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Rampant Positivity

I\’m annoyed with myself that I wasted my money buying \’Flourish\’ – Dr Martin Seligman\’s latest book about the wonders of Applied Positive Psychology. I admit that I\’m a sucker for this kind of self-help book, and I enjoyed his earlier work \’Authentic Happiness.\’ It\’s a perfectly sensible thing to do: rather than focus on what\’s wrong with people, take a look at what\’s right and see if you can use it to improve your own or other peoples\’ lives.
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Seligman is big on evidence-based psychology – an excellent idea which he interprets as using women\’s magazine-type questionnaires, given self-important acronyms, to assess people and then teaching them Resilience or Post-Traumatic Growth. This is done through very basic New Age exercises like What Went Well (gratitude diaries), which he seems to think he invented. Then he asks the students if they feel better and indeed they do.
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I don\’t expect originality of these books. In fact I\’m happy if there\’s just one fresh insight. Some of the silliest books have the best ideas: one dreadful thing popular in the 80s called \’The One-Minute Manager\’ contained the gem \”Catch people doing something right.\” Trust me, this transformed my childrearing.
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But Flourish… Oh dear. It\’s essentially a long expensive boast, with forays into the wonders of the US Army training system. To the reasonable question of whether he should be part of it at all, he snarls that the US Army protected his family from the Nazis, that CIA torturers were just in the audience of his lecture on learned helplessness and that he\’s proud to do it pro bono. Scariest thought is that the idea of teaching their men to be Resilient does not seem to have occurred to the US high command before Seligman got to work.
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And then Seligman goes off on a rant against Barbara Ehrenreich and her book \”Smile or Die.\” Her offence is to point out that compulsory positivity might not be so great. That being blamed for causing your own breast cancer by your negativity might not be helpful. That cheerleading and groupthink and yes-men were a contributing cause of the recent financial bog-up.
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And this offends Seligman mightily. His economic insight into the financial crash is that pessimism makes shares fall and optimism makes them rise (we-e-ll yes…). And he seems unable to imagine that people might lie when they answer quizz-questions. Or that there\’s a difference between genuine optimism and the fake kind you put on because you know that you\’re only supposed to be positive or else.

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