Psychologist and Professor Echoes Common Misconceptions About Positive Psychology

Ask a communist to explain the free market and they will likely be wrong on some pretty substantial details.
James Coyne (Clinical Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania) is no communist, but he does have a strong aversion to positive psychology. His distaste for it is the result of his own misunderstanding, and he gets a substantial detail wrong.
In Coyne’s dismissive piece, Positive psychology is mainly for rich white people, he reveals his misunderstanding with his evidence-free claim, “Positive psychology assumes that life is a level playing field except for the advantages or disadvantages that people have created for themselves.”

I’m glad that he said this. As I’ve said repeatedly here 1, positive thinking is poorly understood in our culture, and Coyne’s sentence concisely captures the most common misconception. Such a misconception becomes a jumping off point for derision and mockery, both from him and from popular culture. Saturday Night Live has poked fun at it repeatedly: their most successful positive-thinking skit was Jack Handy, a wounded soul whose affirmations never seemed to help. They satirized the book “The Secret”, where the author was encouraging someone in an active war zone— via her nice, safe satellite link– to use their power of positive thinking to lift themselves out of their circumstance, even as the bullets whizzed by. Positive thinking does not apply in a war zone in Darfur (hence it does not apply at all). A wonderful enactment of Coyne’s statement.
The Serenity Prayer—commonly, though uncertainly 2 attributed to 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr— makes a stark call to discerning which things we have control over:

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.”

There is a dividing line on the continuum of ‘things’; on one side are things I can change; on the other things I can’t change. We all draw this line— some draw it too far to one side, others draw it too far to the other, too many of us have drawn it in the wrong spot, and —crucially— most of us give little consideration to if we drew it in the right spot or not.
Positive thinking/psychology questions where we draw that line. With things-I-can’t-change to the left, and things-I-can to the right, it inquires, “for each thing I have placed to the left of the line, what can I do to move it to the right?”. Nothing is off the table when considering this problem, even our own thoughts, attitudes and beliefs. It represents a fair (and important) line of inquiry. I’m sure Coyne sees the value of such an excercise.
This is utterly different than Coyne’s attempt to portray positive psychologists as assuming, “life is a level playing field”. Positive psychology acknowledges that we were all dealt different hands, but it also acknowledges that as soon as we start focusing 3 on how bad our hand is, we have diminished our chances that much more of winning. I don’t play poker, but I do play chess, and this same sensibility applies there. In chess, you always want to be on the offensive. As soon as you start playing defensively, you have diminished your chances of winning. Yes, chess starts as a ‘level playing field’ but that distinction is trivial. At any moment in the game, regardless of your number of pieces, your mental state will influence outcomes. Your woe is a detriment to your success. This is true in life too, and positive psychology seeks to demote woe.
Surely Coyne recognizes this truth in chess, yet his comment suggests that in life he would coddle woe. This is the crux of the matter, and his is a popular sentiment which gives rise to the derision against positive thinking. As I’ve said before, adopting a victim mentality has its perks. Ego rightly acknowledges positive thinking is a threat to its own internal defenses, and so it lashes out. Coyne would do well to adopt the mental practice so well articulated by Niebuhr.
Interestingly this very conversation applies to Coyne’s own disapproval of positive psychology. Coyne’s claim is his own creation. He didn’t find it in a study or text book. He made it up. Critically: he created his own definition, then he disagreed with it. So, to Coyne, since you are creating your own definitions of positive psychology, is it possible for you to create a definition of positive psychology that you can support?

  1. When Affirmations Make You Feel Worse, The Power of Negative Thinking Misses The MarkPositive Affirmations, Power or Peril?[]
  2. Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?, Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times, July 11, 2008[]
  3. Focus is an issue I’ve addressed repeatedly here: Invisible Gorillas Aren’t Just For RadiologistsDo We Only Focus on What’s Positive?, An Example of Shifting “Can’t” ThinkingA Scientific Basis for New Age Bullshit []