The end of the science of happiness?

Well not quite. But I see the inventor of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has a book coming out next month saying that it’s not about happiness after all, but flourishing. He’s apparently been stung by the accusations that he’s peddling ‘happyology’.

The American blurb promises ‘his dynamic new concept of what well-being really is.’ Excuse some knockabout, but was Authentic Happiness never really authentic? It also celebrates that Seligman’s ideas have been adopted by the US Army, this blurb noting that post-traumatic stress is ‘all but overcome in the US military’. Is that really true? A year old, the BBC reported the army’s Assistant Surgeon General, Brig Gen Richard Thomas, saying, ‘We are doing better. We are not winning yet. I think it’s going to take us three to five years to really change the culture with respect to these injuries. We’re in this war for a long time.’

It is also worth listening to Fran Abrams’ programme, Testing the Emotions, on how successful positive psychology really is in schools, another element mentioned on the cover. Roughly, she concludes that it probably doesn’t do much harm and can be fun. But claims for improved exam results and the like are unsubstantiated and overblown, though some help may be provided when the interventions are targeted at individual kids with clear problems, perhaps of truancy or anger.

It’ll be interesting to see how rich a concept of flourishing the new book has. My prejudice and suspicion is that it will be the old utilitarianism with ‘flourishing’ replacing pleasure, in which case all the old problems will be squared – how to quantify flourishing, how to compare different kinds of flourishing, what happens when my flourishing requires your diminishing, etc, etc.

To put it another way, if this is a tacit admission that happiness does not deliver a meaningful science, the underlying need now would be to try to turn flourishing into one. But this would still be the mistake Bentham made and Mill exposed. As Mill knew, drawing on Aristotle before him, the art of living is just that: an art.

So the metaphors Aristotle deploys are those of the archer who can maintain a steady aim at the target even as they are thrown off balance by the ups and downs of life. Or the flute player who puts in the hours and years of practice to gain the technique, personal character and engagement with the musical tradition to produce the beautiful tune. Flourishing is not about measuring amounts of virtues like courage or temperance, whatever that might mean, but developing the practical ability to judge when you’ve got them about right – which will be rarely, if ever, but still worth the effort.

Other questions come to mind. Has Seligman now got a decent account of the role of pain in life, which is to say it can’t always be mitigated as it’s the flipside of love? Has he got deeper understandings of qualities like hope, which is more about gritty courage than mere optimism; or friendship, which is not just about camaraderie but the relatively rare experience of truly knowing someone and being known by them? And what about meaning: will any old meaning do, so long as it delivers purpose (despots have that in spades), or will he engage in some moral philosophy and admirable struggle with the ambiguities?

Aristotle also didn’t shirk from the fact that life is tragic. The individual who flourishes is, sooner or later, still the individual who dies – though with luck, or blessing, dies well. Poetry helps, for its catharsis. So does contemplation, for it offers a taste of the eternal to mortals.

And if it’s salvation you seek to offer, as positive psychology appears to want to, then you need a further quality that Aristotle didn’t have – though Thomas Aquinas, his great interpreter, did: faith in a loving God. Seligman had an odd chapter in Authentic Happiness about a deity who appears at the end of time, the product of progressive evolution. I wonder if he has done any theology for the new book too.