Blame the victim
An extrapolation of the tyranny of positivity, particularly in individualistic cultures, is that individuals are responsible for their own happiness (Held, 2002).This implies that wellbeing or the good life is largely within individuals’ control.Therefore, if people are unhappy, the “blame” lies with them (rather than their circumstances). Coyne and Tennen (2010) warned that positive psychology ideas and interventions may lead to a “blame the victim” ethos whereby sufferers of harsh circumstances who fail to exhibit the necessary traits or states - optimism, resilience, wellbeing or happiness - are blamed for their misery.
However, a counter-argument could be made that this is not the only psychological model which claims that people have some control over their mental states. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), one of the leading therapeutic models today, in effect relays a similar message: it teaches clients to identify and challenge negative automatic thoughts and replace these with more realistic, adaptive interpretations (Beck,2011). However,by encouraging clients to examine their own emotional states, challenge their cognitions and modify them, CBT implies that people’s mental health is to some degree in their control. Notably, CBT has been studied extensively and proven to be highly effective in treating a large range of psychological disorders (McMain, Newman, Segal, & DeKubeis, 2015). Hence, similar to the cognitive behavioural movement,positive psychology indeed conveys a message that wellbeing is to some degree in people’s control, but it does so without judgement or blame, and while acknowledging what is not in people’s control.
Challenging the conceptions of positive and negative
A long-standing critique of positive psychology challenged its definition and use of the terms “positive” and “negative”. Lazarus (2003) argued that the aspiration to study the positive aspects of life separately from the negative aspects is a questionable scientific endeavour:
This polarity represents twosides of the same coin...One would not exist without the other. We need the bad, which is part of life, to fully appreciate the good. Any time you narrow the focus of attention too much to one side or the other, you are in danger of losing needed perspective.
A related question is: what counts as positive or negative experiences, traits, behaviours or emotions? Larsen, McGraw, and Cacioppo (2001) argued that people can experience both types of emotions at the same time; for example, hope can bring about positive anticipation together with concern or even anxiety. Behaviours considered as positive such as passion can become obsessive, and hardship can lead to personal growth. Hence what seems to be a positive experience or trait can culminate into a negative outcome and vice versa.
In response, Kashdan and Steger (2011) acknowledged that “to date positive psychology researchers have had little to say on the yin and yang of positive and negative, and the dialectical tension between stress and growth” (p. 10).This recognition also prompted the emergence of the second wave which embraces the full range of human experience, and brought about a more nuanced understanding of positive and negative experiences and processes (Ivtzan et al., 2015).
In a paper titled “Positive psychology in cancer care: Bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine”, Coyne and Tennen (2010) mounted a fierce attack on positive psychology' research and applications in behavioural medicine. In particular, they challenged the scientific grounds and methods of studies which claimed to have found significant associations between a positive outlook (such as optimism, hope and acceptance) and recovery in cancer patients.They also challenged findings from experiments that assessed the effects of positive psychology intervention on health outcomes, dubbing these findings “exaggerated claims”.
Interestingly, positive psychology' leaders warned of “the temptation ... to run ahead of what we know” (Peterson, 2005, p. xxiii). They therefore stressed that “Positive psychology is psychology — psychology is science—and science requires checking theories against evidence ... positive psychology will rise or fall on the science on which it is based” (p. xxiii). It should be noted however that similar weaknesses in research methodologies can be found not only in all psychology sub-disciplines but also in other social sciences.
An early critique of positive psychology was that it is mainly Western in its cultural orientation, and to a degree elitist (Becker & Maracek, 2008). This is a likely outcome of the fact that positive psychology was established in the USA and hence much of its early research was conducted in US universities, and was tested initially mainly on students. Hendriks et al. (2019) described these research populations as WEIRD —Western, educated,industrialised,rich and democratic.The upshot of this narrow cultural perspective is that its research cannot be straightforwardly applied to other cultures.
This limitation was recognised by positive psychology authors who acknowledged its “cultural embeddedness” (Linley & Joseph, 2004a, p. 719), but also noted that this state of affairs is typical in all disciplines in psychology. Furthermore, recent reviews suggested that, as the discipline matures, its global reach is expanding and its cultural perspective is becoming more inclusive. Kim, Doiron, Warren, and Donaldson (2018) found that, while 41% of positive psychology research was conducted and published in the USA, 52% was conducted and published in other countries (Europe, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and Africa), and 7% includes multi-national research.