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Abstract

This article aims to examine critically the attempts by positive psychologists to develop a science of happiness and positive human functioning that transcends temporal and cultural boundaries. Current efforts in positive psychology are deconstructed to reveal an adherence to the dominant Western conception of self and its accompanying vision of the good life as personal fulfillment. It is argued that in failing to recognize the tacit cultural and moral assumptions underlying their investigations, positive psychologists not only distort the outlooks of cultures that do not subscribe to an individualistic framework, they also insulate themselves from reflecting critically on their work. Alternative forms of inquiry are offered to assist positive psychology in overcoming these limitations.
Positive Psychology, Ethnocentrism,
and the Disguised Ideology of
Individualism
John Chambers Christopher
MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY
Sarah Hickinbottom
SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY
ABSTRACT. This article aims to examine critically the attempts by positive psy-
chologists to develop a science of happiness and positive human functioning that
transcends temporal and cultural boundaries. Current efforts in positive psy-
chology are deconstructed to reveal an adherence to the dominant Western con-
ception of self and its accompanying vision of the good life as personal
fulfillment. It is argued that in failing to recognize the tacit cultural and moral
assumptions underlying their investigations, positive psychologists not only dis-
tort the outlooks of cultures that do not subscribe to an individualistic frame-
work, they also insulate themselves from reflecting critically on their work.
Alternative forms of inquiry are offered to assist positive psychology in over-
coming these limitations.
K
EY WORDS: collectivism, conceptions of selfhood, cross-cultural differences,
identity, indigenous psychology, individualism, positive psychology
At work in a theory of social science is a vision of life, and it is only when
this vision is made manifest and analyzed that the merits and demerits of
the theory can be fully recognized. (Fay, 1987, p. 1)
When positive psychology was introduced in the journal American Psychologist
(Seligman & Csikszentmihályi, 2000a), it was met with mixed reactions. While
most psychologists agreed that the discipline should examine the brighter aspects
of human functioning, many (e.g.,Ahuvia, 2001; Bacigalupe, 2001; Brand, 2001;
Compton, 2001; Walsh, 2001) expressed concern that the proposed science
seemed ethnocentric and narrowly focused on the values of Western culture. In
response to these allegations, positive psychology’s founders Martin Seligman
THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY Copyright © 2008 SAGE Publications. VOL. 18(5): 563–589
DOI: 10.1177/0959354308093396 http://tap.sagepub.com
and Mihály Csikszentmihályi (2001) assured their critics that ‘we do not intend
to form an exclusive movement. … We are, unblushingly, scientists first. The
work we seek to support and encourage must be nothing less than replicable,
cumulative, and objective’ (p. 89). They further argued that ‘our common
humanity is strong enough to suggest psychological goals to strive
for that cut across social divides’ and that both ‘the accusation of cultural, eth-
nic, political, and gender bias’ and ‘the label of “prescriptive” rather than
“descriptive”’ (p. 90) can be avoided by
… classifying only the strengths that every major subculture in America
today values positively. If a reliable taxonomy and stable and valid meas-
urement strategies ensue, we will have a use scientific fulcrum. More ambi-
tious scholars can then attempt to expand this to other times and places, and
perhaps even to all times and places. (p. 90, italics added)
Two important points are revealed in this response. First, there is a sincere
interest on the part of positive psychologists to develop a universal science of
human flourishing that extends beyond specific cultural interpretations of the
good life. Reflective of this interest is the recently published Character
Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Peterson & Seligman,
2004), which purports to have identified positive traits that transcend tempo-
ral and cultural boundaries. Its authors claim that the effort to include only
universally valued traits was motivated by the ‘worry we would create a list
of characteristics that reflected only our own take on the good life’ (p. 20),
and that the six virtues (courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and
transcendence) identified as ubiquitous, if not universal, provide a ‘non-arbi-
trary basis for focusing on certain virtues rather than others’ (p. 51).
Second, positive psychologists seem to believe that the adoption of natu-
ralist epistemologies will enable them to discover the objective truths neces-
sary to achieve their goal of inclusion. This belief is perhaps nowhere more
evident than in the seminal work introducing the field, in which Seligman and
Csikszentmihályi (2000b) contend that the utilization of empirical method-
ologies not only distinguishes positive psychology from previous examina-
tions of human flourishing (e.g., the humanist movement of the 1960s), but
also renders it superior to all other attempts to determine the sources of opti-
mal human functioning, as history and philosophy are ‘too subjective ...
dependent on faith or ... dubious assumptions; they [history and philosophy]
lacked the clear-eyed skepticism and the slow cumulative growth that I
[Csikszentmihályi] associated with science’ (p. 7). Such statements imply that
psychological science is somehow immune from ‘dubious assumptions’ and
that the founders of positive psychology are convinced that the utilization of
empirical methodologies will allow them to achieve what Nagel (1986)
described as ‘a view from nowhere.
We believe that both the emphasis on human flourishing in positive
psychology and the attempt to study it in a culturally sensitive manner are
564 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
warranted and long overdue. But it is our contention that positive psychology
is doomed to being narrow and ethnocentric as long as its researchers remain
unaware of the cultural assumptions underlying their work. Philosophers and
social theorists (e.g., Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Gadamer, 1960/1975; Giorgi,
1970; Heidegger, 1927/1962; Kuhn, 1970; Taylor, 1985) have long recognized
that researchers in the human sciences are never separate from the phenomena
they investigate. Rather, the concerns that motivate social science inquiry, and
the understandings derived from such inquiries, arise from the socio-cultural
and historical traditions in which the researchers are embedded. Thus, the pur-
suits of social scientists always reflect the values of their culture. There is,
quite simply, no such thing as a value-neutral, culture-free psychology.
In this article we attempt to articulate the cultural and moral assumptions
underlying positive psychology. By examining the unacknowledged Western
ideologies on which positive psychology rests, and by exploring the ways in
which these ideologies set limits on what human flourishing is taken to be, we
seek to demonstrate that positive psychology, as it is currently being carried out,
risks becoming a form of disguised ideology that perpetuates the socio-political
status quo and fails to do justice to moral visions outside the dominant outlook.
To be clear, in conjunction with the following article in this special issue, by
Becker and Marecek (2008), our purpose is not to attack the investigation into
the kinds of questions that occupy positive psychologists, but rather to highlight
the ways in which alternative forms of inquiry, which take seriously the need to
critically examine underlying assumptions and to consider the merits of views
that contradict our own, can overcome many of the field’s current limitations. We
lay the groundwork for this aim by demonstrating that despite the best of inten-
tions and efforts to be culture-free and descriptive, not prescriptive, positive
psychology is pervaded by Western cultural values and assumptions.
Western Conceptions of Self and Identity in Positive Psychology
Positive psychology clearly is concerned with the development and
enhancement of the self. But what kind of self is the subject of positive psy-
chology? Numerous scholars (e.g., Baumeister, 1987; Gergen, 1973;
Guignon, 2004; Sampson, 1988) have argued that conceptions of self vary
within and across cultures and over time, and that the boundaries of iden-
tity (i.e., how we define the self) shape how we think about the good person
and the good life. In particular, historians and philosophers (e.g.,
MacIntyre, 1984; Taylor, 1989) have articulated important distinctions
between ancient, pre-modern, modern, and postmodern understandings of
self and their accompanying visions of the good life, while cross-cultural and
cultural psychologists (e.g., Kag˘itc¸ibas¸i, 1997; Kim, Triandis, Kag˘itc¸ibas¸i,
Choi, & Yoon, 1994; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Marsella, DeVos, & Hsu,
1985; Triandis, 1995; Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai, & Lucca, 1988;
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 565
Waterman, 1981), often in conversation with psychological anthropologists,
distinguish between individualistic and collectivistic selves (or independent
and interdependent selves) and their differing notions of what it is good to
do or to be.
