if I wanted to be patronised I’d just go to work
Before I start I’d like to say that I don’t hate Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I think any high quality therapy delivered by a huge hearted and experienced clinician can be useful to anyone. I don’t believe that any one model has mental health cracked and I am a depressed realist when it comes to where you can get help in a recession.
I do however have an issue with the hubris around positive psychology which is based on cognitive and behavioural interventions, and how it gets used by ideologically driven governments and patronising employers to punish people with problems. In the case of workplace wellbeing or mental health services I think that short term interventions are often more harmful than not, both to the patient and the clinician. I also believe that just because someone says there’s an evidence base for a practice now being exported across the globe doesn’t mean its actually true. The spread of positive psychology is also a story of power and money. It’s cheap and if it doesn’t work leaves the individual carrying the systemic failure that promotes positive thinking as a long term response to social crisis.
On the 9th May I joined 1000 people at Friends House in London to listen to the daddy of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. Agreeably not my usual tribe but I went to get my critical brain working again to help write an academic paper on how we might construct a progressive model of mental health at work.
We kicked off with a fake listening exercise: think back to the last week about something positive that happened and tell the person next to you.
I am stuck with a 26 years old positive psychologist who talked about her boyfriend’s bbq that weekend. I can hardly open my mouth thinking of the young black man I’d talked down from jumping in front of a tube train last week while about 30 people on the platform literally looked the other way. I squeezed something out about being grateful for being able to be more open with my friends about how I’m struggling. She thought I hadn’t understood the question.
Having worked in adult education for several decades I’d like to suggest that if you want people to say what their reality is you have to ask them a genuine question rather than signpost them into a neurolinguistically programmed cul-de-sac.
What follows is my stream of consciousness during the event enacted on twitter with real time reactions.
@SurvivingWk Uh oh flashback to 1983 #RoyalWeek at #MartinSeligman event tonight. Very positive people, plus me (picture of a full hall young shiny mostly women)
@SurvivingWk Always look for the nearest exit in case of #positivitycompulsion at #Martinseligman talk tonight (Picture of the exit I’m sitting next to. I literally could not find a seat any closer to the door)
@SurvivingWk Just realised I saw #Martinseligman outside Friends House looking miserable. I like him more. Damn.
@SurvivingWk 5 minutes in & despair sets in. #richardlayard offering a benign overview of wellbeing industry #happynow?
@SurvivingWk “the past does not determine the future” #Martinseligman #theendofhistory
@SurvivingWk “we have to put critical psychology on its head” aw bless #Martinseligman clearly hasn’t heard about welfare reform #mentalhealthcrisis
@SurvivingWk “Freud told us the best we could do is not be miserable…empirically false, morally irresponsible & a political dead-end” #Martinseligman
@SurvivingWk Its all going a bit Pete Tong in my head and we’re only 25 mins into #Martinseligman talk. A real slight of hand about human experience
@SurvivingWk I wonder if #Martinseligman has ever experienced utter despair and real powerlessness? #viciouspositivity
@SurvivingWk It’s funny how understanding anything has been written out of human psychology in #positivepsychology #keep’emignorant&busy
@Survivingwk “4 million people lie about their happiness” #martinselgiman’s authentichappiness.org. You think that’s because it’s an online checklist?
@SurvivingWk “40,000 women on social media talk about shopping & yay!!!” if I wanted to be patronised #martinselgiman I’d just go to work.
@SurvivingWk I think #martinseligman is predicting the end of psychology research through his analysis of Twitter activity.
@SurvivingWk Shoot me now. Wellbeing education through happiness exercises. Clearly #martinseligman hasn’t done a workshop on bullying in NHS recently
@SurvivingWk Haha actually surreal. #martinseligman advises student who works in library until midnight to use their “humour strength”…
@SurvivingWk Urm shouldn’t you be telling your students that working until midnight is utterly disastrous for their #mentalhealth? #chearuplove
@SurvivingWk I’ve actually stopped breathing. #martinseligman now talking about happiness education of 8000 kids in Bhutan #humanrightsanyone?
@SurvivingWk 700,000 kids in Peru apparently VERY HAPPY using #positivepsychology…deeply challenging un-thought has set in
LinkedInFriend: “Hi…I am using positive psychology as one method in improving employee relations performance. One of the outcomes was a 50% reduction in BME disciplinaries.
LinkedinSurvivingWork: “ Sure as a technique its useful but not as a response to poverty in Peru (a country I worked in for 10 years), a failing mental health system or as a substitute for a decent employment relations system. I have heard about your great work through a colleague Mr X. I work a lot with health workers and there is a very important push back against using techniques to control rather than empower people. Very best.”
LinkedinFriend “Completely agree with you.”
@SurvivingWk “happiness is political about the goals of good government” #martinseligman I’d settle for a welfare system &action on climate change
@Friend1 I would settle for holiday money, sick money & a pension #England
@SurvivingWk Yeah but that’s just learned helplessness. If you’re near Euston help me.
@Friend2 Sure you will be a better person for the experience. Just allow all the positivity into your inner self- oh and ignore reality
@SurvivingWk You’re not helping. I’m drowning comrade
@Friend2 In which case its between asking a devastating question, a quick burst of The Internationale or escaping to the nearest pub
@SurvivingWk If I could remember the words random singing would be preferred option.
@SurvivingWk I will be lynched if I show evidence of independent thoughts. Pub by default. Plus side I’m genuinely pleased to be me now.
@Friend2 Surely that just shows the paradoxical power of positive psychology?
On the bus home I have a sinking feeling that I’ve gone too far and expect to wake up to a tirade of violent positivity. The next day there is no response, literally none. Now, it could be that I just didn’t make my point clearly enough and I’m absolutely right and amongst friends on social media. But several years of low level trolling for being a woman with actual thoughts this just feels a bit spooky.
Although I’m open to nobody giving a bugger about what I have to say, given the religiosity around positive thinking I think its likely that we just can’t think about this. A reluctance to chip away at our only remaining ‘magic solution’ to be happy in a complex world.
For me this reductive version of reality has never been an option. Sure it makes me feel like I just failed my positivity exams but then if I wanted to be patronised I’d just go to work.
On the 25th & 26th May there will be a national strike in higher education over wages.
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