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Positive psychology and injustice

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This is the second post in the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.

Pleasure, engagement & meaning

In the first post in this series, I summarized the difference between pleasure,engagement and meaning and the importance of having all three in our lives. Some people are too pleasure-oriented and would be happy with more ‘flow’ at work and more involvement with projects larger than themselves. Others are too involved in work and big missions and would do well to stop and smell the roses, to take greater care over their food, or to simply ‘chill’.

Drink beer. Drink lots of it.

To put the combination of the three levels in some kind of context, we often say to students, “Drink beer. Drink lots of it!”, (they do anyway). “But don’t just drink it. Understand it. Appreciate it. Know where it comes from. Know one beer from another.” They understand. They get it.

Psychology & Dark Times

In this post I want to write about something that bothered me. How does positive psychology apply to dark times? I am very uneasy with some of the political uses of positive psychology to dismiss injustice in the world. And of course, I am not the only one who has this concern.

If you have this reservation too, you might be interested in my thoughts.

Positive psychology & naysayers

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. Some people may try to use positive psychology to condone or side-step injustice. They may say to a poor person – “Oh, be happy.”

My advice is to not waste your time challenging their faulty thinking. If they are condoning injustice, then they are condoning injustice. It has nothing to do with positive psychology. Treat the issue of injustice on its own terms.

Apologize and invite. Say sweetly: “Oh I am sorry, I didn’t realize you weren’t interested. I am sorry to have wasted your time on this issue. This is what we are doing and if you ever change your mind, you are welcome to join us.”

Then genuinely and sincerely attend to what interests them. Authentic empathy is hard when we are annoyed and feeling judgemental, but their callousness is not the responsibility of positive psychologists nor mine or yours.

Positive psychology & injustice

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. Some people, who live with injustice, will not use positive psychology fully because their minds are fully taken up with injustice. They should not stop dealing with the injustice but they should see it for what it is.

First, injustice messes with our heads. If it didn’t, we probably wouldn’t care! Second, there is little we can do about injustice until we change other conditions. We need to build alliances, form coalitions, take action etc. By definition, injustice is done to people and is out of their immediate control.

We shouldn’t stop living because someone else wants us to. And we shouldn’t wait for the other person to reform before they start living. We need to live now.

Be clear, positive psychology will not solve injustice. But it will help us live ou own lives undeterred by the injustice. Full of energy and full of life, we can then deal with injustice, give it the attention it deserves and no more.

Injustice will still be there, ugly and intrusive. But that is the nature of it. It wasn’t put there by positive psychologists and they have no power to take it away.

Positive psychologists have the power though to bring to your attention little techniques that help you keep your mental life in the 3:1 to 7:1 range of positive to negative thoughts when you are creative, sociable and generally having fun. Use it. There is no reason to compound injustice with misery.

Have fun and sort out injustice as a separate exercise.

Positive psychology & injustice conducted in our name

Positive psychology and injustice are two different issues. As a psychologist, I can help someone suffering from injustice to remain in a positive state of mind.

Certainly a victim of injustice needs to deal with the injustice and I have two further choices: I can help them or I can get out of their way.

What I cannot do is grind them down any further – that is not a legitimate choice – and if I am depressing them, or acting as a general ‘mood hoover’, then they are right to challenge me. As I would them if our positions were reversed.

Help them or get out of the way. That’s the choice. But don’t undermine their self-worth or make their mood worse.

Positive psychology & formerly privileged people throwing a ‘strop’

Now let’s imagine someone who’s life is limited by their own sense of grievance.

Let’s take the most obvious example – a young white male who looks ahead and cannot see opportunities for ‘masculine’ wok with his hands and the role of authoritative head of an adoring family. He resents the changes in society and stops working at school.

Agreeing with him is not what he needs. But arguing with him is also fruitless. He is out to sulk and out to blackmail. Caving in to either is evil. It is pandering to weakness, not strength, and hopelesshess not courage.

He is worth more. Apologise and invite. Acknowledge his bad mood and invite him into the modern world.

The invitation must be genuine. There really must be opportunities, which were he to attempt, he has a ‘normal’ chance of success or failure and a ‘normal’ chance of rewards and consequences.

Apologize and invite. He will come in. He will blossom. He will fall in love with life again.

Positive psychology and morality

Positive psychology does not relieve us of our moral obligation to express solidarity and to be politically engaged.

It just removes from us a obligation to sulk. I’m glad of that. Sulking is so tedious.

I will enjoy myself no matter what. And kick injustices into touch on my own terms.

I hope that helps. I wrote on psychology and dark times several times over the last two years and this sums up my current thinking.

Jo Jordan

UK, January 2010



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