Second Wave Positive Psychology
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Second Wave Positive Psychology

Embracing the Dark Side of Life

Itai Ivtzan, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon, Piers Worth

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eBook - ePub

Second Wave Positive Psychology

Embracing the Dark Side of Life

Itai Ivtzan, Tim Lomas, Kate Hefferon, Piers Worth

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About This Book

Positive psychology is currently equated with theory and research on the positive aspects of life. The reality could not be further from the truth. Positive psychology investigates and researches some of the most difficult and painful experiences. Second Wave Positive Psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life is an innovative and groundbreaking textbook that explores a variety of topics we consider to be part of the 'dark' side of life while emphasising their role in our positive functioning and transformation as human beings. This more nuanced approach to the notions of 'positive' and 'negative' can be described as the 'second wave' of Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is one of the fastest growing and least understood branches of psychology. Exploring topics at the heart of Positive Psychology, such as meaning, resilience, human development, mortality, change, suffering, and spirituality, this book engages with so-called 'negative' matters from a Positive Psychology angle, showing how the path of personal development can involve experiences which, while challenging, can lead to growth, insight, healing and transformation.

Containing useful resources, case studies, practical exercises and chapter summaries, Second Wave Positive Psychology is an essential guide for undergraduate and postgraduate students studying positive psychology, as well as clinicians wanting to know more about the subject. It will also be relevant to the layperson who is interested in positive psychology.

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The dialectics of emotion

‘The darkest hour of the night comes just before the dawn’.
Thomas Fuller
Learning objectives—at the end of the chapter you will be able to do the following:
  • Interpret the relationships between ‘psychology as usual’, ‘positive psychology’ (PP), and ‘second wave’ PP
  • Understand the dialectics of thesis–antithesis–synthesis
  • See the reciprocal codependency of dichotomous terms
  • Critique the pursuit of optimism, self-esteem, freedom, forgiveness and happiness
  • Find potential value in pessimism, humility, constraint, anger and sadness
  • Appreciate the ambivalent nature of the good life via principles of Buddhist aesthetics
  • Understand the significance and value of engaging with the ‘dark side’ of life
List of topics:
  • Dialectics
  • Second-wave PP
  • Righteous anger
  • Contextuality
  • Happiness – sadness
  • Optimism – pessimism
  • Love
  • Self-esteem – humility
  • Taoist and Buddhist aesthetics


