One would need to show human beings that they are actually unhappy. One would need to destroy the illusion of their happiness. That sounds very negative, but the destruction of illusions is essentially the condition of real transformation.
Erich Fromm, Ein Gespräch mit Jürgen Lodemann, 1980.
Readers need one caveat in evaluating my autobiography. I know the results of the nun study that showed that Catholic sisters who wrote more positive autobiographies lived longer than less happy nuns. Sarah Pressman has now replicated this finding with the autobiographies of psychologists and found that the mention of active positive feelings predicted a 6-year longer life. Therefore, I have written the most positive of autobiographies in hopes that I will live a very long life. However, writing such a positive autobiography has made me happy, and I hope others enjoy reading it, so they, too, can have a long and happy life.
Ed Diener, One Happy Autobiography, 2008.
The epigraphs cited above very much differ in their statements about human happiness : Whereas the first one, which is taken from an interview with the psychoanalyst, social psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), addresses society as such and approaches happiness with analytic distance, aiming in fact to unmask a supposedly false happiness and hence pursuing a program of cultural critique, the second one maintains an emphatic tone of affirming happiness as an individual endeavor that can be accomplished by actively promoting one’s potential for subjective well-being. 1 The American psychologist Ed Diener (*1946), the “father of happiness research”,2 explicates in his Happy Autobiography the performative logic underlying his theory of human well-being : By consciously representing and textually composing his life story as a happy one, he not only reflects on but at the same time also produces his own happiness as well as a longer life. The act of constructive remembrance, assembly, and recording evokes the sensation of subjective happiness, whereby the author avails himself of an autosuggestive technique, as it were, for fabricating happiness and extending life that he simultaneously wishes to convey to his readers, so that they too may learn to lead “a long and happy life”.3 This result, moreover, is validated by reference to studies which purport to prove empirically the connection between a happy life and longevity. Happiness, according to the unmistakable yet also hardly astonishing leitmotif of the Happy Autobiography, increases the quality of human life and is to be regarded as a self-explanatory goal of individual lifestyle. The author thus deftly illustrates this guiding principle of “happiness research” in the form of a socio-psychological experiment on himself : In retrospect, Diener organizes his own life story according to three fields - the “fun-filled stages of my professional career as a research psychologist,” “the personality resources that helped my success” as well as “the challenges I overcame” - with the cultivation of a “happy disposition” constituting the leitmotif of this narrative of happiness :
Life looked bright in 1946 when I arrived in Glendale, California, the youngest of six children […]. In the beginning, I knew very little about statistics and subjective well-being, but I had a loving family that produced subjective well-being in me. At my baptism, 2 weeks after my arrival, my older brother got his head stuck in the communion railing at the church and stole the show. After that unfortunate incident, I have had the wind at my back through the rest of my life4.
Diener’s autobiographical sketch, which opens a volume on the history of social psychology, retraced by means of representative personal profiles, stresses the experience of a happy childhood in a sheltered, religiously integrated family, a successful career biography as well as a personality structure that actively meets challenges as explicit ingredients of a felicitous lifestyle5. This moment of self-thematization, by which one’s own happy personality is made the object of consideration and is subsequently paired with the “statistics” and science of “subjective well-being,” is entirely unusual and requires explanation in the context of an analytic investigation into human happiness. Such self-ascription emerges as a constitutive epistemic praxis in Positive Psychology, which crystallized as a discipline in the late 1990s6. In what follows, I will elaborate to what extent a fundamental transformation in the self-constitution of researchers of happiness as decidedly happy subjects occurs with the development of Positive Psychology in the 1990s, and to what extent a self-description that continually thematizes one’s own existential orientation retroactively affects this specific, institutionally as well as intellectually influential, concept of happiness. My aim is therefore to highlight a constellation of change within the epistemological design of happiness research : In order to aptly classify the novel approach taken by Positive Psychologists, its underlying model of happiness will first be paired with Erich Fromm’s Humanistic or trans-therapeutic psychotherapy that strongly influenced the Humanistic Psychology of the 1960s and 1970s (1)7. As an epistemic point of reference in the history of science, Humanistic Psychology was in turn central for Positive Psychology. The latter referred, on the one hand, to Humanistic Psychology and its model of happiness ; in this way, it likewise turned its attention to bolstering the self-efficacy and self-actualization of the individual. On the other hand, by classifying its methods as too phenomenological and insufficiently validated empirically, Positive Psychology at the same time clearly distinguished itself from it8.
I will then turn in greater detail to the strategies of self-thematization that have become characteristic of the protagonists of Positive Psychology (2). In so doing, I will argue that the procedures of statistic quantification and an empiricism based on surveys and data sampling, which mark the methodological approach of Positive Psychology, require additional authentication in order to be able to address a broader circle of recipients - even beyond the academic mainstream. By describing themselves as happy and systematically thematizing their own existential orientations in their research, the exponents of Positive Psychology increase the evidence of the techniques of the self they propagate, thereby sustaining the attraction of an image of the human being that explicitly projects autonomous self-tailoring as a vital ingredient of individual happiness. This form of a consciously charismatic staging of the self has found an enormous echo in the media and has not only contributed significantly to the success of Positive Psychology as a phenomenon of contemporary popular culture, but has also fostered its influence as a field of academic research.
