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Can positive thinking make you unhappy?

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Edited by Stephanie Taylor, Friday, 7 Jul 2017, 11:05

In our continuing series of blogs from the module team, Paul Stenner writes:

In a recent instalment of the Today programme on Radio 4 (February, 2017), John Humphrys interviewed the Danish psychologist Professor Svend Brinkmann on the topic of positive thinking.

Professor Brinkmann is author of a recent book called ‘Stand firm: resisting the self-improvement craze’. As this title might suggest, he made some interesting critical observations about the widespread tendency amongst managers, positive psychologists and business gurus to urge the importance of positive thinking. If there are negative things in our world, Brinkmann argued, then it is very important that we acknowledge and understand these things if we are to challenge and change them. We must concretely address the negative, and not sugar-coat it with reassuring positive thoughts.

Brinkmann’s voice is in the minority amongst psychologists, but the social psychological point he makes is important. The interviewee who followed him, for example, was incredulous and simply repeated the position that positive thinking is healthy and to be encouraged. Brinkmann’s argument requires that we move beyond a consideration of individual psychology, and take into consideration the interpersonal, cultural and societal context within which a new discourse of happiness has become established over the past 10 years or so.

On an individual level, and without consideration of context, it is obvious that positive thinking can be a very good thing. But things can become troublesome if ‘happiness’ is foisted upon people as a duty by those in positions of authority. When our bosses and managers oblige us to be positive about changes they are introducing to our work-lives, for example, then happiness becomes something more like an instrument of power.

You'll find more discussion of these and related issues in the new module Advancing social psychology (DD317) in Block 4, Contemporary social psychological subjects, including Chapter 12, Happy subjects and humaneering.


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