and will continue to study it for the rest of my life and incorporate its teachings into my personal and working life but often reading journal articles and research statistics bores me instead of igniting that passion I feel from my self-help books. At the end of the day I believe that positive psychology should embrace the self-help movement and understand that if positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning then maybe lessons can be learned from the self-help movement. That doesn’t mean positive psychology is any less of a science but that it is keen to understand the true power of the human mind and answer questions raised in some of these prolific self-help books. Maybe if some of the academics delved into some of this literature they would realise the similarities for themselves and endeavour to answer some of the questions raised from this literature.
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’