I will therefore bring forward the argument that the critical examination of the concept of happiness that was predominant during the 1960s and 1970s and that was deployed by writers such as Erich Fromm gradually gave way to a notion of happiness which was no longer concerned with the moral and societal dimensions of well-being, but instead focused on the ideal of individual self-regulation and calculative self-assessment. Its proponents - most notably those scientists that belong to the field of Positive Psychology – are largely concerned with methods of successful self-intervention by which the individual is said to be able to independently manufacture his or her own happiness. These happiness-inducing techniques of self-regulation have recently come under critical scrutiny as blatantly advancing a neoliberal regime of uncontested self-exploitation in the name of capitalist deregulation that propagates an image of the individual as a self-governing, autonomous and highly flexible agent seeking to constantly maximize his/her profits – be they emotional or financial.9 Happiness, so the critical objection, has become a mere “figure of enterprise”, something “one pursues in a spirit of entrepreneurship and opportunity”.10 The following paper contends that this conceptual change of the idea of happiness went along with a markedly different epistemological outlook : In order to serve as a tool for re-enchantment, for a “new animism” and “life-dynamic” that “brings people to life” while at the same time “exhorting” them to “emotional self-stewardship”11, Positive Psychology had to employ a specific mode of epistemological self-fashioning by which the researchers portrayed themselves as converted followers of the creed of Positive Thinking. This new approach does not qualify as a mere rhetorical strategy. On the contrary, it marks a fundamental revaluation of the way in which knowledge about human happiness is generated and thus highlights the interdependence of epistemic concerns and particular modes of medial (self-)articulation. Specific strategies of authentication and self-articulation by the researching subjects themselves are characteristic of its methods, as will be outlined in the second part of the paper : Life-changing events of epiphany or recurrences to the imagery of childhood, for instance, are often used as metaphors by which the near cataclysmic impacts of Positive Psychology are depicted. They are part of an imaginary landscape in which the researchers unfold a happiness-narrative that is consistent with its underlying notion of awakening, of handling oneself as a canvas of ceaseless opportunities. Positive Psychology therefore helped to install a new happiness regime that drew a considerable part of its appeal out of the specific methods of epistemological self-fashioning, as displayed in its standard reference texts.
Happy is the One Who has His Pain: Erich Fromm’s Critical Diagnosis of the Happiness and Society of the Post-War Era (ca. 1950-1980)
Humanistic Psychology, which developed in the 1960s in the USA to an extremely influential and widely received movement, and with some delay – above all in German-speaking countries - even found a mass of followers in Europe, distanced itself from classical psychoanalysis as well as from behaviorism that had previously dominated academic psychology12: “Creativity, love, self, growth, [...] self-actualization, higher values, becoming, spontaneity, [...] psychological health” became the central concepts with which it sought to overcome the pessimistic anthropology of Freudian psychoanalysis13. It self-confidently regarded itself as a “Third Force”14: Inspired by existentialist and phenomenological psychology, it was concerned with a fundamentally new determination of the human being and its internal processes. Some of Humanistic Psychology’s precursors and early mentors, such as Erich Fromm or Wilhelm Reich, as well as many of its co-founders and proponents - for example, Charlotte Bühler, Otto Rank and Kurt Goldstein – were educated as psychoanalysts in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, but as Jews were also forced to emigrate by the Nazis.15 If one does not consider these fateful paths of life, then the “‘nevertheless’ of hope in a more human future” that underlies Humanistic Psychology can hardly be explained.16 The historical context of National Socialism and the Shoah, but also of the arms race and global threat of atomic weapons in the postwar era, have to be taken into account in assessments of Humanistic Psychology, which, with its program of a “humanization of the human being”, wanted to obtain a fundamentally new orientation in psychology and apply its observations to a broad social debate. 17
With its emphasis on human potentiality, individual development, creativity and self-actualization, Humanistic Psychology sought to shift away from the imperative, predominant until then, of successful intra-psychic and sociocultural conformity. It was precisely the experience of Nazism and the Shoah that led the founders of Humanistic Psychology to critically oppose the concept of conformity with its underlying imperative of successful adjustment to societal norms : The psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, alongside the psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Rogers one of Humanistic Psychology’s main representatives, explicitly referred in his rejection of Adjustment-Theory to its relativist historical and cultural program that presumes conformity “to an ideal culture” and, on the other hand, willingly suppresses sociocultural and political realities as well as processes of historical development :
But we know the culture is not perfect. We have learned to ask whether we are going to advocate adjusting to the dope addicts down the block, the Nazis around the corner, the Negro haters in the next city. To be adjusted to stinkers is to be a stinker yourself. 18
Maslow further developed this issue in the first issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, founded in 1961 :
The danger that I see is the resurgence [...] of the old identification of psychological health with adjustment, adjustment to reality, adjustment to society, adjustment to other people. That is, the authentic or healthy person is being defined not in his own right, not in his autonomy, not by his own intra-psychic and non-environmental laws, not as different from the environment, independent of it or opposed to it, but rather in environment-centered terms ; e.g., of ability to master the environment, to be capable, adequate, effective, competent in relation to it, to do a good job, to perceive it well, to be in good relations to it, to be successful in its terms. To say it in another way, the job-analysis, the requirements of the task, should not be the major criterion of worth or health of the individual.19
Humanistic Psychology thus attacked the competitive-oriented direction of an ‘administered modernity’ which demanded a flexible individual in conformity with socioeconomic requirements which it opposed with its ideal of a “fully matured person (authentic, self-actualizing, individuated, productive, healthy”20). By constructing a vision of personal autonomy and authenticity, it sought to set into motion a post-materialist re-humanization.21 It is thus not astonishing that Humanistic Psychology sympathized with the youth and protest movement of the 1960s, as it was an integral part and mouthpiece of a “critical self-reflection, in the framework of which alternative modes of thinking and acting, language games and life forms were conceived and tested”.22
Set against this background, the contours of Humanistic Psychology’s concept of happiness23 begin to take shape, and it can be further expounded by way of Erich Fromm’s understanding of happiness. Fromm, who had a particular influence on Humanistic Psychology, discussed the topic of human happiness in numerous studies and lectures as well as in interviews, from which it is possible to glean a theory, characteristic for Humanistic Psychology, of an at once skeptical and relational happiness.
