Positive Psychology and Buddhism
Seven years ago when I started studying for a masters degree in Positive Psychology, the thing that drew me in was a headline in a paper “Can you train your mind to be happier?”. That sounded appealing. We all want happiness, none of us want to suffer.
The very basic idea of Positive Psychology is that there are certain practices you can undertake that will help to train the brain to attend to what works well in your life, as well as your friends and colleagues lives. This brain training helps us to overcome evolutionary biases that might otherwise cause us to focus on the danger and deficits in life. Armed with a buffer of positive emotions you are then more likely to make positive life choices and may be better equipped to handle the inevitable loss and suffering that comes our way in life.
Some of the techniques to help focus on the positive have been really useful in my own life and have helped me grow our business. If you want to know more about these send me a mail.
I’ve also worked with great companies and organisations such as Amerada Hess and the House of Commons, introducing their staff to Positive Psychology.
I now have a huge dilemma. The more I study Buddhism, Yoga and Positive Psychology, the less trusting I am of the findings of Positive Psychology. For example much of the research is based on simple self-reported wellbeing questions such as “How satisfied are you with your life?”. I no longer believe that you can truly know your own wellbeing level. People get used to their new circumstances and quickly return to their historical self-reported levels of wellbeing. After all, even the most self-centred person could say they are 9 out of 10 happy. T to truly measure wellbeing you would also need to include life experiences, self acceptance, positive detachment and how much love and positive energy the person radiates to friends, loved ones and the environment.
My other criticism of Positive Psychology is the self and tribe focused nature of the interventions. I’m ok, my tribe’s good and I’m not too bothered about the rest of the world and the environment.
The way I see it, many of the interventions in Positive Psychology (such as keeping a diary of things that work well for you) are at a fairly low level in human evolution.. At their best they help you build tenacity to overcome life’s ups and downs.
Buddhist philosophy does not view emotions as good or bad or high energy or low energy. Buddhist practitioners question whether emotions are afflictive or not. That is to say do they rumble on after the event creating disturbance and imbalance. For example, it’s normal to feel sorrow and grief at the loss of a close friend. The question is whether it continues to disturb the mind long after the event. For example if you lose a loved one who you unconditionally loved and who also loved you, you inevitably will feel loss and despair. If that person truly loved you however, they would want you to return to the default setting of joy as soon as possible.
Life is so short and the Buddhists believe it is normal to experience the full range of emotions in life (and not to avoid or run away from the negative ones). They teach that we should learn to view the world as it is, learn acceptance, learn how to detach, learn to focus the mind on the present and learn to love each other more. Even those people, or especially those people not in our tribe.