Questioning Positive Psychology

The following was written by “A.” in response to a post on a chat list that recommended an article on Positive Psychology and strategies for achieving greater happiness. After A’s post is Jay’s response.

A: Greetings,

The Buddha urges us not to be an optimist nor a pessimist, but objective, neutral and discerning.

I respect the scientists who are committed to learning objective facts about human happiness. I caution Buddhists, however, to approach this subject without any great enthusiasm or hope. If science, logic and reason simply presented in simple words could make people happy, then the world would have become a utopia during the life of the Buddha, the perfect scientist of the human condition.

The people of the world have dust in their eyes. The dust keeps them from a proper view of the world. Scientists, educators and bhodisattvas themselves cannot remove this dust. How many people fully forsake household life? How many practitioners achieve nibbana? Very few, because there are so many distractions in the human heart and head.

I agree with Schopenhaur: The world for him was a “vale of tears, full of suffering. All happiness is an illusion. Life oscillates like a pendulum, back and forth between the pain and boredom. Each life history is a story of suffering, a continuing series of large and small accidents.”

This is the first noble truth. It is not just a statement of physical reality, but one of human psychology and philosophy. As rationalists, we must be honest about the limitations of science and worldly knowledge.

Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but this is my view of the relationship between Buddhism and the science of happiness.

With great respect and lovingkindness,


Jay: No one seems to have responded to your heartfelt comments. If I understand a bit of what you saying, you are questioning the role of “positive psychology.” It’s true that there are certain psychological practices that might make some people feel better temporarily. Some practices might even cause a deeper shift in attitude.

However, for a person who is directly in touch with pain or loneliness, these “tricks” can seem like an insult, like trying to put a smiley bandage on a serious wound. And trying to “make it better” moves us away from what is actually going on.

You have described a painful existence, drawing on Schopenhaur’s words, and said that maybe you are too pessimistic. But it doesn’t need to be called pessimistic at all. You are describing realistically and honestly what you see without trying to make it rosy and without trying to escape from it into a false hope, whether spiritual or psychological.

So this is our starting point. The only thing that it requires is closer and more subtle observation, patiently, lovingly, without concern for a result and without a goal to become anything “better.” We must each do this intimate observation for ourselves.

I find it critical to notice that what I “remember” about life is not at all an accurate picture. Life can only be observed, experienced, moment to moment as it unfolds. If you ask me what life is like, the first tendency is to check in with memory. But memory, by its nature somehow, records pain much more than it records pleasure. Often, even the act of remembering is painful because of this. So it is critical to see that memory is not helpful in having a picture of the world.

The next critical thing is to discover through observation that there is such a thing as direct experience of each moment and that it has a different quality than observing life through the filter of memory. And yet memory – with its knowledge, intelligence, feelings, emotions, relationships, hopes, fears – cannot be simply ignored or cut off. This seems to be the great paradox of meditative living. It is this paradox that leads us to spend more time being deeply in touch with moment to moment life – understanding that this is our life – and yet wondering and wondering without knowing.

As I hear it, what Schopenhaur says is what memory says. All that can be remembered for many people is pain alternating with boredom. Any trace of happiness that is remembered fades quickly in memory. True, there are other people that remember happiness more readily. Some people are pathelogically addicted to remembering and seeking happiness. But in either case it is only that memory is not the accurate place to experience life. It is distorted, innaccurate and out of touch with what is happening right now. It paints a picture that is painful and then tries to create a picture for either getting out of the pain or coping with it, and then devotes its energy to trying to accomplish the picture that it has dreamed up. But it is all inaccurate from the beginning. An inaccurate plan for dealing with the picture of “my life” that is not what my life actually is.

Looking here, life is much simpler. Just this moment of fingers on keyboard, sound of fan, bright light coming into the room, the smell of food. In this simplicity there is a bodily sense of pleasantness. There is also a clear perspective on memory and its limitations, so even though it is memory that is supplying these words and trying to communicate, memory has learned in this body/mind not to project its inaccurate assumptions onto the simplicity of this moment. And this happens effortlessly.

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