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Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology
Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology
Christopher Peterson
Oxford University Press, 2012
341 pp., 30.95

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Kevin Corcoran

Pursuing the Good Life

Memo: other people matter.

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In an early but especially sober reflection, "Positive Psychology and Bullshit," Peterson responds to criticisms which conclude that positive psychology is merely BS. Certainly there is no shortage of BS clogging up bookshelf real estate, promising the seven secrets to happiness or the seven easy steps to bliss. Peterson calls attention to the bad company positive psychology tends to keep, e.g., the "stupid company" (those who know the research literature and dumb it down for popular consumption), the "one trick pony company" (those who grab hold of a single positive psychology exercise and then tout it as "the cure" for all that ails us), and what Peterson refers to as "the complacent company" (those who treat the present findings of positive psychology as finished and fixed).

Peterson follows Harry Frankfurt in his now classic On Bullshit in regarding BS as indifference to truth. Peterson and those at the forefront of the positive psychology movement don't count as trafficking in BS insofar as what they recommend is grounded in their own research published in peer-reviewed journals and delivered with the requisite caveats customary for scholarly research.

That point is well-made. My biggest difficulty with Pursuing the Good Life, as I noted earlier, is that we're not given an account of the good life. The good life is assumed to be identical with happiness and life satisfaction. And while it's true that each of us is the expert with respect to our own happiness and sense of subjective well-being, it seems equally clear that the good life is not the same as the psychological state of subjective well-being or life satisfaction. Here's why.

Consider John and John's parents. John is a successful businessman, 30 years old. He is financially well off, has lots of friends, takes himself to enjoy many of life's pleasures, and, when he assesses his life as a whole, finds himself eminently satisfied. He enjoys, let us say, a sense of subjective well-being. The only thing is, John's considerable income derives from pornography, sex-trafficking, and drug-dealing. Now when John was a child and John's parents expressed their desire for their son to grow up and be happy, is this what they desired, that their son grow up to enjoy a sense of subjective well-being, no matter how he achieved it? Put yourself in the shoes of John's parents. Would you say that this is what you desired for John when you desired for him to grow up and be happy? If not, it is plausible to believe that you think there is more to the good life than either feeling happy or being happy in the sense of being satisfied with life as a whole.

When happiness is a by-product of our living the kind of life we are by nature aimed at, we have a sense that happiness is come by legitimately. When, on the other hand, a subjective sense of well-being comes in ways that we believe are inconsistent with our nature, we instinctively feel it is a stolen or ill-gotten happiness. Nearly all of the features that Peterson identifies with "the good life" or "happy life" are features that someone can possess without living the good life, i.e., the kind of life creatures like us are meant to live.

This, of course, is not meant to deny the main thrust of the positive psychology movement. The research literature is full of interesting, helpful, and sometimes surprising findings. For example, if you don't happen to be among the lucky ones whose brains are wired in such a way that you naturally embrace and savor life, welcome new experiences, are imaginative, exuberant, resilient, and optimistic or hopeful (like those who are dispositionally happy), you can engage in concrete exercises or practices that lay down new neural pathways or dig existing "happiness" pathways deeper. And because you can engage in practices and activities that do this, you can raise your happiness quotient or natural happiness set point. Of course, if you are dispositionally a "gloomy Gary," you will not be able to transform yourself into a sanguine Sally or exuberant Eddie. Even so, the research suggests that you can increase your over all sense of subjective well-being.

And that, I think, is an end worthy of pursuit. Of course there is also paradox here: happiness seems to be that sort of thing such that seeking it and pursuing it are sure ways not to find it. Instead, it is the seeking and pursuit of other things—practicing gratitude, pursuing a life of other-regarding love and concern, embedding yourself in deep, meaningful relationships—that seems to bring about happiness as a natural byproduct.

Kevin Corcoran is professor of philosophy at Calvin College.

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