Positive psychology is an American development that has transformed the orientation of the discipline as well as having a significant effect on a number of other allied fields such organisational behaviour (i.e., positive organisational behaviour and positive organisational scholarship) and practices such as organisational coaching. Broadly, positive psychology is a research framework that seeks to prioritise positive states, outcomes and processes at both an individual and collective level. According to Roberts (2006, p. 292): “The over-arching emphasis of this work is on identifying individual and collective strengths (attributes and processes) and discovering how such strengths enable human flourishing (goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience; Fredrickson & Losada, 2005)". Positive psychology distinguishes itself from related areas, such as the positive thinking movement, by claiming to be scientific and evidence based. It uses its scientific credentials to compete with other organisation improvement technologies.
Critical perspectives on positive psychology pick up on several concerns. The first sits within the broad critique of the assumption that it is possible to isolate some essential universal elements of an individual from their social context. Second, the critical view is suspicious of the assumption that positive and negative are easily distinguished. The division of the world into good (positive) and evil (negative) has a long history in Christian cultures. Positive psychology sets itself up as a counter discourse to the historical focus on psychopathology. One of its key concepts is that a focus on the negative can be viewed as negative thinking and thus is a problem of human cognition. Critical psychologists doubt that human cognition can be managed separately from its inputs and their work highlights the tendency of positive psychologists to evaluate human behaviour as either positive or negative in terms of organisational goals. In this, critical psychologists are cautious about the tendency of research to seek performative justifications akin to the old human relations maxim that ‘happy workers are productive workers’. There is a danger that being happy or positive is regarded as an individual choice, irrelevant to context and in particular conditional on the acceptance of the status quo in terms of social and institutional structures. Obviously, unhappiness is a motivation for change but a motivation for change could be a counter discourse to that of management. The third is concerned about the way power is exercised in the context of social organisation where knowledge is regarded not as neutral but is tied into linguistic structures that favour certain forms of subjectivity and regimes of control (Fineman, 2006a, 2006b; McDonald & O’Callaghan, 2008). Thus, critical researchers concerns around positive psychology are with how it positions itself within the broader discourses of organisational knowledge, representing itself as having a positive research agenda that is evidence based.
Quantification of evidence is a form that has good currency in the contest for research funding; however, this approach to research comes with claims of an exclusive insight into the positive domain of life. In line with Foucault, we ask, what types of knowledge and experience do they wish to exclude? The concern is that positive psychology is an attempt to define an entire pro?gramme dictating what is and is not first rate science, decided upon by a group of insiders certified by each other whose standards must be adopted (Taylor, 2001). This polarisation of human life and scientific research can be seen as a barely veiled agenda to privilege one set of choices over another, by setting out the consequences of such choices as being essentially generative (e.g., life-building, capability-enhancing, capacity-creating) (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, 2003) and the others as not. These invoke a narrowed view of organisational life which could be easily solved were everyone to focus their energy in the directions they point to. Its seeks to exclude views that do not fit within its purview and which seem to fit more with an American cultural institutional agenda closely tied to the economic imperatives of neoliberalism, where, for example, politicians regularly judge research as not being valuable to society/economy (Binkley, 2014).