So what is the self of positive psychology? It is our contention that, as is the
case with mainstream psychology more generally (Richardson, Fowers, &
Guignon, 1999), positive psychology is based largely on dominant Western, and
particularly American, ideologies of ‘individualism’ or ‘liberal individualism.
Encompassed within these terms is: (a) a Cartesian distinction between an inter-
nal subjective world of values, experiences, beliefs, and meanings and an exter-
nal objective ‘real’ world of abstract facts; (b) a notion of a fixed, essential self
that is separate from others and the world it inhabits; and (c) a moral outlook in
which it is presumed that because meanings and values are subjective, persons
should be free to determine both the meaning of and the means to pursue the
good life, or ‘happiness,in whatever manner they choose so long as they do not
interfere with the ability of others to do the same. Within Western culture, vari-
ants of individualism (e.g., utilitarian, expressive, biblical, and republican
strands; Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985) constitute moral
visions that shape our understandings of both what the self is and what the self
should be or become (Christopher, 1996, 2004; Christopher, Nelson, & Nelson,
2003; Christopher & Smith, 2006).
Below we will demonstrate the ways in which this particular conception of
self and the moral vision it entails animate the various projects pursued by
positive psychologists. But for the moment we want to explore in greater
depth the meaning of the individualistic conception of self and how it differs
from those in other worldviews. This preliminary task demands attention
because for many Westerners the notion of a fixed essential self that can turn
inward to determine the good through natural sentiment or reason is so deeply
entrenched it is often presumed to be a natural, universal, and unquestionable
truth. As philosopher Charles Taylor (1988) states, we tend to believe ‘we
have selves as we have eyes, hearts, or livers’ (p. 299). However, unlike eyes,
hearts, or livers, selves lack substantive essence and are constituted by inter-
pretations shaped by the traditions and practices in which they are embedded.
In other words, any given culture’s understanding of what a self is and should
be is a reflection of its most deeply held assumptions. Consequently, when we
look to other times and places we find our Western atomistic and interiorized
self is not a universal truth, but rather an interpretation based on little more
than faith in the Cartesian assumption that grants epistemological priority to
an ‘I’ that thinks. Moreover, we find that the assumptions on which our
Western interpretation of self rests enjoy limited popularity. In contrast to ver-
sions of collectivism, for instance, individualism has been estimated to be the
dominant outlook in only 30 percent of the world’s population (Triandis,
1989). Similarly, historical research (e.g., Berger, 1979; Brinton, 1987;
Foucault, 1982/1986; Guignon, 2004; MacIntyre, 1984; MacPherson, 1962;
566 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
Morris, 1987; Randall, 1940; Rose, 1990; Ullmann, 1966) suggests the idea
of a self that can determine the good through inward reflection would be
incomprehensible to residents of ancient and pre-modern societies.
The variation in assumptions and interpretations of selfhood is so vast it
leads one to wonder exactly how did these differences arise. Charles Taylor’s
(1989) analysis of the emergence of the modern Western identity provides a
particularly compelling answer to this question. According to Taylor, prior to
the modern era, Westerners, like many citizens of other cultures today, sub-
scribed to a two-tiered vision of the world that encompassed, first, a broad
cosmological framework that imbued the world with meaning and value,
and, second, an understanding of ordinary life that derived meaning from
these broad frameworks. For example, Hannah Arendt (1958) points out how
the ancient Greeks distinguished between zen (the life of necessity), the
domain of the home where chores and tasks necessary for biological survival
took place, and euzen (the good life), which was the public life, the life of
the citizen situated in the polis where one could go beyond the necessities
required for physical existence and cultivate those attributes that are
uniquely human.
In contrast, the dominant secularized view associated with modern Western
societies focuses only on a single tier. Scholars (e.g., Berger, 1977;
MacPherson, 1962; Richardson, 1989; Taylor, 1975; Weber, 1978) have sug-
gested that this one-tiered vision of the world emerged as a consequence of the
various political, social, and intellectual movements (e.g., the Protestant
Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, the Enlightenment and sci-
entific revolution) that railed against the oppression and inequalities inherent in
pre-modern hierarchical frameworks. By pushing against such inequalities,
these scholars argue, Western society essentially collapsed the traditional two-
tiered system, in which frameworks were considered necessary for meaning,
into a one-tiered system that views such frameworks as optional, arbitrary, or
relativistic.
This shift from a two-tiered to a one-tiered system has had radical conse-
quences for self-understandings. This is because, as Charles Taylor (1985)
states, ‘[t]o define my identity is to define what I must be in contact with in
order to function fully as a human agent, and specifically to be able to judge
and discriminate and recognize what is really of worth or importance, both
in general and for me’ (p. 258). In a two-tiered system, one must be in con-
tact with an external source (e.g., God, the natural order, the social order) to
know what it is right to do and good to be. In contrast, from the modern per-
spective, ‘the horizon of identity is an inner horizon’ (Taylor, 1985, p. 258).
Within this one-tiered view, the individual alone is responsible for determin-
ing the nature of the good life, often through doing nothing more than being
his/her ‘real’ self (Guignon, 2004), and any attempt to prescribe norms
or standards to define happiness, or what we might in our current age call
psychological well-being, is met with suspicion.
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 567
Charles Taylor (1985) offers a glimpse into exactly how contemporary
Western inwardness differs from societies that subscribe to a two-tiered
vision of the world through his description of the pre-modern sense of self, in
which the individual was an ‘element in a larger order’ (p. 258) and identity
was known through one’s place in the social hierarchy. He states,
On my own, as a punctual existence outside of it, I should be only a shadow,
an empty husk. The order in which I am placed is an external horizon which
is essential to answering the question, who am I? I could not conceivably
answer the question with this horizon shut off. If I try to occlude it, I fall into
a kind of nullity, a sort of non-existence, a virtual death. (p. 258)
This description helps us to understand why ancient punishments of exile and
banishment were such powerful deterrents. Without the referents provided by
living within a hierarchical social and cosmic order, the pre-modern citizen
would be helplessly set adrift. In contrast to our modern age, where there is a
imperative to ‘move out’ and choose our lifestyle and values, Berger (1979)
contends that in the pre-modern era people lived in a ‘world of fate’ (p. 18)
and those attempting to choose their own worldview were branded as heretics.
By considering the variances in boundaries of identity and the distinctions
between one-tiered and two-tiered visions of the world, we are able to gain a
deeper understanding of how different cultures develop different conceptions of
the good life. If the horizon of identity is within, as it is in Western society, an
emphasis upon freedom, autonomy, and self-expression as markers of maturity,
well-being, and mental health are understandable. However, if identity is defined
in a more extended or inclusive manner, as it is and has been for most of the world,
the prized indicators of the good person tend to be interpersonal. In many East
Asian societies, for instance, the Confucian virtue of filial piety – being a dutiful
son or daughter through respect and obedience to one’s parents and elders – has
traditionally been regarded as the most distinguishing feature of good character
and the primary way of demonstrating maturity (Hoshmand & Ho, 1995; King &
Bond, 1985; Munro, 1969; Wei-Ming, 1985). In contrast, in Western society, duty,
obligation, and social expectations are often thought of as constraints that impede
the fullest expression of human potential. Supporting these claims, Smith, Türk
Smith, and Christopher (2007) found that while respect was endorsed as the most
important characteristic of the good person among students in such collectivistic
societies as Turkey and Belau, American students ranked it at a lowly 35th.
