In last month’s Harper’s, Gary Greenberg writes in “The War on Happiness: Goodbye Freud, Hello Positive Thinking,” that, increasingly and unavoidably, the concept of enlightenment via sitting in a room and talking has been eclipsed by the availability of precise, time-and-money-efficient “happiness” solutions, systems and ideologies, programs less concerned with dreams and one’s past—and more focused on what was once called “Pop.” Greenberg’s impressions of the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference, held in Anaheim, California, recall some of the finest work in that same magazine by David Foster Wallace. Different topics, different eras, but a similar, lethal cocktail: popular subject paired with incisive, critical analysis.
On his website, Greenberg refers to his Harper’s article as a description of how psychotherapy has been “taken captive by the bureaucrats and positive thinkers.” And perhaps the CEO of the positive thinking movement is Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Thinking Center. In the piece, Seligman is described carefully, but ultimately with ample and elegant indictment. Here is how we meet him, as Greenberg sits in on a lecture he is giving (to a packed house) at the conference:
Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and the inventor of positive psychology, is giving us the good news. “The question of what really makes us happy is actually quite simple,” Seligman says. “From the Buddha to Tony Robbins, there have been about two hundred suggestions about what makes people lastingly happier.”
“The good news” says it all. Greenberg does not buy it. And why should he? Yet many of us do, and this is the rub and the reason for this piece being published now. Why should we question? And who is anyone to fault a, frankly, quick and cheap-ish solution to what generations have solved with time intensive therapy. Is it sacrilegious to say that we might be happy if we follow some rules?
Here is Greenberg’s elegant ending (the military references sly digs at the business relationship Seligman now has with the U.S. military and his—admirable—quest to work on the psychological as well as the physical health of our troops):
“One must be a sea to be able to receive a polluted stream without becoming unclean,” Zarathustra instructs the people. And so will our comprehensively fit troops, their families, and eventually the rest of us remain unstained by the terror we witness and unleash. Florence had its Machiavelli; our therapeutic state will have its Seligman, whispering reassurance to our generals about the inexhaustible optimism of their troops. More than perhaps anyone else, Freud would have appreciated the irony of this outcome: the talking cure as battle cry, used to conceal rather than to reveal darkness, and to prepare us to meet the challenge issued by Nietzsche’s prophet: “Man is something that will be overcome,” spake Zarathustra. “What have you done to overcome him?”
If Seligman is our Machiavelli, we must heed him, if not ascribe to his school of thought.