Appreciative Inquiry II – AI and the positive psychology movement
In an article called ‘The Happy Warrior’, which draws on a poem by Wordsworth of the same name, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes aim at the positive psychology movement, which is one of the contributing influences on Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Nussbaum is drawn to Aristotle, Wordsworth and Mill because they develop a highly nuanced and subtle understanding of what is broadly termed happiness, or positive states of mind, in the positive psychology literature. She is offended by what she terms the ‘conceptual breeziness’ of the positive psychology movement and argues that it is often highly reductive of what is a nuanced and subtle area of human concern. For Nussbaum, it is impossible to reduce the idea of happiness to a single, one-dimensional metric so that it suits the quantitative calculations of cognitive empirical research into subjective states, which is the bread and butter of positive psychology.
It is worth rehearsing some of her arguments here, since a lot of what she says also applies to AI, which focuses relentlessly on the positive to the exclusion of the more problematic aspects of organisational life.
What concerns Nussbaum is not so much happiness as the broader idea of human flourishing, or eudaimonia, of which happiness is merely part. She argues that in Greek philosophy for an emotion to be truly positive it has to be based on true beliefs. For example, if one feels hope, then that emotion is good only if it is based on reasonable evaluations of the worth of what one hopes for and true beliefs about what is likely to happen. Feeling positive about something which has low value demeans the experience. Similarly, trying to look on the bright side of tragic circumstances may be to trivialise what has happened. With some of life’s experiences we may be inconsolable. Indeed, many negative feelings are entirely appropriate and valuable – even the courageous person is not free from fear, and it might be argued that experiencing fear and yet acting anyway are precisely what makes a person courageous.
For the ancient Greeks ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ emotions are tightly coupled, two sides of the same coin. If one values things which are exposed to the contingencies of chance, as much of human life is, then it is impossible not to experience both hope and fear for them at the same time. Anyone who values friends, loved-ones work and political action is likely to be exposed to painful-feeling emotions when these are subject to bad luck or bad behaviour. In and of themselves painful emotions are useful in our evaluations of what matters to us and can spur us into action to defend what we most care about.
In contrast, Martin Seligman, the father of the positive psychology movement, has argued that we should promote good-feeling emotions and minimize bad-feeling emotions. His diagnosis of American society is that it is too anxious and unhappy, and his remedy is the development of public policy with happiness as its focus. In terms of public policy, similar initiatives have been undertaken in the UK with successive governments committing to considering happiness as a metric to be measured. We have even seen the appointment of a ‘Happiness Tsar’ whose job it is to promote happiness throughout the UK.
Nussbaum’s analysis of American society is rather different: she argues that Americans cannot stand to be unhappy, cannot stand to grieve and are unable to contemplate the real damage of poverty and war. They are unable to follow Socrates’ advice that a life left unexamined is not worth living. For critical reflection, the ability to subject our beliefs and emotions to critical examination is, for the ancient Greeks, a vital part of living life to the full. Nussbaum argues that until we can connect to each other through pain and loss, thoroughly experienced, as well as what might be termed more positive experiences, we will be unable to become ‘more compassionate, . . . more skilful in self-knowledge,” as Wordsworth expressed it in his poem.