Different forms of identity also encompass different notions about the cause
of suffering. For many non-Western folk and indigenous psychologies, the kind
of separate sense of self that is taken for granted and promoted in Western cul-
tures is seen as illusory, limited, and the source of suffering (Malalasekera,
1968; Paranjpe, 1998; Paranjpe, Ho, & Rieber, 1988; Rubin, 1996). Indigenous
psychological traditions like Buddhism, Yoga, and Taoism elaborate in exten-
sive detail how identification with the ego or self leads to attachment, sin, and
destructive emotions. The autonomous, bounded masterful self at the center of
568 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
both contemporary American folk and academic psychology is seen by these
non-Western psychologies as ultimately limited and an impediment to spiritual
growth. These traditions instead posit that it is by learning to identify with ever-
greater communities or wholes (or, conversely, with nothing, in the case of
some schools of Buddhism) that we find equanimity, peace, and well-being.
Chuang Tzu, a Taoist sage, repeatedly urges ‘identify yourself with the infinite’
(cited in Loy, 1988, p. 34; see also Sundararajan, 2008). Within many Judeo-
Christian-Muslim traditions, followers are encouraged to identify with the will
of God and practice spiritual surrender, as for instance in the common biblical
phrase ‘May thy will be done and not mine’ (Cole & Pargament, 1999). For
such groups the centrality of the bounded masterful self in the social sciences,
and psychology in particular, causes them to view psychotherapy with consid-
erable wariness, if not aversion.
While some positive psychologists (Oishi, Diener, Napa Scollon, & Biswas-
Diener, 2004; Oishi, Diener, Suh, & Lucas, 1999; Scollon, Diener, Oishi, &
Biswas-Diener, 2005; Shimai, Otake, Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006) might
argue that cross-cultural examinations of happiness and character strengths tap
into these differences, we will demonstrate below that the allegiance to the one-
tiered view of Western individualism leaves positive psychologists ill equipped
to capture the full depth of cultural differences and distorts understanding of
cultures that subscribe to a two-tiered view. Two broad areas will be considered:
(1) conceptions of the good life; and (2) the search for decontextualized uni-
versals. Again, our goal here is neither to question the value of learning about
human flourishing, nor to challenge the application of psychological findings to
the prevention of pathology and the betterment of human lives. Rather, we seek
to draw attention to the assumptions underlying positive psychology and the
ways in which these assumptions narrow the scope of its inquiry. By challeng-
ing positive psychology’s deepest assumptions, we hope to establish, along with
the other authors of this special issue, a stronger foundation for research and
theory on the brighter aspects of human functioning.
Conceptions of the Good Life
Because positive psychology is focused on human flourishing, it is inevitably
concerned with questions about the nature of the good life. A review of cur-
rent literature reveals that positive psychologists generally conceptualize the
good life in one of two ways: (1) emotional satisfaction; and (2) authentic
happiness. Each of these conceptions will be examined in turn.
The Good Life as Emotional Satisfaction
In the preface to their state-of-the-art tome on well-being, Kahneman, Diener,
and Schwarz (1999) note that while the ‘question of what makes for a good life
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 569
can be studied at many different levels, the ‘experience of pleasure and the
achievement of a subjective sense of well-being remain at the center of the story’
(p. x). Until recently, most of the research traditions drawn under the umbrella
of positive psychology shared this view. For instance, Shelly Taylor and
colleagues’ research on positive illusions (Taylor, Kemeny, Reed, Bower, &
Gruenewald, 2000) and George Vaillant’s (2000) studies of adaptive defenses
both assume that emotional well-being is more important or desirable than an
accurate perception of reality. Similarly, Green, Oades, and Grant (2006) con-
tend that the primary aim of positive psychology ‘life coaching’ should be to
enhance well-being, and Lyubomirsky, King, and Diener (2005) maintain that
positive affect instigates other desirable outcomes associated with the good life,
such as a good income, good health, and a good marriage.
Based on the descriptions of one-tiered and two-tiered visions of the world
discussed above, it is evident that the conception of the good life as emotional
satisfaction or subjective well-being (SWB) in positive psychology coheres
with Western ideologies that ascribe primacy to the individual in determining
the nature of the good life. If we look at rating items on measures of SWB,
such as ‘In most ways my life is close to my ideal’ and ‘So far I have gotten
the important things I want in life’ (Pavot & Diener, 1993), it is clear that
respondents are required to evaluate the extent to which they meet their own
self-chosen criteria for the good life.
1
As noted above, many Westerners
believe that this is exactly how it should be. Therefore, it is hardly surprising
that despite the repeated contentions of positive psychologists (e.g.,
Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihályi, 2000b) that their research is
descriptive, not prescriptive, there is little concern about the many attempts
by positive psychologist to prescribe findings aimed at increasing SWB. For
instance, Diener (2000) suggests that an index composed of various measures
of SWB be designed in order to ‘track happiness over time’ (p. 40) so that psy-
chologists can ‘determine which segments of society are least happy and per-
haps fashion policies to aid them’ (p. 40). More recently, Diener and Seligman
(2004) have argued that such an index be used to inform the development of
economic policy. Clearly such efforts contradict the claim of positive psychol-
ogists to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. We believe this contradiction
arises because the individual pursuit of happiness is so ingrained in liberal
individualism and the socio-political structure of American society that it is
taken for granted as the bedrock of human nature. That is, individual fulfill-
ment is taken to be a natural desire that all persons would gladly pursue if only
they were not so oppressed or unenlightened.
When other worldviews are taken into account, it becomes evident that this
notion of the good life is not a value-neutral fact, but rather a consequence of
dominant Western ideologies that privilege the individual with respect to ques-
tions of the good life. While positive psychologists, such as Csikszentmihályi
(1999), claim that happiness (defined as positive emotions) is a ‘fundamental
goal of life’ (p. 821), the story is not quite so simple. Happiness, thus defined,
570 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
is part of a moral vision that sits squarely in the midst of Western socio-cultural
and historical traditions. This is not to say that people from other times and
other places have not enjoyed and pursued emotional satisfaction. Such a claim
is absurd. Rather, it is to point out that throughout history and across cultures,
individual satisfaction has generally taken a backseat to the goals, purposes, and
priorities of larger collectives and that when emotional satisfaction has been
experienced it is often of a different kind, derived not from internal positive
emotions, but from living in accordance with a social order typically situated
within a broader cosmological framework.
The difference between life in a one-tiered versus a two-tiered system
means that cross-cultural studies of happiness, in Western terms of individual
satisfaction (e.g., Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2001; Biswas-Diener, Vitterso, &
Diener, 2005), can seriously distort the experience of non-Western people. In
Bali, for example, reality is thought to consist of two realms: sekala, the ordi-
nary realm of everyday life; and niskala, the spiritual world, a deeper level of
reality that is invisible to the untrained but ultimately determines what occurs
in everyday life. It is not possible for the Balinese to talk or think about the
self, emotions, illness, well-being, or the good life without reference to
Hinduism and a shared understanding of niskala (Christopher & Christopher,
2008; cf., Connor, 1982; Connor, Asch, & Asch, 1986; Eiseman & Eiseman,
1990; Howe, 1984; Jensen & Suryani, 1992; Wikan, 1989). The presence of
this second realm or tier, which makes reference to karma and reincarnation,
has immediate intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences for the Balinese.
One example communicated to Christopher and Christopher (2008) in their
fieldwork was of a villager who drank excessively, was argumentative, and
failed to provide properly for his family. The general response to this indi-
vidual by the village was pity, compassion, and gentleness because in the con-
text of niskala, the second tier of life, this individual was a less evolved soul.
This example demonstrates that second tiers function to situate life and expe-
rience within a shared framework of meaning and purpose. Within the
Balinese cultural framework, personal satisfaction as a value is trumped by
the value of conducting proper ritual and ceremonial offerings, maintaining
harmonious relationships with our ‘four siblings’ (other aspects of the person
that exist only in niskala, the spiritual plane), fulfilling obligations of the ban-
jar (village community), and so on. It is not only difficult to imagine how
attempts to explore subjective well-being and happiness cross-culturally in
terms of life satisfaction (see Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2001; Biswas-Diener
et al., 2005) could adequately capture the experience in cultures, such as Bali,
that subscribe to a two-tiered vision of the world, but it is also quite easy to
see how, by ignoring the second tier, positive psychologists risk distorting the
experience of cultures that hold moral visions different from our own.