Fromm was not, to be sure, fundamentally pessimistic towards happiness in the sense of human potentiality and lifestyle. Due to his normative humanism, which held very strong views of what is the human being, his understanding of happiness nevertheless assumed unmistakably normative features.24 If one culls some of Fromm’s statements regarding the modern human being’s capacity for happiness, it quickly becomes clear that he was primarily concerned with subjecting to fundamental critique the, in his view, false understanding of happiness that was predominant in Western, capitalist and bureaucratic modernity. Only against the backdrop of a critical anamnesis can a careful approximation of possibilities for a felicitously-successful art of life take place. Happiness features prominently in Fromm’s 1947 study Man for Himself, in which he further elaborated his theory of certain types of social character, which he had already begun in his earlier book Escape from Freedom and which drew heavily on the character types that had been developed by Freud.25 After he had already minted the concept of the authoritarian social character, during his activities at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, to elucidate the interplay of individual attitudes and forms of behavior with their respectively changing socioeconomic conditions, he continued this line of research after his emigration to the USA, and later, to Mexico.26 His concept of “marketing orientation” voiced a strong criticism of the rapidly expanding consumer culture of the post-war era and its inherent logic of competitiveness, commercialization and consumption which, in his view, only promoted “depersonalization”, “emptiness” and “meaninglessness of life” and ran against man’s inherent need for an authentic “identity with oneself”27:
[S]ince success depends largely on how one sells one’s personality, one experiences oneself as a commodity to be sold. A person is not concerned with his life and happiness, but with becoming salable.28
There was an even darker side to these admonitions, as man’s salability was closely connected to his manageability by an authoritarian political regime ; the emigré Fromm was painfully aware of the “danger of ‘automaton conformity’” that seemed to be “easing into an even more psychologically precarious marketing character” within Western capitalist societies of the post-war-era.29 Fromm’s fear of an ever increasing existential vacuum and an ensuing decline of society as such was echoed in the writings of other prominent cultural critics of the time like David Riesman, Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse and William H. Whyte : In analyzing the ramifications of the affluent society with its imperative of social conformity they deemed typical of the newly evolving suburban middle-classes, these critics articulated a pronounced unease with the deformation of the ‘American dream’ and its promise of a happier future for all. In contrast, Fromm considered happiness as a vital and activating life-force, stemming from man’s “inner productiveness”, the “realization of his potentialities”, granting not only the “integrity” of the self, but allowing a “productive orientation toward himself and the world outside” as well.30
In many of Fromm’s writings - from the study of psychological ethics in Man for Himself (1947), to the major works The Sane Society (1955) and To Have or to Be ? (1976), up to the posthumously published reflections on the art of life in The Art of Being (1993) - he repeatedly placed questions concerning the possibilities and conditions of a felicitous life at the center of his analysis. In his approach to psychotherapy, he thus combined psychoanalysis with a decidedly Marxist-humanist theory and critique of society that was indebted to Critical Theory. Fromm’s point of departure – as becomes clear from briefly discussing his concept of the contemporary “marketing orientation” predominant in the suburban middle-classes - was the observation of a dramatically intensifying sociocultural and economic crisis of the capitalist social order in the twentieth century, the destructive ramifications of which he regarded as destroying the internal constitution of the individual. By renouncing its appropriate possibilities and developmental processes, the human being condemns itself to a life of incessant “Unruhe [...], Gereiztheit, Ärger, Depression, Schlaflosigkeit, Unglücklichsein”.31 Here it becomes evident that while Fromm did not assume a “ready-made and fixed essence” of the human being, he did presuppose that there is a “universal set of fundamental capacities and drives” inherent to all human beings.32
Fromm’s critical cultural and social approach culminated in a critical distance to the notion of ‘normality’ and its imperative of conformity that he perceived as pathological :
Die Normalsten sind die Kränkesten. Und die Kranken sind die Gesündesten. [...] Der Mensch, der krank ist, zeigt, daß bei ihm gewisse menschliche Dinge noch nicht so unterdrückt sind, daß sie nicht in Konflikt kommen können mit den Mustern der Kultur, sondern daß sie durch diese Fiktion Krankheitssymptome erzeugen. [...] Glücklich der, der ein Symptom hat. Wie glücklich der, der einen Schmerz hat. [...][D]ie Normalen [...] sind so angepaßt, [...], die sind so entfremdet, sind so zum Instrument, sind so roboterhaft geworden, daß sie schon gar keinen Konflikt mehr empfinden. 33
Fromm thus dealt at length with facets of human unhappiness that were inevitably induced by the pathology of normalcy,34 but he only hesitatingly provided concrete suggestions when it came to a felicitous lifestyle. That he shied away from offering a proven set of instructions for happiness stands to reason, since he always measured the realms of individual possibilities and potential for action against all-encompassing structures and social processes. With regard to this, traces of a ‘happiness-praxis’ can most frequently be found in his design for a normative art of life, the posthumously published The Art of Being (1993), where Fromm carefully sketches a model of felicitous life. These suggestions for a new art of living take up in essence ideas from the enormously successful work To Have or to Be ?, which made Fromm into a “public intellectual” famous beyond an academic readership and with an audience on both sides of the Atlantic.35 Having in the latter text attacked the “Haben-Modus [mode of having]” of Western