The origin story of psychology (PP) is by now a well worn tale: disenchanted by the way ‘psychology as usual’ seemed preoccupied with dysfunction, Martin Seligman used his ascension to the American Psychological Association (APA) presidency to inaugurate the new field of PP. Rather than deal in the currency of human failings, the promise of this new movement was to create a forum where scholars could explore the ‘brighter sides of human nature’ (Linley & Joseph, 2004, p. 4), from pleasure to fulfilment. Its emergence provided the definite sense of a movement within psychology towards ostensibly ‘positive’ phenomena (even if this territory had already been explored by fields like humanistic psychology; Resnick et al., 2001). Thus, in counterpart to fields like clinical psychology, that endeavour to alleviate the ‘negative’ states of mind of mental illness, PP might enquire into ‘positive’ mental states that constitute mental health. In this way, psychology as a whole could be brought into balance. However, in spite of its success, or even because of it, PP has drawn flak from critics who have queried its fundamental concepts and have even questioned whether it ought to exist at all (McNulty & Fincham, 2011). What are we to make of these developments?
To understand this apparent movement towards, and then away from, the ‘positive’ within psychology, I would like to introduce a term that is central to this chapter: ‘dialectic’. This refers to the dynamic ‘tension of opposition between two interacting forces or elements’ (Merriam-Webster, 2014). This tension describes the mysterious way in which binary opposites – positive and negative, light and dark, up and down – while being diametrically opposed, are yet intimately connected and dependent upon the other for their very existence. Indeed, this notion is the very premise of this book as a whole: just as the dark is inextricably connected to the light, so are seemingly ‘negative’ experiences bound in complex ways to positive ones, with flourishing arising from their mysterious interaction. However, the term ‘dialectic’ does not simply refer to a static relationship between opposites but to the way in which many phenomena change and evolve through a process of dynamic movement between these opposites, as elucidated by the German idealist philosopher Hegel (1969/1812). An example of this might be the development of ideas. Say that an argument is advanced, perhaps that human beings are fundamentally good. In Hegelian terms, this proposition would be the thesis. People might identify flaws in this, and respond with the counter-argument that people are inherently bad; this retort would be the antithesis. However, this counter-argument may then itself be found to be flawed. This does not mean, though, that people would collectively revert to the original thesis. Rather, what might emerge is a subtle synthesis that incorporates aspects of both arguments – for example, suggesting that people have the potential for good and evil – creating a higher unity that transcends and yet preserves the truth of both extremes (Mills, 2000).
We can use this model to understand the emergence of PP: if ‘psychology as usual’, focusing on the negative, is the thesis, then PP, embracing the positive, represents its bold antithesis. However, as indicated, this may not be the end of the dynamic. In its infancy, in its role as antithesis, the PP movement differentiated itself by strongly emphasising the positive: positive thoughts, emotions and so on. The message was that ostensibly ‘negative’ phenomena were undesirable, whereas ‘positive’ qualities and outcomes were necessarily beneficial1. Let’s refer to this initial embrace of the positive as ‘first wave’ PP. However, since boldly claiming the academic spotlight in these early years, PP has begun to be assailed by murmurs of dissent, its initial lively optimism punctured by astute critiques from inside and outside the field. In these critiques, we can discern the process of flaws being found in the antithesis. However, as we have seen, this is not the end of the story. Acknowledgment of flaws does not mean we must revert to the original thesis (psychology as usual). Rather, we can hopefully arrive at a new mature synthesis that takes an altogether more nuanced approach to the notions of positive and negative – we might call this the ‘second wave’ of PP (Held, 2004) or ‘positive psychology 2.0’ (Wong, 2011). And, one characteristic of this emergent second wave is an embrace of the ‘dark side’ of life (i.e., seemingly negative experiences and mental states); while the first wave of PP felt uncomfortable with this ‘dark side’, rejected it in favour of the ‘brighter sides’ of life, this second wave views it in some strange way as being potentially inherent to flourishing. As elucidated in the introduction, although this ‘dark side’ can cause us distress and discomfort (which is why we tend to avoid it), engaging with these challenges can bring great potential for growth, healing, insight and transformation; thus, the ‘dark side’ contains the seed for a potential positive outcome, even when the path towards this outcome is testing.
Practice Essay Questions
  • Evaluate the notion that in certain circumstances, ostensibly positive emotions can be detrimental to wellbeing, whereas apparently negative emotions can promote flourishing.
  • Conceptually, one can no more hope to eradicate the negative (thereby only having the positive) than one could manage to get rid of down (thereby only having up): Discuss.
In this chapter we shall explore the critiques levelled at first wave PP and examine the emergence of the second wave synthesis. As we shall see, second wave PP means appreciating how emotions2themselves exist dialectically. Just as, in a macro-sense, psychology as a field is evolving through its own positive-negative dialectic, in a micro-sense we can see this dialectic playing itself out in our own emotional experiences. Perhaps we feel unhappy; this is our thesis. Consequently, we endeavour to find happiness; this is our antithetic response. However, as Wong (2011) so astutely identified, there are potential downsides to ‘seeking the positive’ – positive qualities can sometimes be detrimental to wellbeing, whereas negative processes may at times promote our flourishing. Thus, in time, a synthesis may emerge in which we discern that the good life cannot be found by just eschewing negative emotions, or pursuing positive ones, but involves appreciating the nuances of the whole spectrum of our emotional experience.
We will trace these ideas out over three parts here. Part 1 explores the notion that ‘positive can be negative’: apparently positive qualities can hinder our flourishing under certain circumstances. Conversely, part 2 enquires whether ‘negative can be positive’: engaging with the ‘dark side’ of life (i.e., processes we usually regard as negative) might actually be conducive to wellbeing. These sections represent the process of finding flaws in the antithesis position (i.e., our desire to avoid the negative and seek the positive). Finally, Part 3 seeks to establish a synthesis, looking at how some of the most precious experiences in life – like love – inherently involve both positive and negative components; here we shall also explore ways in which we might appreciate this subtle synthesis, based on the aesthetics of Eastern philosophies. However, before we dive into these sections, let me emphasise that in constructing these paradoxical titles – positive can be negative and vice versa – I am not trying to depict an Alice in Wonderland version of mental life, in which black is white, up is down. Rather, I am suggesting that phenomena which appear to be negative may, from a different perspective, not be so harmful after all. Our initial appraisal of the valence of a particular state of mind or affairs may be incomplete or inaccurate, and considered in other lights, contrasting judgments may be reached. As part of that, experiences that one might at first interpret as being part of the darker side of life may actually turn out to herald potentially beneficial outcomes or be unexpected sources of value, meaning or beauty. Let’s illustrate this with an old Buddhist parable, titled ‘Maybe’:
There was an old farmer who had toiled away on his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbours came to visit. ‘Such bad luck’, they said sympathetically. ‘Maybe’, the farmer replied. The next morning, the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. ‘How wonderful’, the neighbours exclaimed. ‘Maybe’, replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. ‘Maybe’, answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out in the end. ‘Maybe’, said the farmer … [Can this labyrinthine process ever end?]
Here, the initial negative appraisal becomes relativized when placed in a broader context (i.e., the passage of time and subsequent events). Let us refer to this notion of situating an appraisal in a broader context as ‘contextualisation’ (Garrett & Schmidt, 2012). This story is an example of ‘temporal contextualisation’ – the meaning of a current event being altered by perspectives at other points in time. This type of contextualisation is reflected in the notion of posttraumatic growth (PTG) (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004), in which some people who have experienced traumatic events report that these events have led to subsequent shifts in aspects of life that are ultimately viewed as being positive (e.g., closer relationships with loved ones). There is also ‘spatial contextualisation’ – considering the event from a different perspective in the current moment. For example, what if a person makes a self-determined act which he or she feels is integral to his or her flourishing (say, going travelling alone), but this act causes pain to others (the family they are leaving behind). Is this act good or bad? Well, it depends on the context – from whose perspective we are looking at it. As such, one of the messages of this book is that phenomena that may appear at first to be dark (i.e., negative) in nature may in fact become an unanticipated source of light. Conversely, qualities or situations that at first may seem desirable might have their downsides.
Moreover, the range of potential contexts, temporal and spatial, is theoretically infinite and inexhaustible: another can always be found. Thus meaning is always ‘deferred’, as Lacan (2006) put it. That said, this does not imply moral relativism (i.e., no way of assigning value to phenomena) – ultimately, we can judge situations and behaviours by the extent to which they contribute to the overall wellbeing of as many people as possible (even if making such utilitarian judgements is difficult in practice). Moreover, recognition of contextuality does not render us incapacitated in terms of trying to appraise phenomena; we just do our best with the knowledge we have while retaining the humility that comes from knowing that we are neither omniscient nor faultless in our judgements. So, having introduced some key ideas, we can begin by exploring potential problems with the ‘positive’.