Another area in which positive psychologists working from a Western view-
point might misrepresent non-Western experience is in the realm of interpret-
ing the meaning of life satisfaction. For instance, members of the Apsáalooke
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 571
(Crow) tribe report experiencing satisfaction by helping others. But this satis-
faction is derived not from the feeling it gives them, but rather from the belief
that their lives are intertwined with the lives of their family and tribe members,
and that the right thing to do is help others, whether or not it is personally sat-
isfying or of any benefit to them as individuals (S. Christopher & S. Doyle,
personal communicaton, June 24, 2006). Similarly, Miller and Bersoff (1995)
found that while European Americans often experience individual satisfaction
as antithetical to duty, Hindu Indians ‘not only consider it more desirable …
to respond to the needs of family members in situations involving high cost,
but also indicate that they would experience such behavior as more satisfying’
(Miller, 2004, p. 127). Because mainstream psychologists tend to take for
granted the universality of the Western emotional experience when assessing
emotional states, there is a tendency to presume that the kind of satisfaction
reported here is essentially the same as ours and that it is just achieved in dif-
ferent ways according to different self-selected obligations. But such emotions
are not the private, internal products of a ‘deep self. Rather, they are emotions
that are interpersonally shared or participated in as they are in many collec-
tivistic cultures (Lutz, 1988; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Smith, 1995; Smith
& Tkel-Sbal, 1995; Türk Smith & Smith, 1995).
Not only do collectivistic, interdependent cultures experience a different
kind of emotional satisfaction, they often hold alternate frameworks for under-
standing and appraising emotions altogether. Russell (1980) has demonstrated
that Western emotions are generally represented in a two-dimensional space
defined by pleasantness (pleasant vs unpleasant) and activation (active vs pas-
sive). Anger, for instance, is high on both the unpleasant and active dimen-
sions. In some non-Western cultures, such as Japan, this two-dimensional
space is supplemented by a third dimension that distinguishes between ego-
centered and other-centered emotions (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). An exam-
ple of a widely studied other-centered emotion is amae, a Japanese term that
conveys ‘the sense of, or the accompanying hope for, being lovingly cared for
and involves depending on and presuming another’s indulgence’ (Markus &
Kitayama, 1991, p. 237). Researchers (e.g., Cross & Markus, 1999; Kitayama,
Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000) note that there is often no Western counterpart for
these other-centered emotion terms, and other-centered emotions are often val-
ued more than personal or subjective emotional experiences. Among the Ifaluk
in Micronesia, for instance, the ability to experience fago, a combination of
compassion, love, and sadness for others, is the mark of maturity and mental
health (Lutz, 1985, 1988).
It is also important to note that Western and non-Western cultures cate-
gorize positive and negative emotions very differently. In Western culture,
it is commonly thought that negative emotions are something to be avoided
and controlled. In line with this, there has been little value accorded to neg-
ative emotions in positive psychology (Held, 2002, 2004; Norem & Chang,
2002; Woolfolk, 2002). However, many of the emotions Americans seek to
572 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
avoid are valued in non-Western cultures as a consequence of their social
functions. Christopher and Smith (2006) describe how for a Japanese inter-
national student caught between her own pursuits and the values of her par-
ents, feeling zai-aku-kan, a negative emotion somewhat similar to sin and
guilt, was a sign of virtue; a marker of how she was appropriately affected
by hurting significant others. Similarly, self-criticism and its attendant ‘neg-
ative’ emotions are thought of in many collectivistic cultures as positive
ways of monitoring social expectations (Heine, Lehman, Markus, &
Kitayama, 1999; Heine et al., 2001; Kitayama & Markus, 2000). Such
research indicates that East Asians experience events Westerners typically
would construe as being negative as positive when they lead to learning and
improvement or invite sympathy. Other research indicates that some non-
Westerners, such as the Chinese, exhibit dialectical reasoning which con-
tributes to a greater tolerance for negative emotions and less need to resolve
ambivalence and incongruity (Peng & Nisbett, 1999; Spencer-Rodgers,
Peng, Wang, & Hou, 2004). These findings appear in part to be related to
outlooks such as Taoism and Buddhism, which encourage finding a ‘middle
way’ instead of attempting to maximize or accumulate positive emotions,
which are seen as ephemeral by nature.
Beyond problems of distortion and oversights in cross-cultural research on
well-being, the adherence to a tacit and unacknowledged position of individ-
ualism serves to insulate positive psychologists from the kind of critical
reflection that might be afforded by cross-cultural and historical inquiry. For
example, despite finding that the meaning of subjective well-being varies
across cultures, that people in collectivistic cultures are more likely to consult
norms for whether they should be satisfied and also consider the appraisals of
family and friends in evaluating their own lives, in contrast to people in indi-
vidualistic nations, who consult their affect (Suh, Diener, Oishi, & Triandis,
1998), and that a strong correlation (r = .77) exists between SWB and indi-
vidualism (Diener & Diener, 1995; Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995), the
framework in which emotional satisfaction is the yardstick of the good life is
never questioned. Rather, it is blithely assumed that the desire for individual
emotional satisfaction is a natural predisposition that persons from other
times and place would gladly pursue if they were only free to do so.
This view of personhood is not only deeply ethnocentric; it is potentially
quite limited. A number of seminal Western personality theorists had reserva-
tions about a more tightly construed individualistic sense of identity. To
address what was seen as the one-sidedness of Western views of the person,
Allport (1955) encouraged what he termed ego-extension to include all of
humanity and Erikson (1968) appealed to what he termed a world-wide iden-
tity. Bakan (1966) stressed that our typical focus on agency needs to be com-
plemented by what he saw as the equally important need for communion.
Cooley used the metaphor of a citadel to describe the self and observed that
it can either be closed or open. As he wrote:
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 573
… self feeling may be regarded as in a sense the antithesis, or better perhaps,
the complement of that disinterested and contemplative love that tends to
obliterate the sense of divergent individuality. … But if love closes, the self
contracts and hardens: the mind having nothing else to occupy its attention
and give it that change and renewal it requires, busies itself more and more
with self-feeling, which takes on narrow and disgusting forms, like avarice,
arrogance and fatuity. (Cooley, as cited in Paranjpe, 1998, p. 84)
And Adler (1979; see also Bickhard & Ford, 1976) maintained that Gemein-
schaftsgefühl, or social interest, which is the only communitarian-oriented
Western theory of mental health and well-being, ultimately requires a sense of
identification with the larger communities of which one is a part.
These notions of identity potentially have important implications for moral
and ethical development and how we think about the good person. For
instance, Maslow (1954) described the relationship between self-actualization
and ethical transformation in terms of social interest:
This word [Gemeinschaftsgefühl], invented by Alfred Adler, is the only one
available that describes well the flavor of the feelings for mankind expressed
by self-actualizing subjects. They have for human beings in general a deep
feeling of identification, sympathy and affection. … Because of this they
have a genuine desire to help the human race. It is as if they were all mem-
bers of a single family. (p. 217)
Despite these early concerns about the limits of the individualistic frame-
work, there has been little interest in contemporary mainstream psychology
with the role of the extended sense of identity or social interest. For instance, in
moral development theory and research, which curiously has not been included
under the umbrella of positive psychology, the view of self as essentially skin-
encapsulated and self-interested can lead to ethical systems like Kant’s and
moral development theories like those of Kohlberg, Turiel, and Eisenberg in
which morality, as a corrective to this self-interest, is solely other-regarding
(Campbell & Christopher, 1996a, 1996b). This is problematic with respect to
cross-cultural examinations in positive psychology because morality and flour-
ishing in other cultures is often understood in terms intimately related to the
cosmic and/or social order. For instance, in contrast to the Western approaches
to ethics and moral development that presuppose a dualistic ontology in which
the individual is set over and against others and morality serves to rein in self-
interest and prevent a kind of Hobbesian chaos, many non-Western views pre-
sume that ultimately all beings are interrelated, and that if we can come to
recognize our true identity, we will naturally treat others in an ethical manner.
