Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.
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I wrote my first book 'The Scots Crisis of Confidence' as I had become to believe that there was something inherent in Scottish culture which tended to undermine confidence. One of my motivations for writing the book was to analyse some of these issues through the lens of Scottish culture rather than relying on the type of ideas coming out of American personal development or local ‘gurus’ such as Jack Black.
However, in 2003 when the book was first published I came across the work of Professor Martin Seligman and the newly developing Positive Psychology movement. My initial thought was that this body of work could really help us analyse some of the difficulties facing us (such as pessimism) and that its emphasis on the importance of purpose, for example, really chimed with Scottish history and values. I also welcomed Positive Psychology’s heavy emphasis on empirical evidence and the fact that its founders were heavy weight intellectuals. Again this seemed to go with the grain of Scottish culture making it more likely that people would pay attention to this research.
Some policy makers in Scotland agreed that this body of ideas could be useful and the Centre was founded in 2005 with some financial support from the Scottish Government.
In the past three years we have done a lot to attract people to Positive Psychology and to disseminate some of the key ideas. For example, we ran a high profile, large-scale Vanguard Programme with key figures from the field; we developed an extensive resource library on this website; and we’ve used our knowledge of Positive Psychology to undertake some research.
However, it is also true to say that during this period we were not constricted by Positive Psychology. We have been particularly attracted to the work of Professor Carol Dweck and her theory of mindset as we think this holds the key to some of the biggest barriers to confidence in Scotland. Dweck is not part of the Positive Psychology movement and she is critical of a strengths-based approach. We’ve also put on the website ideas from other psychologists such as Jean Twenge, or Jennifer Crocker whose work is not branded Positive Psychology.
The new Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, with its emphasis on confident individuals and aspects of well-being, meant that the Centre particularly began to read, undertake research and deliberate on young people’s confidence and well-being. We were very taken by the critique of the self-esteem movement advanced by Martin Seligman in 'The Optimistic Child'.
However, our reseach on young people began to raise real concerns. We could see that the range of factors affecting young people’s well-being, for example, were enormous and included diet, exercise, the media and advertising, parents’ long working hours and so forth but all that Positive Psychology seemed to encourage was a focus on aspects of young people’s psychology. The more we looked at what happened under the banner of self-esteem the more we could see that psychological interventions had a phenomenal capacity to backfire.
We also had a specific concern about the growing interest in happiness. Every time I went into schools I was being told by teachers and head teachers that parents are now always coming in to complain if their child has one bad day or one bad experience. This is not confined to Scotland and appears to be happening in the US, Australia, England and Italy and no doubt other countries as well.
If you inject into this atmosphere an emphasis on happiness and positive emotion you are going to make the problem worse not better. Positive Psychologists can talk all they like about their definition of happiness and the importance of negative emotion but it is unlikely to be heard: it is too sophisticated and not how change happens. Some well off schools may run some of the expensive programmes but we fear that Positive Psychology’s legacy to education will reinforce the idea that it is important for young people to be happy all the time and experience lots of positive feelings – a surefire recipe for undermining resilience and educational standards.
Another growing issue for us in the past year is the realisation that in the USA there has been a strong tradition of psychology as social engineering. Positive Psychologists tell the story that that the problem with psychology post war in the US is that it became dominated by a disease focus. However, if you read Ellen Herman’s very well researched book 'The Romance of American Psychology' a different picture emerges. Psychologists were involved in every aspect of the war: selection of troops, design of weapons, morale, understanding the enemy and so on. It seemed to whet their appetite for power and political influence. From the 1950s on American psychologists have been hugely influential in the development of government initiatives. Herman is not arguing that the difficulty with these initiatives is their political complexion: sometimes they could be motivated by right wing values (reducing welfare) or sometime by a more left-wing bias such as the eradication of racism or the construction of the democratic personality. Either way what was evident was psychologists taking it upon themselves to change the world with a very limited analysis of the problem (which was sometimes wrong) and woefully inadequate tools. Often they made things worse, not better.
I believe this critique is also relevant to Positive Psychology. Indeed at the Croatian PP Conference earlier in July I gave a talk on this theme. It is easy to see the size of PP’s mission – “inoculate young people against depression’, eradicate suffering and bring about lots of happiness and well-being. But if we look in the tool kit there isn’t much there beside the ABCDE, the three blessings and about a dozen more interventions which so far have not been proven to have very large effects. On more than one occasion in Croatia I was stunned that a psychologist, on the basis of a very limited research project, with modest results, should end by encouraging teachers to import the ideas into the classroom.
But I also argued at the conference that there is something precious and worthwhile about PP. For me one of the most powerful aspects of PP research is that it can empower people to make better decisions for themselves. In a world where we are bombarded by adverts and the importance of money and status there is something liberating about research which puts materialism in its place. We also need to hear what it has to tell us about the importance of hope, optimism, gratitude and appreciation.
PP, like much of psychology, could benefit from more humility. Psychologists are not going to improve well-being single-handedly. Apart from anything else they only have one piece of the jig saw. There are lots more pieces which they tend to ignore – political structures, environmental factors, practical constraints and anything about people from the neck down. Of course, the complaint about having a limited perspective could be made about political science, sociology or any other discipline, but I think that psychology, with its tendency to create interventions designed to re-engineer people’s feelings and thoughts, is perhaps much more dangerous. So psychology needs to be in partnership with people in other disciplines. This was once the vision for Positive Psychology but as yet there are no signs that it is genuinely moving in this direction.
With these ideas ringing in my ears I returned to Scotland from Croatia determined to widen our field of enquiry and make it more in tune with Scotland’s intellectual tradition. This would mean disseminating and working with some of the most interesting and useful aspects of Positive Psychology research while at the same time looking at other factors, such as exercise or the environment, which contribute to people’s well-being. To paraphrase the American philosopher Ken Wilber, what we would be attempting is to ‘transcend and include’ Positive Psychology. Given the current madness about safety, overprotection and political correctness we would also want to emphasise the importance of ‘common sense’ – a strong Scottish tradition.