Positive can be Negative

We turn first to the idea that apparently salutary emotions may actually be damaging to our wellbeing in certain circumstances. We’ll begin with some individualistic examples, such as optimism, self-esteem and freedom, then explore a few prosocial ones, including forgiveness and altruism. (Needless to say, this is far from a comprehensive critique of the vast scope of qualities of interest to PP but rather a brief foray into a small selection.) Following that, we’ll turn to the more unsettling notion that happiness itself might be contentious. At this point, you might be thinking, surely these qualities cannot be undesirable? Well, this chapter is not about being contrarian and disavowing these; rather, we can just gently point out that in particular contexts and from certain perspectives, these outcomes might be detrimental to individuals themselves and/or to those around them. And, it is when we begin to appreciate these nuances – to cease simplistically categorising particular qualities as positive or negative – that we have begun to embrace the second wave of PP.
Let’s start with optimism. Over the centuries, the dangers of excessive or unrealistic optimism have been critiqued and even lampooned, perhaps most famously by Voltaire (1759), who used the fictional Dr Pangloss to mock Leibniz’s assertion that we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Even in PP, optimism was recognised from the start as potentially problematic. As Seligman acknowledged in 1990, one must be careful not to be a ‘slave to the tyrannies of optimism’, but must be ‘able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it’ (p. 292). This insight has since been borne out in empirical work, which reveals a diversity of problems associated with undue optimism, many relating to under-appreciation of risk and subsequent maladaptive risk-taking (e.g., smoking; Weinstein et al., 2005). Such actions consequently implicate optimism as a mortality risk: a seven-decade longitudinal study suggested that children who were ‘cheerful’ (optimism plus a sense of humour) had shorter lives than their conscientious peers (Friedman et al., 1993). Contrariwise though, other studies have found that optimism predicts longevity (Giltay et al., 2004). So, is optimism undesirable? As with everything, context is key; unfortunately, however, context has thus far been under-appreciated in PP. As such, the task going forward is to elucidate the contextual factors that make optimism (and other qualities analysed here) beneficial or otherwise; for now, we might heed Peterson’s (2000, p. 51) advice that ‘people should be optimistic when the future can be changed by positive thinking but not otherwise’.
There are shades of optimism in our second quality, self-esteem (almost like an optimism of the self). But, surely one would not wish a person to be afflicted with low levels of this barometer of self-worth? Well, no: generally, wellbeing is better served by high rather than low self-esteem. For example, a prospective study found that adolescents with low self-esteem subsequently had relatively greater criminality, worse economic prospects, and poorer mental and physical health in adulthood (Trzesniewski et al., 2006). However, this does not render high self-esteem unproblematic. As with optimism, high self-esteem is associated with perceived invulnerability and subsequent health-risk behaviours (Gerrard et al., 2000). Inflated assessments about one’s capabilities also lead people to making commitments that exceed their capacities – particularly if their egos are threatened – leading potentially to failure; if one’s self-esteem is contingent on achieving these goals, dependent upon extrinsi...

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