When confronted with a patient who professes to be preoccupied with the world's ills, therapists have traditionally refused to take such concerns at face value. They act on the assumption that, instead of owning up to his or her issues, the patient is supposedly projecting them outwards to keep them at arms length.
At least those therapists are devoting their attention to somebody's problems. That's more than you can say for those who practice "positive psychology," as it was christened in 1998. In "Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness" (New York magazine, July 17) Jennifer Senior explains that's when Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, coined the term in an attempt to "shift the emphasis of psychology away from pathology and toward functionality, resilience, and well-being." In other words, away from the origins of mental disease.
Functionality? Resilience? Obviously, especially since our country is well on its way to becoming an anti-welfare state, in which the weak are increasingly abandoned by the side of the road. But "Shift the emphasis of psychology away from pathology"? Is the patient then free to deny he's sick? Or, if he's the type to luxuriate in his illness, should his therapist empty out and dry up his favorite wallow?
But what's wrong with acting "as if"?* Nothing -- in fact, if you're capable of that kind of resolve, you're well on the way to "well-being." Still, the questions beg to be asked. Just how well can you be in today's world? And wouldn't it entail turning your mind into a gated community?
But for most people, achieving "well-being" is as much of a luxury as they find worrying about NSA spying in the face of terrorism. Furthermore, at a time when everyone is expected to dedicate their lives to making a small fortune, any notions of well-being begin and end with the state of one's finances.
Health care costs and credit card payments have reduced significant numbers of us to the level of serfs living in indentured servitude. Meanwhile, many of those approaching their retirement years (once called "retirement," but now just the years you'd have once been retired) spend every waking moment beating back panic. Years from accumulating the small fortune required to retire in earnest these days, they're tormented by that nineteenth-century phrase "He died a pauper."
Of course, positive psychology can't help but resemble a regimen for the well-off. But anyone rich enough to dispense with health-care insurance that dictates he or she see an MSW who's recompensed $25 a session doesn't need, deserve, or, no doubt, want our sympathy about how well is their being.
Well-being's other nemesis, aside from finances, is war and its subdivision, terrorism. Soldiers themselves, traditionally less concerned with their own safety than that of their comrades, were also, in more civil times, conflicted over the command to kill. Likewise, it's easier for the public to come to terms with life as a target and victim than the implications of our armed forces being targeters and victimizers of others.
Thus, most of us tune out what our duly elected (well, sort of) government has set in motion in Iraq. In the long run, though, retreating to the Green Zone of our mind is a greater threat to our well-being than the threat of terrorism. Positive psychology likely agrees that it's a mistake to insulate ourselves from the world's troubles. It's just that, from a PR point of view, the whole concept of positive psychology smacks of narcissism.
What about those on spiritual paths to whom the pursuit of peace of mind is a quest? As wanna-be Babas with legitimate teachers are no doubt aware, that entails:
1. Strengthening yourself, not to ward off onslaughts, but to experience others' pain. With their concerns paramount in your mind, you'll escape the haunting that blocking them out incurs and instead be inspired to work for change.
2. Divining the nature of the work for which you were put on earth. (If it doesn't include service, that's not your intuition you're tuning into, it's your wish list.)
Today, more than ever, it's impossible to avoid concluding that the will to happiness is selfish and immature. It's also impossible to avoid concluding, no matter how obvious it is and despite how many religious tracts and self-help books got there first, that the only salvation lies in service.
Postscript: The American Psychological Association seems to have since moved on. In a Salon.com article entitled "Psychologists group still rocked by torture debate," Mark Benjamin writes:
"Agitated members of the American Psychological Association are making final plans to challenge a policy that allows psychologists to participate in the interrogation of detainees during the 'war on terror'... [during which they would] play 'a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm' by consulting with interrogators."
It looks like the current APA leadership's idea of service is to assist Vice President Cheney in his forays to the dark side.
*Not like teenage girls use that phrase made famous in the movie "Clueless," but as used in support groups.