Bringing the Negative to Positive Psychology and Reality to the Mindfulness Movement

Psychology has a problem. As a discipline we have a lot to offer those seeking self-improvement. Our theories and ideas, however, often get diluted by the popular press and a deeper approach to human development is the causality. Recent examples include both positive psychology and mindfulness, both of which have many beneficial principles but if approached uncritically may have the opposite effect.

Positive psychology is the scientific understanding and effective intervention to aid in the achievement of a satisfactory life. While positive psychology is a developing area of thought, it is often portrayed in the media as the ‘happiness movement’; a branch of psychology that makes happiness paramount and its pursuit the ultimate meaning to life. I disagree with this view, as would many positive psychologists. Happiness does matter but so do other emotions. Happiness is not the panacea to all ills. Feeling down allows one to appreciate a different slice of life that has led to many a great work of art and literary prose. Life is an intense trip and deserves to be experienced, felt and thought about in all its glory, warts and all.

While positive psychology has contributed greatly to the psychology of goal attainment, at times the links between psychology and reaching one’s aspirations take a step too far. One cannot simply ‘think and grow rich’ as much as we might wish this to be so. What is often missing from the superficial treatment of positive psychology in the popular press is a deep appreciation for reality. Indeed, while the power of positive illusions has merits, an undeniable acceptance of reality can be the catalyst for creating the required change at an individual and societal level, such in action around climate change. Reality appreciation also involves self-acceptance, even if this does mean that your chances of breaking coconuts with your hand are slim!

Mindfulness likewise has many definitions but perhaps the most common is being able to be present to the internal and external world in the present moment. Taken to its extreme, this can lead to the adoption of a nihilistic attitude; losing purpose and drive for goal attainment replaced with a state of minimalistic living and bliss. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, for those aiming at big hairy audacious goals, this type of existence can seem somewhat incompatible. This dilemma can be addressed when mindfulness is coupled with living purposefully; the establishment of goals and living with integrity to accomplish them. In this way mindfulness becomes a key life technique that increases the likelihood of high achievement and supra-performance.

To be clear proponents of mindfulness and positive psychology would not necessarily agree that the downsides noted can be attributed to comprehensive definitions of their theories. I agree and this post is simply my attempt to balance the general rhetoric pertaining to these schools of thought. By doing so, the common understanding and applied practice of both approaches may be enhanced, especially for those who have failed to take an expansive view of either approach. This enhancement can best be achieved by the incorporation of alternate theories that provide the required balance for the practitioner.

One such theory that may help in this regard may be the concept of self-esteem by Nathaniel Branden. A key pillar of Branden’s theory is a deep respect for reality and self-acceptance (including one’s limitations). Branden is not for the faint hearted. At times evangelical (ironic given his atheistic philosophy), his underlying message is that to reach a state of true self-esteem takes a high degree of fortitude, self-awareness and personal strength. Branden’s work is often seen as fringe and pop psychology but I personally find his theory of self-esteem to be logically consistent and extremely useful when working with high performers. As an objectivist psychologist, he also comes from a lineage of very robust theory builders such Edwin Locke of goal setting fame.

Rather than finding these schools of thought disconnected, I have found their integration to be extremely powerful, not only for my personal development but also in my coaching practice. In many ways concepts of Branden’s work are great complements to both positive psychology and mindfulness and vice-versa.

In the practice of supra-performance, I cannot afford to sycophantically follow any one school of thought in psychology. Nor will I add value to my clients by not addressing common misassumptions and potential misgivings in what are potentially useful approaches. Supra-performance is made all the more possible by incorporating theories be they from the objectivist, positive or mindfulness school of thought. It is the deep appreciation and integration of multiple psychological approaches where real usefulness can be found. Only by avoiding the shallow waters can psychology and psychologists provide real value to those seeking wisdom from our thinking.

Image source: unsplash/David Marcu