modernity with its alienating fixation on consumption, marketing, and success,36 he shifted in The Art of Being from the critical anamnesis of “having” to the model of a comprehensive “well-being”.37 In the process, he was clearly indebted to psychoanalytic methods, because the detection and recognition of pathological patterns was for him the first step toward the exercise of a novel praxis of life. In an essential manner, however, Fromm went beyond Freud : On the one hand, Humanistic psychotherapy should aid in the identification of unconscious-repressed mechanisms ; on the other hand, the individual should thereby be enabled to position itself critically vis-à-vis social norms. The unique act of self-recognition is here contrasted with a “continual self-testing and internal as well as external confrontation”.38 Fromm thus wanted to substitute adjustment with “awareness” as well as a praxis of constant questioning of learned and adopted convictions and habits.39 Through techniques of meditation, concentration and attentiveness, a new praxis of life should be produced and practiced that, for its part, generates a reservoir of novel experiences and ignites a dynamic of forceful self-transformation. While Fromm wanted this to be achieved through a consistent and reflective renouncement of consumption, acquired destructive images of the self and language habits should be critically inspected and repudiated as well. Mechanically routinized modes of behavior would in this way be corrected for the long term – “and adventurousness grows.40
Fromm sought to replace an unquestioned conformity to a dehumanizing normality as well as a concept of happiness he branded as false with the cautious happiness of an attentive, critical, and unrelenting self-observation. By striving towards a transformed access to one’s self, the individual should attempt to lay the foundation for a novel connection to fellow human beings and the environment. Happiness thus converges, for Fromm, with the ideal of a ‘Vita activa’ that should overcome the emotional, social, and political passivity of “modern man”.41 Fromm’s ideal of the ‘Vita activa’ therefore places “activity, participation, responsibility” as well as the continuous unfolding of the human being at the center of his theory of happiness, which in relation to and in active confrontation with social processes has to continually be rebalanced anew.42 However, Fromm’s own existential orientation never itself, or only ever in highly mediated ways at best, became an object of analysis, for instance, when he informed his readers that he could recommend from his own experience the techniques of meditation and awareness sketched in The Art of Being.43 Nevertheless, he was extremely active politically his entire life, in the peace and anti-atomic weapons movement, among others,44 so that it is possible to discern an immediate connection between the active confrontation with sociopolitical processes and his understanding of a relational and skeptical happiness.
After Escape from Freedom (1941) and especially The Sane Society (1955) had found a resounding echo in the USA, Fromm became famous well beyond the academic sphere and a sought-after interview partner.45 In German-speaking countries, To Have or to Be ? achieved near “cult status,”46 and here as well high-running magazines published interviews with Fromm.47 As a ‘public intellectual’, he thus actively participated in social debates ; to reach a wide audience, Fromm used the communicative form of the interview, which from the 1950s onward - brought about by the rise of television as well - became an inherent part of the expression of intellectual opinions.48 As a textual form of mass communication, the interview represents a particularly “hybrid form” consisting of “information transfer,” the “presentation of an opinion,” and “communicative role-play,” whereby the initial assumption of an “undisguised,” “authentic” expression of opinion can easily be debunked.49 On the contrary, the interview is always “already exhibiting and mediating, hence staged”.50 Fromm’s own pronouncements admittedly do not lay claim to being an authentic confession, but are mostly uttered in a tone of analytic distance. This is due to his indebtedness to Critical Theory, which places human beings in relation to societal processes, thereby highlighting the tortuous entanglements between self and society. In analyzing the pitfalls of human happiness and thus bringing forward his plea for an “objective, normative” theory of happiness that was to be conducive with the “full growth of the human being” as such, Fromm mostly abstains from a confessional, self-explanatory style in favor of a more distanced, tentative approach which seeks to disseminate the preconditions of human well-being as well as the forces inhibiting it.51 The research personality – in this view – doesn’t seek to come across as someone possessing some sort of arcane knowledge on how to achieve and prolong happiness. Despite offering “practical suggestions” like techniques of meditation and awareness,52 Fromm’s approach always retains its normative claims, thereby transcending the individual pursuit of happiness in favor of a multilayered narrative that discusses its moral and societal implications as well. Accordingly, this relational concept of human flourishing is by no means dependent on the expert’s cathartic conversion to happiness ; Fromm rather appealed to the individual’s capability to place itself in critical distance towards society as well as to its own claim to happiness :
Unless I am able to analyze the unconscious aspects of the society in which I live, I cannot know who I am, because I don’t know which part of me is not me.53
Moreover, in his interviews as well as in the ethical considerations discussed in The Art of Being, Fromm’s opinions were mainly uttered in a tone that strove toward analytic detachment and academic objectivity. They were hardly tailored to meet the needs and demands of a mass audience that embraced the findings of ‘happiness experts’ as quintessential advice on the individual’s pursuit of happiness. In this respect, Fromm’s concept of well-being is noticeably different from that of current researchers who - like Ed Diener cited at the opening of this essay - are veritable virtuosi in their handling of mass-media forms and forums of communication, and whose concept of happiness is tailored to a public differentiated by mass media.