This view is reflected in the Analects, in which Confucius states,
At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firm
upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I
knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile
ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I
desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right. (Waley, 1938, p. 88)
574
THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
Similarly, within the Vedanta school of Indian philosophy, ahimsa or nonvio-
lence is an ethical principle that naturally flows out of a monistic metaphysics
based on recognition that one’s self is ultimately inseparable from the rest of
life (e.g., that Atman, the individual soul, equals Brahman, the absolute single
principle of reality or the Godhead). Embracing ahimsa is seen as a form of
self-interest when one comes to consider one’s true identity is all of existence.
Throughout the literature now being subsumed under the aegis of positive
psychology are a number of important concepts, theories, and research find-
ings (e.g., the experience of flow, the importance of volunteering and joining
organizations, the limits of materialism and hedonism) that have implications
for the role of certain kinds of identity in contributing to positive psycholog-
ical ways of being. To consider such concepts more fully would require look-
ing more seriously at the notion of identity. For instance, in the state of flow
one’s sense of identity often seems to be transformed such that one feels a
profound sense of connection with the environment and an absence of self-
consciousness. Drawing out and exploring these implications may help pre-
vent the concept of flow from simply being appropriated into positive
emotion, or what Kierkegaard (1843/1959) critiqued as an aesthetic experi-
ence. Such consideration may also help to integrate the concerns with social
conditions that have arisen in positive psychology. For instance, concerns
about materialism might be profitably examined, as Cushman (1990, 1995)
has in terms of the futile attempt to fill an ‘empty self (see also De Graaf,
Wann, & Naylor, 2001), by critically evaluating the concept of the person that
underlies much of Western psychology
One consequence of this line of thought that questions the individualistic
and dualistic presuppositions regarding the self that underlie Western psychol-
ogy is in the realm of socio-political conditions. Psychology has for the most
part ignored socio-economic and political factors in looking at both well-being
and psychopathology (Cushman, 1990, 1995; Prilleltensky, 1989, 1994;
Prilleltensky & Prilleltensky, 2006). Positive psychology has taken important
steps to reverse this trend. For instance, there is considerable concern in posi-
tive psychology about the impact of materialism, and the limitations of hedo-
nism and the blind pursuit of money. We believe that positive psychology
needs to broaden these concerns and address such questions as: What kind of
a person is satisfied given the current state of the world? Where do we draw
the boundary around the socio-political issues a positive psychology should
address? What is our moral responsibility regarding the focus of the field when
as many as half the children in the world go to bed hungry at night and dysen-
tery is the leading cause of death? What is the role of positive psychology in
cultivating outlooks, values, and lifestyles that are environmentally sustainable
and stem the ongoing search for ever cheaper labor markets to exploit? In the
following article, Becker and Marecek (2008) develop these issues more fully.
We conclude this section by noting that the failure to realize how identity can
vary is likely to limit the global relevance of positive psychology.
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 575
Authentic Happiness: The Good Life as the Meaningful Life
Although much of the work in positive psychology has conceptualized
happiness in terms of emotional satisfaction, more recent efforts have focused
largely on Seligman’s (2002) conception of the good life as ‘authentic happi-
ness’ which is constituted by: the pleasant life, which involves fleeting posi-
tive moods and immediate experiences of comfort and pleasure; the good life,
which arises from exercising talents and virtues or ‘signature strengths’ and
is characterized by engagement or flow; and the meaningful life, which is
dedicated to something larger than oneself.
On first blush, it appears that Seligman has tapped into something deeper
than emotional satisfaction by emphasizing the role of virtue, meaning, and
others in the achievement of happiness. However, on closer inspection it
becomes clear that authentic happiness differs little from the previous view.
The components of authentic happiness are not grounded in any broad ethi-
cal theory or conception of the good life, but rather they are framed as ‘dif-
ferent orientations’ to happiness that derive value through their ability to
produce individual satisfaction. Moreover, despite defining the meaningful
life as ‘using skills and talents in the service of greater goods’ (Peterson, Park,
& Seligman, 2005, p. 26), the greater good is held to be whatever the indi-
vidual chooses. A typical assessment of the meaningful life, the Orientations
to Happiness Measure (Peterson et al., 2005), asks respondents to rate the
extent to which they agree with items such as ‘My life serves a higher pur-
pose, ‘I have spent a lot of time thinking about what life means and how I fit
into its big picture, and ‘I have the responsibility to make the world a better
place. Yet, like measures of SWB described above, respondents are left to
interpret the meaning of these items themselves and the simple endorsement
of these items is considered a sign of good living.
Again, the problem that arises here is that such measures relativize the mat-
ter being studied. By studying meaning, or happiness, in a decontextualized
manner, positive psychologists presuppose that the source of personal meaning
is irrelevant. All that matters is that you have some. This approach is flawed in
at least two respects. First, people who adopt ways of living that are morally
reprehensible often find meaning in their action and experience. Consequently,
the assessment approach described above would not, for instance, be unable to
weed out ways of living, like terrorism, that we generally deem unacceptable.
Second, by perpetuating a Western-oriented means–ends relationship to life,
psychologists are left studying means relationships (in this case the degree to
which one has meaning or not) but are silenced when talking about ends.
Therefore, it is questionable what this approach really contributes towards
understanding human flourishing.
So what accounts for the inability of positive psychologists to move beyond
conceptualizing the good life in terms of individual satisfaction despite their con-
cerns about the limitations of doing so? We believe the answer to this question
576 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
again lies in the adherence to an unacknowledged moral position of liberal indi-
vidualism. Quite clearly, with the proposal of authentic happiness, Seligman
(2002) recognizes what many philosophers have known for centuries. That is,
some ways of being are better than others. However, by subscribing to the dom-
inant Western moral vision, which ascribes primacy to the individual with
respect to questions of value, positive psychologists like Seligman are confined
to discussing this point in vague terms such as a ‘meaningful life’ without say-
ing anything about exactly what a meaningful life entails. The difficulty inher-
ent in this state is acknowledged by Seligman himself. He states, ‘I also hunger
for meaning in my life that will transcend the arbitrary purposes I have chosen
for myself (2002, p. 14). Here Seligman and colleagues run into a problem that
the social sciences, as well as philosophy, have faced historically: namely, the
language of individualism hampers the ability to advocate convincingly for those
goods one sees as better (Bellah et al., 1985; MacIntyre, 1984; Sandel, 1984,
1996; Selznick, 1992; Sullivan, 1986; Taylor, 1985).
The Search for Procedural, Decontextualized Universals in
Positive Psychology
To navigate the Scylla of attempting to say something meaningful and the
Charybdis of not taking a moral position, positive psychologists have sought to
uncover aspects of positive human functioning that transcend temporal and cul-
tural boundaries. It is generally believed by mainstream psychologists that com-
monalities in human action and experience are reducible to biological substrates
or evolutionary adaptations. Thus, for many psychologists, a description of com-
monalities seems to fit within the requirements of the naturalist framework that
demand neutrality and are concerned with uncovering objective truths.
Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman’s 816-page tome Character
Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004) represents the
most comprehensive attempt by positive psychologists to identify the universal
ingredients of human flourishing. Its authors describe the process by which its
contents, the Values in Action (VIA) classification, were derived as follows.
