You might have heard of positive psychology. It has been all the rage in the media for a while now, especially thanks to the high profile work of its founder, Martin Seligman. Positive psychology (PP, henceforth) focuses on the achievement of a satisfactory life, rather than on illness, on personal growth rather than pathology. But what is the relationship, if any, between Stoicism (ancient and modern) and positive psychology?
The field was put on the map as recently as 1998, as Seligman chose the concept for his Presidential speech at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. It bosts of tens of millions of research dollars spent, hundreds of peer reviewed papers, conferences, and books aimed at a general public. Seligman and his colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi define positive psychology as “the scientific study of positive human functioning and flourishing on multiple levels that include the biological, personal, relational, institutional, cultural, and global dimensions of life.”
As a general idea, PP seems to be a good one: just like medicine has evolved from a focus on disease to also study what makes for a healthy human body (and what keeps it that way), so psychological research shouldn’t be limited to the pathological. The analogy, however, is only partially illuminating, because while it is (somewhat) straightforward to determine what counts as a healthy body, on the basis of a small set of relatively easily measurable physiological parameters, it is much more difficult to agree on what makes for a flourishing life. Positive psychology, in fact, risks dabbling in prescriptive, rather than just descriptive, exercises — something that most sciences tend to avoid like hell.
Which is where things get interesting for Stoics: Stoicism, of course, is a philosophy, and has thus no qualms going prescriptive. More to the point, however, Stoic ethics — unlike, say, the Kantian variety — is explicitly based on empirical input from the natural sciences, which is why the Stoics studied “physics” (i.e., natural science, social science, and metaphysics) as well as “logic” (i.e., logic proper, epistemology, and rhetoric) in order to figure out how to best live their lives. Then again, positive psychology isn’t about to replace Stoicism, precisely because it is a science, not a philosophy of life (in a similar fashion to cognitive behavioral therapy, say, not being a replacement for, but rather complementary to aspects of, Stoicism).
To better understand the relationship between PP and Stoicism we need to briefly discuss PP’s methods, as well as some of its findings (and failures). For instance, one of the classic results of positive psychology is the demonstration of a deep discrepancy between what people report makes them happy in the long term and how they respond to moment-to-moment situations. The standard example is the choice of having children: on the one hand, parents tend to say that having children is a major source of enrichment and meaning in their lives, thus contributing to their sense of flourishing. On the other hand, when asked at random moments of the day what they are doing and how they feel about it, they overwhelmingly report that interactions with their children are the most unpleasant thing they experience, and that they’d rather be doing almost anything else.
This “paradox,” however, would not surprise a Stoic in the least. The Stoics thought that the only thing that is truly worth pursuing is moral virtue, or an integrity of character. They well knew that, on a moment to moment basis, this may turn out to be a rather painful and unpleasant pursuit. Let me use one of Seneca’s favorite examples, the Roman general Marcus Attilius Regulus to make the point. Marcus was captured by the Carthaginians — mortal enemies of Rome — in 255 BCE. He was then sent back to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty, on the promise that he would return to Carthage. Instead, he arrived in Rome and made an impassionate plea to the Senate to continue the war. Then, against the protests of his fellow citizens, he fulfilled his promise and went back to the enemy, who duly tortured and executed him (allegedly, by having him roll down a hill inside a barrel internally lined with nails). I’m pretty sure that if a positive psychologist ante litteram had asked Marcus how he felt inside that barrel, and whether it was worth it, he would have gotten answers that were only superficially at odds with each other.
Some findings of PP speak rather directly to Stoic practice. For instance, Richard Davidson discovered that heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain is associated with a greater ability to enhance positive emotions and to suppress negative ones. Crucially, Davidson found that people can train themselves to increase their brain activity in that area, thus demonstrating at the neurobiological level a causal mechanism for the Stoic insistence that we can (and, they would add, we should) train ourselves not to “give assent” to disruptive passions.
Not all PP research has held up to scrutiny, though, sometimes in rather spectacular fashion. Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada, two positive psychologists, had usend a highly questionable mathematical model that, they claimed, predicted the optimal ratio between positive and negative affects: exactly 2.9013. My background in statistics makes me look at those four figures after the decimal point and unequivocally call bullshit. Sure enough, physicist Alan Sokal (famous for an early career prank aiming at exposing postmodern “philosophy” as just as much hot air) re-analyzed the data together with graduate student Nick Brown and found that the Fredrickson-Losada paper (since retracted) contained “numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors” (which was putting it very mildly).
Positive psychologists have published research on many aspects of the issue of flourishing: age, showing that people become happier when they get older (except for the 40-50 decade); gender, finding that women tend to be less happy than men; personal finances, where it isn’t clear just how much and in what way wealth contributes to long-term happiness; and many others, including education, marriage, personality, religion, and even weather patterns.
Again, with reference to Stoicism (and Buddhism), PP researchers find that since suffering is part of the human condition, people need to develop strategies to cope with it. Successful approaches rely on cultivating strength and virtues in order to keep suffering to a minimum — Epictetus would certainly have approved. (Relatedly, see my recent post on PP research into universal human virtues.)
PP theory — beyond the empirical results — is also germane to our discussion. Early on Seligman proposed three areas of investigation for researchers interested in improving the human condition (they have since become five, since the last one has been split into three types): the pleasant life, or life of enjoyment; the good life, or life of engagement; and the meaningful life, or life of affiliation. Enjoyment has to do with how people experience transient moments of pleasantness; engagement is marked by a feeling of “flow” (to use Csikszentmihalyi’s famous term), which manifests itself when people are deeply into a difficult but doable, and therefore rewarding, task; and affiliation is related to the sense of purpose that people experience when they feel themselves part of a greater whole, or when they are engaged in activities that are not just interesting, but meaningful.
Seligman suggests that the latter two areas are more crucial to investigate. A Stoic would say that the first one is pretty much indifferent (though it may be a “preferred” indifferent) and that the third one is where the game really is.
In the end, positive psychology is here to stay as a welcomed addition to psychology’s historical emphasis on disease and abnormality. We do need solid (i.e., definitely not like the one published by Fredrickson and Losada) empirical evidence on what makes human flourish. But the concept of flourishing itself cannot just be read off the data. It requires a combination of empirical approaches and careful conceptual analysis, that is, a fruitful interaction between science and philosophy. As for Stoicism, it presents a coherent philosophical system for what is important in life and what, consequently, ought to be pursued. Such a system is amenable to empirical input and revision, as it has been for centuries. However, ultimately, to embrace or not to embrace the Stoic approach is a personal choice based on one’s propensities and reflection, a choice that cannot straightforwardly be dictated by the outcome of scientific research.