“I take my own medicine, and it works for me”: Strategies of Positive Self-Attribution and Positive Psychology’s Concept of Happiness
The notion cited in the heading, that one can successfully medicate oneself, comes from a passage in Martin Seligman’s bestseller Authentic Happiness 54: The American psychologist depicts here, in a mixture of self-help and analysis, how a “dyed-in-the-wool pessimist”55 enabled himself to be immunized from the “tyranny of pessimism”56 through the application of specific self-techniques, through a “learned optimism”57, and the cultivation of certain “signature strengths”58 such as gratitude, optimism, and generosity. By learning to identify an acquired and inculcated pessimistic “explanatory style” as such and consistently replacing it with a positive-optimistic mentality, he claims, one can gradually and fundamentally change one’s access to the self, as Seligman illustrates using himself as an example59 :
I was not born an optimist. I’ve had to learn (and sometimes invent) techniques for getting over the wall. The hardest part of writing, for me, is supplying examples [...].[...][F]or many years, when I got to the part that needed examples, I would get a headache, which told me I’d hit the wall. I’d fidget. I’d do anything other than write : make phone-calls ; analyze data sheets. If the wall was really high, I’d go out and play bridge. This pattern could go on for hours, even days. Not only would I not get my work done, but as the hours turned to days I’d be stricken with guilt and depression. All this has changed. I still hit the wall more often than I’d like, but I’ve found some techniques that always help me. In this chapter you will learn two of these techniques, which you can use at work : listening in on your own internal dialogue and disputing your negative dialogue60.
That Seligman openly thematizes his own existential orientation and makes his individual ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ into an object of representation creates for the reader an impression of authentic self-revelation. A confession of the self is thereby paired with the concrete instructions of the expert in order to produce an equalizing or leveling of the discourse of happiness, without in the process relativizing or undermining Seligman’s professionalism and authority. If in the previous section the interview was characterized as an always-already mediated and staged mode of communication, the same holds for the putatively self-disclosing passages in Seligman’s text. They are part of a media campaign of self-authentication ; by depicting one’s own metamorphosis and in certain respects textually reconstructing it, the author increases the probability of sparking a similar self-transformation in his potential readers as well. The impressively represented techniques of the self aim to emphasize in this way the potential of Positive Psychology, which is at all times available to the “sovereign, enterprising, self-interested actor” as a “life-resource61”. By addressing an autonomous, self-governing and self-regulating individual, Positive Psychology also brings into focus specific modes of subjectivization - in particular, positive self-interventions which emphasize one’s own strengths62. It thereby programmatically turns away from a concern with pathological conditions and sensations such as anxieties, neuroses, and psychoses ; instead, it has declared positively connoted existential conditions its main field of intervention. For Positive Psychology, “joy, flourishing, expressive well being and happiness” have become central concepts, and it has created specific “thought interventions” by which to neutralize and deactivate “negative thought patterns” (for instance, by forcefully breaking inculcated routines of thought and speech).63
Positive Psychology thus shares with Humanistic Psychology its hostility toward classic topoi of psychoanalysis as well as its focus on positive dimensions of experience and emotion.64 Abraham Maslow had already systematically emphasized, with his concept of “peak-experiences,” those instances which the persons and clients he surveyed had identified as “the most blissful and perfect moments of life”.65 Maslow thereby placed the experience of each individual personality at the center of his psychological anthropology and pursued at the same time a therapeutic ideal of individual self-realization. By campaigning for the possibilities for growth and unfolding of the human being over its “Deficiency Motivation66”, Maslow not only drew on Fromm’s considerations on the individual’s capacities for realizing its inherent potentials for self-transformation as developed in Man for Himself, he also caused a change of perspective that would become decisive for the concept of happiness within psychological Happiness Research – and in particular for Positive Psychology. However, in contrast to Fromm’s procedure of unmasking the apparent (un-)happiness of the well-conformed, we no longer find a concern with the possible pathologies of happiness which Fromm had sought to explain as caused by the demands of Western consumer society. Whereas Fromm critically inquired into the ways in which socioeconomic demands and notions of happiness are connected with one another, happiness as interpreted by Positive Psychology has become an ideal and standard for a solely individual lifestyle that can be strategically planned and realized. Happiness is here associated with both positive emotions and long-term, value-loaded categories, like meaning and importance, that play a central role for human well-being ; furthermore, as will later be examined more closely, Positive Psychology assigns great significance to the category of “accomplishment”.67
Both lines of research follow a program that seeks the democratic distribution of happiness in that they focus on the ‘average person’ whose inherent potential for happiness should be optimized. This entails an enormous expansion of the target audience, because the dynamization and temporalization of the search for happiness requires everyone to use his or her happiness resources as exhaustively as possible.
This broaches a further commonality between Humanistic and Positive Psychology : Both grant considerable space to continual self-thematization and permanent work on the self, although the emancipatory program of a humanization and individual self-realization championed by Humanistic Psychology gradually began to turn into an imperative of neoliberal self-optimization. Positive Psychology has been criticized recently as much for its proximity to neoliberal conceptions of a flexible, ‘entrepreneurial self’ (Ulrich Bröckling) conforming to capitalist requirements as for its reductionist biologism : Its self-techniques - as, for instance, the sociologist Sam Binkley puts it succinctly in his critique - degrade happiness to a mere effect of specific “mental activities and everyday practices,” while ethical and moral considerations as well as social ties are fundamentally disregarded.68 Happiness-inducing techniques of the self signify instruments of neoliberal governmentality insofar as they generate “a form of power” that “enables the production of free, enterprising subjects, a technology and rationality that sets individuals free, but also teaches them to govern themselves as enterprising actors”.69
By attacking and demystifying – to put it polemically – a psychotherapy obsessed with complex emotional states as well as ambivalent social relationships, Positive Psychology also introduces a program of captivating re-enchantment. In the style of popular “before-and-after reportage,” Positive Psychology celebrates the birth or metamorphosis of a “happy self” that is able to overcome the adversities of everyday life by virtue of its newly gained mental resources.