First, a select group of eight scholars brainstormed a tentative list of human
strengths. The list was then presented to others for feedback and compared
against historical and contemporary lists of virtues and strengths, as well as pop-
ular sources such as song lyrics, greeting cards, and Norman Rockwell paintings.
This procedure generated a list of six core virtues (i.e., courage, justice, human-
ity, temperance, transcendence, and wisdom) that were then compared to virtues
endorsed by other traditions and cultures to assess levels of convergence.
Repeatedly, positive psychologists engaged in this task (see also Dahlsgaard,
Peterson, & Seligman, 2005) state that it yields a ‘surprising amount of similar-
ity across cultures and strongly indicates a historical and cross-cultural conver-
gence of six core virtues’ (Peterson & Seligman, 2004, p. 36).
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 577
But is it really so surprising to find commonality where one looks for it?
After all, it is one thing to look at other cultures and to try to understand them
on their own terms, it is quite another to develop a list and then check off sim-
ilarities. This latter approach, which has been referred to as the ‘transport and
test’ method of studying cultural universals (Berry, Poortinga, Segall, &
Dasen, 1992), is problematic in several ways. Most notably, it fails to con-
sider indigenous, folk, or local accounts of specific virtues or the frameworks
within which these virtues are organized. For instance, Chinese philosophical
thought revolves around five core values: role fulfillment, ties of sympathy
and concern due to metaphysical commonalities, harmony, culmination of the
learning process, and co-creativity with heaven and earth (Munro, 1985).
Such a typology is clearly distinct from the one forwarded by Peterson and
Seligman, and the distinction is not just semantic. Rather, it entails funda-
mental ontological differences in conceptions of personhood. To their credit,
Dahlsgaard et al. (2005) do note that
… to say that certain virtues, across traditions, converged into a core virtue
likewise does not mean that we found a one-to-one mapping of virtue across
cultures. Certainly an abstraction such as justice means slightly different
things—and is valued for somewhat different reasons—from one culture to
another. (p. 204)
However, given that none of these authors are specialists in the traditions they
are attempting to synthesize, we wonder about their qualification to say
‘slightly different. For instance, they discuss the centrality of humanity in
Confucian virtues and transcendence in Taoist virtues but there is no discus-
sion in either case of the shared goal in these two traditions of finding har-
mony and alignment with the natural order. Failure to mention this is yet
another example of the Western tendency to deny or ignore the second tier
and collapse everything into the first. The result is a number of major misin-
terpretations of non-Western views. For instance, Dahlsgaard et al. (2005)
quite wrongly maintain that Confucius’ ‘focus was clearly on the secular and
rational aspects of human functioning, not the cosmic or spiritual’ (p. 206).
The authors similarly distort Hinduism when they write that ‘the emphasis is
on personal virtues, such as self-denial and renunciation’ (p. 207). This state-
ment is indicative of the tendency of Western psychologists to impose cultur-
ally laden interpretations, in this case dualistic, in their cross-cultural
investigations. This is problematic when considering Hindu thought, which
relies on a monistic metaphysics that posits there is no fundamental difference
between the individual soul (Atman) and the Absolute or Godhead
(Brahman), and as a result any sense of separateness is ultimately considered
an illusion (maya; Bhattacharyya, 1968; Dasgupta, 2006; Zimmer, 1951). So
while there is concern among Hindus with minimizing negative karmic con-
sequences and cultivating the soul’s evolution, these matters cannot accu-
rately be regarded as strictly ‘personal virtues’ because Hindus do not
subscribe to the kind of ontological separateness that ‘personal’ implies.
578 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
Despite these critiques, we agree with positive psychologists that a number
of moral goods approach universality. What we question is the value of look-
ing only at commonalities. Many scholars (e.g., Barrow, 1979; Hunter, 2000;
MacIntyre, 1984; Sandel, 1996; Taylor, 1989; Walzer, 1987) point out that
moral goods become compelling only when they are understood against a
background of historical and socio-cultural traditions and practices. The strat-
egy of determining the common denominator serves to strip such goods of
these particularities. The result of such a strategy is not a richer understand-
ing of the good life. On the contrary, it is a simplification (Guignon, 2004).
After all, it may be the case that all major civilizations value ideals such as
courage and justice, but it does not follow that we all understand these ideals
in the same way (Smith et al., 2007).
If we look at the world of the ancient Greeks, for instance, we see many
commonalities between their views and ours. Plato, for example, believed that
reason or wisdom was key to the good life. A number of positive psycholo-
gists (e.g., Peterson & Seligman, 2004) have picked up on this commonality
to espouse wisdom as a ubiquitous virtue. However, the Platonic notion of
wisdom is nothing like the description of wisdom offered by positive psy-
chologists as ‘cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowl-
edge (e.g., creativity, curiousity, judgment, and perspective)’ (Dahlsgaard
et al., 2005, p. 205). This is because the Greeks subscribed to a two-tiered
vision of the world, or a theory of ontic logos, in which knowledge resided in
the natural order of things. Consequently, when Plato speaks of reason he is
referring not to an internally driven, cognitive process, but rather to the capac-
ity to turn the soul in the proper direction to see the external order of the cos-
mos. This substantive view of reason, in which meaning is found, stands in
stark contrast to our modern, Lockean, procedural notion of reason, in which
meaning is made. Plato’s classical view relies on a two-tiered system, in
which contact with cosmological frameworks is necessary to understand life
and how it functions to give meaning to everyday experiences. In contrast, our
modern procedural notion of reason relies on a one-tiered view in which
meaning is a process of individual discovery that one should find in order to
maximize well-being.
Indeed, there are a number of goods that, despite being shared across tem-
poral and cultural boundaries, are understood or interpreted very differently.
For instance, self-reliance is important in both Taiwan and the United States,
but its meaning varies dramatically and is dependent upon a whole host of
underlying presuppositions about the nature of the self and the good life. In
the United States, self-reliance stands as a marker of autonomy, maturity, and
of having developed appropriately as an individual (Bellah et al., 1985). In
Taiwan, the primary value of self-reliance is that it enables one to avoid being
a burden on others (Christopher, 1999). As another example, the cardinal
virtue of caring present in character education programs is subject to consid-
erable cultural variations in interpretation in the presumed object to be cared
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 579
about (self, in-groups, out-groups, nature), why we should care, and how we
should care (Christopher et al., 2003).
Some may say such distinctions are merely semantic. But given that the moral
domain is an interpretative domain, and that moral goods gain their strength
through articulation, interpretative distinctions are not trivial. On the contrary,
clarifying these distinctions and developing thick descriptions of moral goods
(as opposed to operational definitions) is the most important task in developing
a full understanding of what human flourishing entails. In addition, glossing over
these distinctions obscures important differences. To say, for instance, that
philosophers throughout the ages have agreed on the requisites for human flour-
ishing minimizes the very real tensions between the philosophies of Plato and
Aristotle, Kant and Mill, and so forth. More importantly, to say such distinctions
are minor trivialities ignores the very real-world implications of these differ-
ences. It may be true, for example, that early Americans valued justice and
humanity. But the existence of slavery and the oppression of women’s rights sug-
gest they subscribed to vastly different interpretations of these ideals. Such
examples reveal that cultural evolution is not so much the creation of entirely
new ideals as much as it is a process of re-interpreting, re-evaluating, and re-pri-
oritizing ideals that already exist (see Fowers, 2008). To negate these interpreta-
tive differences in order to make morality fit the requirements of a narrowly
conceived understanding of social science denies us the opportunity to engage in
continuous negotiation of the meaning of our most cherished ideals.
