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The Problem with Positive Psychology

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Seligman also writes, "We often choose what makes us feel good, but it is very important to realize that often our choices are not made for the sake of how we will feel. I chose to listen to my six-year-old's excruciating piano recital last night, not because it made me feel good, but because it is my parental duty and part of what gives my life meaning." Again, Seligman fails to see the bigger picture. We can't separate good feelings from what gives our life meaning. Good feelings of the highest quality are produced when we are fulfilling our duty to others and finding meaning and purpose in life. His son's "excruciating" playing ought not to preclude that deeper pleasure.

In an earlier book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman made a similar claim. He wrote that happiness has little to do with pleasure and much to do with developing personal strengths and character. However, his contention makes no sense because, again, the pursuit and acquisition of personal strengths and character are a vital source of pleasure. As well, happiness and pleasure cannot be separated. One might argue, in desperation, that a person could at any moment be enjoying the pleasure of sex, while not particularly happy about his life in general. But such a fine distinction would evade reality. The consistent pleasure of living one's life at higher levels of inner peace, happiness, and purpose approaches the level of bliss. This higher pleasure transcends the passing pleasures of sensation and materialism.

Seligman says our level of happiness cannot be lastingly increased--and that we can only hope to live in the upper reaches of our natural range. How ironic that positive psychology makes such a nihilistic prognosis. Our happiness can be lastingly and dramatically increased. This is achieved through deeper insight and a willingness to acknowledge and to understand our psyche's commanding presence in our daily life.

Seligman is right about one thing, though, that we need to take responsibility for our state of mind. We can start by understanding the limitations that our egocentric mentality imposes on our intelligence.

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