Happiness brings people to life, transforming objects into subjects, exhorting us to emotional self-stewardship, empowering individuals to seize the reins of their affective potentials and transform any vestige of drabness or grey routine with the sparkle of a potentially happier existence.70
At the same time, the insistent self-thematization of the researching subject is a central feature of this discourse on the conditions and possibilities of human happiness. It represents a form of epistemological self-fashioning that not only individualizes but also simulates and enacts the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ on a textual level. This radical subjectivization and withdrawal of scholarly distance between subject and object of knowledge is characteristic of a happiness format that targets, first and foremost, individual powers of self-regulation and places individual self-efficacy at the center of its interests. This is confirmed by the fact that Positive Psychology rests, so to speak, on a foundational myth of subjective self-thematization that suggestively combines mythological and religious motives with positivist scientific empiricism. According to his own description, namely, Martin Seligman considered himself obliged by a statement made by his daughter, who was five at the time, to undertake a radical change of personal and professional perspective. After she had repeatedly disturbed him while gardening and received a harsh reprimand, Seligman recalls, she opened his eyes with the following statement :
“Daddy, I want to talk to you.”
“Yes, Nikki ?”
“Daddy, do you remember before my fifth birthday ? From when I was three until when I was five, I was a whiner. I whined every day. On my fifth birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to whine anymore. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I can stop whining, you can stop being such a grouch.”
This was an epiphany for me. In terms of my own life, Nikki hit the nail right on the head. I was a grouch. I had spent fifty years enduring mostly wet weather in my soul, and the last ten years as a walking nimbus cloud in a household radiant with sunshine. [...] In that moment, I resolved to change. [...] Nikki had found me my mission, and this book is my attempt to tell it.71
Positive Psychology can thus be said to have arisen out of an instant of subjective epiphany. The halo of truth and innocence radiated by the figure of the child enables her to speak hidden and taboo truths and to bring about, as it were, a near mystical awakening in the father. Only the one who has converted to happiness - so the conclusion to be drawn here - is in the situation to convincingly communicate his ‘mission’. Here one can detect an epistemic constellation in which knowledge is triggered by an incident of personal epiphany. Having undergone this transformative process, the researcher thus not only possesses a special credibility authenticated by his cathartic experience. At the same time, his readers are presented with an exemplary account of how to instigate a process of self-transformation and change : The child presents her individual resolution not to whine anymore as an act of mere will-power and courage. Accordingly, Seligman himself - so he tells his readership - chose to take responsibility for his life and happiness in his own hands, thereby unfolding an account of personal awakening brought about by individual determination and autonomy. This in turn, is conclusive with a neoliberal concept of happiness that stresses personal responsibility and autonomy as key ingredients for individual well-being. This short passage, therefore, not only contains a full-fledged theory of a neoliberal program of happiness, but also highlights the epistemic and rhetorical logic enabling it.
In the case of the aforementioned Ed Diener, too, the recourse to one’s own childhood as well as to a later experience of individual epiphany, conversion or rapture plays a central role for one’s self-image as a happiness researcher and for the manner in which one investigates and defines happiness. Later asked how he found his calling as a scientist of “Subjective Well-Being.72”, Diener stated that his parents had exerted a “profound influence” on him :
They were happy people and believed in looking at the bright side of events. [...] My mother told me that even criticism could be framed in a positive way. No wonder I was drawn to happiness.73
After having decided to study the “happiness of farm workers” already in college - a decision inspired by his childhood on a “big farm” – this wish was denied him by his professor with the argument that happiness cannot be measured and that farm workers could not in principle be happy.74 After then turning with some institutional success to the study of phenomena such as conformity, aggression, and violence, this “poster child of normative psychology” and analyst of “negative aspects of human nature and behavior” spent a sabbatical on the Virgin Islands – a retreat with far-reaching consequences, as this year would mark the birth of the science of “Subjective Well-Being”.75 In turn, the reconnection to an original and authentic truth, the truth of the child, was to be the catalyst of both a biographical about-face and a scientific discovery, because during his retreat to the Virgin Islands Diener was able to build on his original enthusiasm to systematically research the conditions and possibilities of human well-being.
The authenticity of personal experience as well as the recourse to childhood and family, who represent figures of irreducible truth, thus vouch for the credibility of the self-techniques to be imparted. They can be described as the subjective flipside of an empiricist method that is preoccupied with “evidence, measurement, and testing”,76 an empiricism based primarily on the evaluation of questionnaires and working with methods of “experience sampling” to make inferences about the subjective self-assessments of those surveyed.77 Through the combination of hybrid textual procedures – of subjective authentication on the part of the researching subject, on the one hand, and of the objective evaluation of collected data, on the other – Positive Psychology has transgressed the genre boundaries of scientific communication since its inception. The central texts read mostly like a mixture of self-help guide, confession, autobiography, and analysis ; they place subjective passages alongside pragmatic instructions and the evaluation of quantitatively collected and statistically assessed data. Both on the level of the object of research as well as with respect to the chosen genre, Positive Psychology launches a process of removing barriers. In this way, its textual arrangements mirror the claim of emphatically breaking away from well-trodden paths and thereby opening up a horizon of undreamt of possibilities and options.