Conclusion
It has long been recognized by philosophers of science that there can be no uni-
versal, ahistorical psychology. Our research questions, the methods we use to
answer them, and the interpretation of data we find are all shaped by the cul-
tural traditions and practices in which we are embedded. All research takes
place from a particular perspective. This is not a problem, per se; it is simply
the nature of the beast (Richardson & Christopher, 1993; Richardson et al.,
1999). What is problematic, however, is that mainstream psychology’s exclu-
sive methodological faith in empiricism, whether quantitative or qualitative,
and commitment to its underlying ideals of objectivity and neutrality result in a
discipline that is unable to account for, or address, its own ontological assump-
tions and moral commitments (Slife & Williams, 1995). Relying increasingly
on technical inferential statistics and other empirical methods, mainstream psy-
chology has failed to cultivate the conceptual tools required to place current the-
ory, research, and practice in historical and cross-cultural perspective.
What is most troubling about this faith in methodology is that it leaves psy-
chology unable to engage in critical self-reflection beyond examining flaws in
methodology and statistics (Fox & Prilleltensky, 1997; Hickinbottom, 2007;
Slife, Reber, & Richardson, 2005). As such, psychologists often fail to recognize
580 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 18(5)
and question the assumptions and values underlying their work, assumptions
that are, in Charles Taylor’s (1989) words, inescapable. Relying on decontex-
tualized and procedural understandings of psychological goods and virtues
only compounds the problem as the seeming lack of context is actually filled
in by our own implicit cultural outlooks. Consequently, these assumptions and
values operate as a form of ‘disguised ideology’ (Bernstein, 1978). When such
a psychology is applied locally, it runs the risk of perpetuating the status quo
(Prilleltensky, 1989, 1994). When it is applied across cultures, it is culturally
disrespectful, often resulting in psychological imperialism, or what cross-cul-
tural psychologists refer to as an imposed etic (Poortinga, 1997).
When indigenous frameworks are ignored, glossed over, or appropriated
into frameworks like Values in Action that originate in the West, we distort the
experiences of those from other cultures. Moreover, we fail to engage in the
kind of authentic encounter with the other that allows us to become more
aware of our own presuppositions. As a consequence, we foreclose the possi-
bility of critical self-reflection and simply perpetuate the status quo.
Positive psychology requires a philosophy of social science that is robust
enough to handle ontological, epistemological, and ethical/moral issues and
move beyond both objectivism and relativism. We believe the necessary con-
ceptual resources can be found in philosophical hermeneutics and in Mark
Bickhard’s interactivism (see Christopher & Campbell, 2008). Such metathe-
ories provide conceptual tools for: (1) critiquing the assumptions and values
that shape psychological theory, research, and practice; (2) moving beyond
the false dichotomies underlying Western thought and the individualistic per-
spectives that arise from such dichotomies; and (3) enabling ways of thinking
interpretatively about cultural meanings and discerning their specific mani-
festations. A number of the other articles in this special issue attempt to
develop these alternative approaches (Christopher & Campbell, 2008;
Richardson & Guignon, 2008; Slife & Richardson, 2008).
In conclusion, we want to state that we believe positive psychology is crit-
ical to the well-being of 21st-century psychology. However, it will require
vigilance to ensure that positive psychology does not become yet another
form of disguised ideology that perpetuates the socio-political status quo and
fails to do justice to the moral visions of those outside the reigning outlook.
We believe that by paying attention to our underlying assumptions, learning
about the assumptions that animate the moral visions of other cultures and
eras, and thinking critically about the merits of these assumptions, we can
avoid prematurely rushing to ethnocentric conclusions that fail to take full
measure of the wisdom of non-Western traditions and our own past.
Notes
1. For a more detailed critique of subjective well-being and psychological well-
being, see Christopher (1999).
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 581
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J
OHN CHAMBERS CHRISTOPHER is a Professor of Counseling Psychology in the
Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State University
and a senior staff psychologist at MSU’s Counseling Center. He is the recip-
ient of the 2003 Sigmund Koch Early Career Award by the Society of
Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology of the American Psychological
Association. John also received the 2007 Wiley Research Award from
Montana State University. He also maintains a private psychotherapy and
consultation practice, Habits of the Heart. A
DDRESS: Health and Human
Development, 220 Herrick Hall, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT,
59717, USA. [email: jcc@montana.edu]
S
ARAH HICKINBOTTOM gained her doctorate from Simon Fraser University in
educational psychology. She is an instructer at Simon Fraser University,
University of British Columbia, and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Her
research interests focus on situating contemporary approaches to education
and psychology in a broader historical context. A
DDRESS: Faculty of
Education, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC,
Canada, V5A 1S6. [email: slhickin@sfu.ca]
CHRISTOPHER & HICKINBOTTOM: POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 589
... There is also the danger of thinking that an analysis using Western parameters is objective and neutral (Frawley, 2015;Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). ...
... The search for a deep understanding of human flourishing and happiness, however, should not exclude qualitative data or interviews for not meeting certain criteria of "scientificity" or fear of not obtaining grants (Kristjánsson, 2013). It is dangerous to believe the claim that virtuous behavior that creates well-being can be scientifically proven or is based solely on either quantitative or qualitative empirical methods (Held, 2005;Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). Inferential statistics have limitations; ...
... To generalize intra-individual functioning, historical and intercultural theory, research, and practice require more direct analyses of these conceptual functions and tools (Kristjánsson, 2013;Christopher & Hickinbottom, 2008). ...
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Character strengths are a central construct within positive psychology, and their importance in the workplace has recently been affirmed. In higher education, the goal of building character strengths has been in place since the first universities were founded. This case study in Mexico examined the character strengths of positive psychology--understood as personal qualities other than cognitive abilities--as they influenced professionals enrolled in executive programs at the Instituto Panamericano de Alta Dirección de Empresas (IPADE), an important business school. IPADE students were not necessarily typical of other Mexican citizens. Even after controlling for age, gender, and previous education, they had higher endorsements for Zest as well as Honesty and Gratitude, and lower scores for Judgment and Prudence. Though this study could not prove significant changes in the character strengths that IPADE targets through executive education in the short term, there was evidence of a shift in Zest among those enrolled in one of the executive programs and in business owners, even after only 14 weeks. There were also signs of other changes that were not yet significant, but hopefully will develop over time and manifest in both business and personal success for IPADE students and for Mexican society as a whole.
... In addition to sociological and cultural critiques (e.g., Binkley, 2014;Ehrenreich, 2009), multiple analyses questioning the field's alleged novelty (e.g., Kristjánsson, 2012), universalistic aspirations (e.g., Christopher and Hickinbottom, 2008), therapeutic efficacy (e.g., Mongrain and Anselmo-Matthews, 2012), and scientific basis (e.g., Pérez-Álvarez, 2016) have also been 5 Becoming positive souls Spirituality and happiness from New Thought to positive psychology Edgar Cabanas and José Carlos Sánchez-González compelling. In this line, Horowitz (2018) has recently stated that "virtually every finding of positive psychology under consideration remains contested (…) Controversies go well beyond the question of replication or reproducibility. ...
... Numerous scholars from multiple disciplines, including sociologists (e.g., Binkley, 2014), psychologists (e.g., Christopher and Hickinbottom, 2008), historians (e.g., Horowitz, 2018), and critical commentators (e.g., Ehrenreich, 2009) agree that the therapeutic gospel preached by positive psychologists is deeply rooted in a North American culture characterised by strong individualistic and consumerist values. Although less frequent, the marked spiritual basis of the field has also been the subject of criticism (e.g., Becker and Marecek, 2008). ...
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Cabanas, E. y Sánchez, J.C. (2020). Becoming positive souls. The science of happiness from New Thought to positive psychology. En Nehring, D., China, M., Kerrigan, D., Cabanas, E. y Madsen, O.J. (eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Global Therapeutic Cultures. London: Routledge.
... This means that positive psychology explores the results of a positive concept rather than arguing about what is positive and what is negative, which makes it a value-free science. In fact, scholars have pointed out that positive psychology is not value-free, which is not illustrated here (Banicki 2014;Prinzing 2021;Christopher and Hickinbottom 2008). In this article, we aim to show that the features of IMs make it impossible to maintain a value-free and descriptive position in studying them. ...
