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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Is Positive Psychology the New Stoicism?

Michel Daw's choice of symbol for Stoicism,
invoking the golden mean. (c) Michel Daw.
Today's article is by guest writer Michel Daw. Michel is a training manager and Stoic practitioner living in Quebec, Canada...

In a recent blog-post by Jules Evans, he explores the Positive Psychology approach to Flow. This note is a response to that post.

It would seem that history is repeating itself to some extent. Stoicism, through various direct and indirect means, seems to be seeing a small but meaningful resurgence of late. Admittedly, there have been several false starts, and opinions as to whether Stoicism is a fool's quest are legion.

It would seem, however, that Stoicism has a new challenger, perhaps even in the guise of a defender. While Positive Psychology has in fact brought us an updated set of Character Strengths (Virtues), many of which align with the classical virtues, it seems to go off in a slightly different direction. In this way it is reminiscent of the ancient rivalries between Stoicism, Epicureanism, Astotelianism and others. The Positive Psychology (PP) movement seems to have provided yet another avenue to achieving the worthwhile goal of personal 'happiness'. Isn't this what all of the philosophical schools were seeking?

In a word, No. What many ancient schools were after was the most reliable path to 'eudaimonia', flourishing, that is the ability to fully integrate and express one's true nature in the light of Nature. So onto the stage the PP movement brings 'flow', but again flow is not flourishing, for the reasons that Jules has so eloquently outlined.

I will therefore attempt to address the challenges to the PP approach, and the possible Stoic response.
The question of worth: is the activity that you habitually absorb yourself really 'worthwhile'? Is it helping the world? Is it healthy for you?

The Stoics would respond by examining a given activity against 'oikeiosis.' Does this activity contribute to my personal preservation and flourishing as a physical and rational being? Does it do so for those for whom I am responsible, and to whom I am connected through common bonds of society, species, or life itself? If it does promote the expansion, sustainment, or improvement of these circles of influence, then the likeliness of the worth of the activity will be much higher.

The question of talent: are you really any good at it? Are you wasting your time?

The Stoic conception of Phusis (understood in its 'cosmic' form) helps us to focus our thoughts in this regard. Phusis is more than the natural world of plants, animals etc. although it does include it. It also encompasses the entire natural order to the universe, from the birth and death of stars, right down to the subtle interactions of sub-atomic particles and beyond (in both directions). Phusis is the process that turns an acorn into an oak, carbon into diamonds, start-stuff into people. Phusis is also the limiter and definer however. It determines that a particular oak will be so tall and so broad, if the conditions exist for it to do so. In human terms, Phusis urges us not only to live according to, and in harmony with, the Natural realm, but to explore our own personal Phusis as well, the talents and abilities that are ours to acquire, express and improve. In other words, part of experiencing fulfillment is to Fulfill the Promise of our Natures.

The question of balance: should you spend all your time pursuing the flow moments, or is there something to be said for balancing your 'gift' with other activities, such as building loving relationships or taking exercise?

For the Stoic, the only real 'end' that should be pursued is the state of 'eudaimonia', that is a state of flourishing, and the only real path to eudaimonia is arete, or the practice of 'virtue' towards appropriate goals. The Stoics identified five approaches or reactions to the situations one would face in life as we seek to fulfill our responsibilities and roles (see oikeiosis above for the importance of relationships).

We are to pursue those things that promote or preserve all of us as rational beings (virtue/good) We may then prefer those things that promote or preserve us as physical beings (A.K.A. the classical preferred indifferents.) We should remain neutral to those things that do not affect us rationally or physically. However, we should look to avoid those things that endanger or destroy us as physical beings (Non-preferred indifferents). The only things we should categorically reject though are those things that endanger or destroy us as rational beings. (Vice/Bad)

While this may seem UN-balanced, the Stoic approach allows us to quickly triage choices that would fit the definition of 'flow' as an engaging activity. Addiction to Heroin is clearly out. The match-stick car would likely fall under truly neutral activities (unless there was some therapeutic purpose to it) and would thus be superseded by the first thing that would be beneficial to either physical or mental well-being, like going for a walk.

While Positive Psychology seems to sound the right notes, the tune it is playing is a thoroughly modern one. While it seems to have borrowed themes from the Stoic symphony, it has reduced the pursuit of the 'good' life to a top 40 song. It isn't bad, but it won't last. Stoicism, rightly understood, realistically applied and rigorously practiced, will produce a life of worth and balance.

Comment, Jules Evans:

Hi Michel

Thanks for bigging up my post! And I enjoyed your post very much. Can I make a response?

I don't think Positive Psychology would want at all to be known as 'the new Stoicism'. It does draw on some of the ideas of Stoicism, such as the cognitive theory of emotions. But it seems almost ashamed of its debt to Stoicism, which is still seen as a philosophy of emotional suppression by ordinary people, so had a very bad 'brand'.

But I also don't think modern Stoics should be too quick to dismiss cognitive psychology's engagements with Stoicism and ancient Greek philosophy in general. I would raise four points:

1) What cognitive psychology have people actually read? It's worth engaging directly with the original material, plenty of which is on the net, by Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Martin Seligman and others. The best contemporary philosophy books on Stoicism, such as Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought, engage directly with contemporary psychology.

2) Isn't there a value in modern psychology's attempt to really test out empirically the therapeutic efficacy of ancient philosophy's ideas and techniques?

3) Isn't there also a value in the way psychology has taken the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy, adapted them, and brought them to a very wide audience? Let's face it, modern Stoicism is INCREDIBLY niche. About 100 people are into it. Cognitive sychology has reached, and helped, millions of people.

4) Isn't there an interesting dialogue to be had between psychology and philosophy? For that to take place, we have to be open to what both sides can bring, rather than saying 'you're wrong, I'm right', and retreating to our own comfort zone. The encounter between ancient philosophy and modern psychology is potentially rich, in my opinion.

All the best as always,

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