In this way, Positive Psychology achieves a comprehensive resonance in mass media, which guarantees it a large readership and, it must be said, a loyal following : Apostrophizing it as a novel “science of happiness”‘ TIME-Magazine (among others) reported in January of 2005 on the findings of Positive Psychology,78 and since then, a multitude of feature stories, interviews, and reports that can scarcely be overlooked have taken up the topic of happiness in the ways prescribed by Positive Psychology. The protagonists, notably Martin Seligman himself, but other scientists as well, like the Dutch sociologist and happiness researcher Ruut Veenhoven or the British economist Richard Layard, who helped put the so-called economy of happiness on the map with his book Happiness. Lessons from a New Science (200579) , are not only coveted keynote speakers at academic conferences, but as “happiness experts” are also guaranteed audiences and influence well beyond the halls of academia - for instance, Layard was a consultant on the labor market for Tony Blair’s government.80 Accordingly, their lists of publications include both classic scientific analyses and popular science self-help guides. The enormous media presence of some of Positive Psychology’s chief representatives occasionally gives rise to the impression of an intentional charismatization, because personalities like Seligman or “Dr. Feelgood”, Ruut Veenhoven, are presented as “torchbearers” of a “magic formula”81 or - to take one further example - are compared with “larger than life” icons such as Orson Welles.82 Researchers of subjective well-being are thus frequently depicted as happy personalities ; moreover, they are publically displayed as eminent figures of wisdom and good cheer. In an almost reverential tone, for example, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (*1934) is addressed in a volume on the concept of “Flow”, a topic he instigated and on which he has published extensively ever since the late 1970s.83 The editor of this volume, Ingrid Szöllösi, describes Csikszentmihalyi as follows :
If I were to have a Santa Claus whose visit I would look forward to every year, then he would look like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. A good-natured man with grey hair and a grey beard, with ruddy cheeks and a curious view to the world, a man who is able to enrich all family life through his stories, who tries both privately and professionally to discover how parents and children can come together and be happy with one another. [...] Mr. Flow embraces the dance of life that keeps him open for all changes. He is prepared to pursue the new - today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. ... Because no one else is more imbued with the idea that all flows.84
Key assumptions that are relevant for Positive Psychology - for example, the importance of insisting on one’s aptitude and willingness to constantly shape and optimize oneself - are openly ascribed to the happiness-expert himself who is characterized as someone eager to change his life in the light of an open – and possibly brighter – future. Standards of professional detachment and objectivity towards the topic of research are deliberately suspended in favor of an image of the happiness-researcher as someone in possession of a privileged knowledge of how to lead a happy life.
Positive Psychology’s concept of happiness is thus presented, on the one hand, as a program of individual self-care and, on the other hand, as the basis for professional success and individual satisfaction with one’s own life “Happy people” - in the succinct words of Ed Diener and his colleagues, the psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Laura King, in an article for Psychological Bulletin – “tend to be successful and accomplished across multiple life domains” :
We propose that this is not merely because success leads to happiness, but because positive affect [...] engenders success. [...] Positive emotions signify that life is going well [...]. [...] In other words, because all is going well individuals can expand their resources and friendships ; they can take the opportunity to build their repertoire of skills for future use ; or they can rest and relax to rebuild their energy after expending high levels of effort.85
As a complement to the advantages for individual lifestyle, they emphasize the total social importance of a “happy society”, and in so doing, Positive Psychology formulates a happiness imperative that appears radical in its unquestioned normativity and reactivates a mythical notion of a long life :
Happy people are healthier. A happy life predicts a long life, and the effect is about as strong as whether one does or doesn’t smoke. Happy people are also better citizens, they vote more often, they are better informed, they give more to charity, they are better in intimate relationships, they are better lovers, better parents and better friends.86
This model associates happiness with normatively coded models of life and represents the “happy human being” as someone who is better integrated and better functioning in all social situations. It is interesting to note, however, that happiness is depicted in solely opportunistic terms ; happiness becomes an effective means to prove one’s ability to compete with others.87 These remarks culminate in the call for a ‘Happiness Regime’ :
Life inflicts the same setbacks and tragedies on the optimist as on the pessimist, but the optimist weathers them better. [...] [T]he optimist bounces back from defeat, and, [...] starts again. The pessimist gives up and falls into depression. Because of his resilience, the optimist achieves more at work, at school, and on the playing field. The optimist has better physical health and may even live longer. Americans want optimists to lead them.88
After Positive Psychology was able to noticeably extend its influence since the 1990s to other disciplines - from economics to business management and organizational theory, on to marketing, coaching, and politics - all indications increasingly pointed to the triumph of a global happiness regime that aimed to incite the individual to identify with and conform to the imperatives of a society oriented towards achievement and incessant self-optimization. The happiness regime of Positive Psychology thus radically abandoned the happiness concept of Humanistic Psychology and instead took up once again notions of a desirable social conformity, albeit one that is not outspokenly demanded, but is subtly brought about through the workings of a Happiness-praxis. An ideal of the self was thereby propagated that conceived of itself as an object of constant self-intervention and in this way could free itself from external determinants, that is, from political and socioeconomic constellations - in order, once freed, to be better able to meet their demands and standards. This “governmental practice”89 does not openly subject the individual to its power, but rather urges it to cultivate “agency, enterprise, and responsibility for oneself” and to view individual well-being as a means to achieve as well “the very content of happiness itself”.90