... As noted above, through investigating eight major spiritual traditions around the world, positive psychology identified six common virtues that were believed to be strong enough to cross cultural divides (Peterson and Seligman 2004;Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2001). However, positive psychology research has done little to clarify the tacit cultural and moral assumptions that in fact convey values (see Christopher and Hickinbottom 2008). Research on IMs in positive psychology also has this methodological problem. ...
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Chinese spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all emphasize the cultivation of idealistic mentalities (IMs) which are (1) not yet achieved, (2) clear in value judgment, (3) systematic and stable, and (4) cultivated with systematic training. While IMs are of interest to positive psychology, the methodology of positive psychology limits research on IMs. Fundamentally, positive psychology focuses on widely existing positive concepts and emphasizes being value-free, which conflicts with the features of IMs. Positive psychological studies relevant to IMs also suffer from methodological limitations: (1) recruiting samples without a spiritual background (realistic assumption); (2) ignoring qualitative differences between levels of actualization of IMs (linear assumption); (3) dividing systematic mental patterns into separate elements (reductionism); and (4) lacking value clarification during interventions. In summary, this article illustrates the methodological limitations of positive psychology in research on IMs. It encourages further research on IMs and supports the necessity of developing a new idealistic psychology for better research on IMs.
... For example, Western cultures typically associate happiness with positive affect; thus, Western happiness research has historically defined happiness as the presence of positive emotions [1]. The Western happiness literature primarily uses measures of subjective well-being (SWB) as a proxy for happiness [2,3]; and Western psychological theories of happiness typically focus on individualistic values such as autonomy, self-esteem, and mastery [4]. Even though the Western happiness literature differs considerably as to the factors that contribute to happiness, there is general agreement that the result of happiness is an emotional sense of subjective well-being (SWB). ...
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This chapter reviews recent research in psychology, neuroscience, and quantum physics relating to perception, paradox, synchronicity, brain chemicals, brain mapping, and the so-called social brain, discussing the gaps between scientific findings and the integration of these findings into human behavior. Specific implications of the identified gaps relating to happiness and well-being are identified and seven quantum skills are introduced. These quantum skills are designed to pragmatize recent research; thus, promoting the integration of new scientific knowledge into human behavior. The authors propose future research that measures the efficacy of these skills for creating sustained happiness and well-being at the individual level, as well as increased global flourishing.
... But these practices and statements are not independent of the cultural and moral baggage that they are laden with (in this case the specific tradition of "positive" individualism); if they work it is because they do so for certain lifestyles (broadly speaking, civilizations with liberal democracies with a common Western cultural tradition that share a consumer capitalist economic system that is state-controlled to a greater or lesser extent); they are not for every way of life or every context. Outside of this context, it seems that not only would they not work, but they would not even be intelligible, as shown in a number of transcultural studies (Christopher and Hickinbottom, 2008). Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) recognize that the foundation of Positive Psychology is "eclectic". ...
Article
Flourishing, or happiness, has become a prominent topic in contemporary psychology. It has deep roots in psychology in the United States, extending back to the “healthy-mindedness” movements of the late 19th and 20th centuries, and even deeper roots in philosophy, with Aristotle having addressed eudaimonia (which is often translated into English as flourishing or happiness) in his ethics. Typically, flourishing in psychological investigations has a secular backdrop. However, Catholic psychologists over the past century and earlier have addressed the topic, extending it to include beatitude and sanctity, with perfect happiness possible only after death, with the Beatific Vision. This article develops the formulations of flourishing by Catholic psychologists Michael Maher, Thomas Verner Moore, Joseph Nuttin, and Antoine Vergote, and the group who have published the Catholic Christian meta-model of the human person. Human flourishing has universal dimensions—some things we all must seek—and simultaneously, it is a call unique to each individual.
Article
More than two decades after his seminal paper ‘Subjective Well-Being’, Ed Diener wrote that he substituted happiness with well-being to obtain scientific credibility. Are the arguments echoed in positive psychology rigorous enough to justify this substitution? This article focuses on the historical examination of the word happiness, covering the lexical universes of ancient Greek, Latin, and English, seeking to identify the connections between them. We found that arguments for such substitution are sustained by a fragile appreciation of the semantic depth of happiness. Although it favors quantification, the current understanding of well-being obliterates the plurality of the debate about happiness and the recognition of other ideals of life. Thus, we conclude that well-being and happiness are semantically close, but conceptually, metaphysically, and empirically distinct, demanding, as objects, particular investigations.
Article
Grit has received significant attention from researchers and the greater public since its introduction. However, questions about both the construct and the psychometric properties of the Short Grit Scale have emerged since the original research. Grit, as conceptualized and measured by Duckworth and colleagues, may not apply to collectivist cultures, to children living in poverty, or to early adolescents. In a longitudinal study, we examined the psychometrics of the Short Grit Scale and the relation of self-reported grit (Fall) with end-of-year grades in 7th and 8th grade Latinx students (n = 377) attending a largely low-SES middle school. Results indicated poor psychometric support for the Grit-S in this sample. Perseverance demonstrated better psychometric properties than Interest and predicted end-of-year grades above and beyond the previous year's grades. These findings corroborate a growing literature suggesting a need to reconceptualize grit, specifically for Latinx middle school students.
Article
This article takes stock of the growing interest in flourishing measurement. The focus is on three challenges in this domain: the degree of coherent theorizing, the overreliance on psychometric validation, and the questionable universality of the measures. A rigorous process identified the eight most widely documented flourishing measures. All eight measures struggled with the three challenges. First, all measures were constructed on intuitive grounds, whether those bases were existing literatures, personal conceptualizations, or the intuition of an opposition of mental illness and flourishing. Second, all measures were assessed almost exclusively with psychometric studies, with little evidence of theoretical or cultural validity. Finally, all eight measures implicitly or explicitly assume cultural universality without providing theoretical argument or empirical evidence for that assumption. This stock-taking resulted in two main conclusions. First, there are areas of both consensus (e.g., that flourishing is a measurable, multidimensional construct) and dissensus (e.g., the components of flourishing) that can provide bases for future theory and research. Second, systematic theoretical argument is necessary to better understand what flourishing is, how it can be validly measured, and the degree to which it can be considered a universal human experience. It is time to address these theoretical and cultural questions.
Book
A major and comprehensive study of the philosophy of Hegel, his place in the history of ideas, and his continuing relevance and importance. Professor Taylor relates Hegel to the earlier history of philosophy and, more particularly, to the central intellectual and spiritual issues of his own time. He sees these in terms of a pervasive tension between the evolving ideals of individuality and self-realization on the one hand, and on the other a deeply-felt need to find significance in a wider community. Charles Taylor engages with Hegel sympathetically, on Hegel's own terms and, as the the subject demands, in detail. We are made to grasp the interconnections of the system without being overwhelmed or overawed by its technicality. We are shown its importance and its limitations, and are enabled to stand back from it.
Article
Psychology needs a metric for positive mental health that would be analogous to the IQ tests that measure above-average intelligence. The Defensive Function Scale of the DSM-IV offers a possible metric. In the present article the author links the transformational qualities of defenses at the mature end of the Defensive Function Scale - altruism, suppression, humor, anticipation, and sublimation - to positive psychology. First, the methodological problems involved in the reliable assessment of defenses are acknowledged. Next, the use of prospective longitudinal study to overcome such difficulties and to provide more reliable definition and measurement of defenses is outlined. Evidence is also offered that, unlike many psychological measures, the maturity of defenses is quite independent of social class, education, and IQ. Last, evidence is offered to illustrate the validity of mature defenses and their contribution to positive psychology.