In contrast to Humanistic Psychology, the individual no longer positions itself in critical distance to its environment ; instead, it is at once the subject and object of an individual fabrication of happiness. Martin Seligman dates the historical genesis of this anthropology of a “maximal self” back to the 1950s. In his interpretation, the twentieth century is marked by the inexorable triumphal procession of a radically new “maximal self” that has replaced the older “Yankee self” : Seligman describes the epoch of the crystallization of a specifically Western, capitalist and bureaucratic society oriented toward affluence and achievement since the end of the Second World War as an age that glorifies the self, grants it extraordinary freedoms of choice, and thus allows it a maximal degree of personal control over its life.91 He distinguishes this self that revolves around the fulfillment of individual needs from the “Yankee self” that is less oriented towards its own emotions and needs as it is to the dictates of a Calvinist sense of duty.92 On the one hand, Seligman highlights the rapid socioeconomic transformation since the 1950s as a positive development that noticeably democratized affluence and education by making them accessible to greater segments of the population. At the same time, however, he concedes that this highly accelerated transformation exhibits alarming facets and that it also has contributed to the worrisome increase of depression.93
The conclusions which Seligman and other representatives of Positive Psychology draw from this endemic depression could hardly deviate more clearly from Erich Fromm’s critical social and cultural admonitions. Where Fromm decried consumer and competitive society for its pathologizing normality and called upon the individual to resist its imperatives, Positive Psychology follows a “program of neoliberal governmentality” that once again subscribes to the theorem of a performance-oriented “adjustment” that Humanistic Psychology had sought to combat in the 1960s and 70s.94 Using slogans with a popular appeal like “Using your Best to make you Better”,95 it brings the program of neoliberal fabrication of happiness to a mass audience. In the process, happiness becomes a resource for subjective self-regulation, and no one is astonished anymore by the fact that Positive Psychology is a product of the 1990s, that heyday of neoliberal governmentality, privatization, and deregulation. Rather, it can be described as a relentless continuation and subjective internalization of neoliberal rationality. This is revealed not only on the level of recommended self-techniques, but also – as the aforementioned examples demonstrate – on the level of the production of scientific evidence. It not only invokes conventional and institutional forms of authenticating research results – for instance, the replication of results – but, in a nearly strategic manner, draws upon the individual emotional states and life situations of the researching subjects, in order to produce and credibly impart evidence. In accordance with a concept of well-being that solely focuses on the individual’s capacities to autonomously unleash and exercise happiness-formulas, the epistemic logic of Positive Psychology instigates this very process of (self-) transformation through its textual representations of epiphany and conversion with its respective effect of authentication. For all intents and purposes, an ‘entrepreneurial self’ becomes operative here, which fashions itself as happy and in this way grounds its research epistemologically by illustrating its trueness with reference to its own lifestyle. That Positive Psychology’s regime of happiness complies with a neoliberal form of governmentality has meanwhile been convincingly argued.96 Yet even its knowledge regime succumbs to a neoliberalist economy in that the researching self is existentially called upon to vouch for its methods, its results, and its entire researcher persona. From this comes the mixing of professional and private facets as well as the removal of established genre constraints of scholarly communication, which is then freed from its established schemata in favor of a more stylistically liberated researching subject.
In recent years, the analysis of happiness underwent some dramatic changes : Having for centuries been at the center of philosophy, happiness was mainly associated with the “moral question of what counts as the good life”.97 Various approaches – from the Greek concept of Eudaimonia, the virtuous, good life, to Utilitarianism’s view of happiness as the greatest good for the greatest possible number - have stressed different facets of the term98. In the course of the twentieth century, however, philosophy lost its prerogative on defining happiness,99 as various disciplines - from psychology to sociology, from neuroscience to economics - discovered happiness as a worthwhile topic of analysis and brought about a “happiness turn” (Sara Ahmed) that would set the stage for various discourses on and heated debates about the subject of human happiness. The present text has retraced one such station and investigated a specific constellation of change100 which the concept of happiness underwent in the passage from Humanistic Psychology of the 1960s and 1970s to the Positive Psychology that formed in the 1990s. In the process, this essay’s analysis was centered on forms of self-articulation by the researching subject. The ways in which researchers explicitly make their own person, or rather, their own quest for happiness, into a topic of their analysis – or refrain from doing so _ was interpreted as a relevant component of changing conceptions of happiness.
In contrast to Positive Psychology, the Humanistic reflection on happiness of the 1960s and 1970s operated with a critical concept of happiness, which expressly included sociocultural and political frameworks and made notions of human happiness into a backdrop for (cultural) critical diagnoses of the post-war era : By attacking tendencies of a capitalist world of labor, consumption, and lifestyle putatively inimical to happiness, it interpreted happiness as a mode of active immersion in the world that included care for the self as much as it did comprehensive social change. Therefore, reflections on happiness became an analytic platform from which to observe as much the collective compulsions and contradictions of an organized modernity as its individual collateral damage often perceived as pathological. On the level of analysis and self-assessments, this broader, admittedly sometimes downright universalist, claim of cultural and social critique corresponded with a position of utterance that maintained a distinct distance to the object of inquiry and only tentatively broached the issue of personal involvement of the researcher’s personality.
This all changed fundamentally with the triumph of Positive Psychology in the 1990s, as a distanced, analytical approach by the researching subject was gradually supplemented or expanded through strategies of emphatic self-thematization in the central texts of Positive Psychology. Proceeding from the observation that this variation of happiness research initiated a fundamentally new and different discourse of happiness, which gave rise to “specific modes of self-awareness and everyday practice for the enactment of subjectivities adequate to the ends of governmental strategies”, the changing role and position of utterance of the researching subject was thematized101. Positive Psychology therefore follows a neoliberal project of social conformity and self-regulation, whose suggestive potency is secured by the exemplarily simulated and authentically framed self-transformation of the researching – and simultaneously feeling and suffering – subject. The positivist methodology is at this juncture reinforced by mythical rhetorical figures – for instance, by the constitutive recourse to the figure of the child who intuits and articulates the truth – that are deployed to provide additional evidence. At the same time, it claims to realize an older dream of humanity – that of a long and happy life – in that the personality of the researcher, packaged as self-determining and authentic, comes to stand in for this myth, and hence to vouch for it, as it were, by means of his or her own biography.