Jerome Kagan on Positive Psychology's Negatives

Jerome Kagan,a developmental psychologist and emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University, has written or edited 24 books on emotions and temperament. In a conversation with correspondent Jill Hamburg Coplan, he casts doubt on positive psychology, the so-called science of happiness.

Q: You've said one problem with positive psychology is simply defining happiness.

A: The term is completely ambiguous. Some people use it when their internal "feeling tone" is serene and relaxed. Others will say they're happy because they had a miserable childhood and their current life is better, even though their feeling tone isn't very good.

Q: Is there anything wrong with workplace exercises to increase gratitude, appreciation, or a sense of common purpose?

A: These exercises are excellent, and they do make people happy—temporarily. Being kind to your colleague will help everybody feel they're virtuous and automatically give them a brief bout of happiness. But its effectiveness is limited. These are all temporary palliatives. Humans are very vulnerable to believing in any change—for a brief moment they feel hopeful and happy, and then it vanishes. If you paint the walls a new color, productivity will go up, but in six months, it returns to what it was.

Q: What does your research on temperament say about happiness?

A: Between one-quarter and one-third of humans inherit a chemistry that makes it easy for them to feel relaxed and exuberant. For another 10% to 15% of people, it's just much more difficult to feel chronically happy. Remember The Odd Couple? Oscar has a temperament to be happy, and Felix could never be happy. Oscar gave Felix good advice, which Felix could not follow.

Q: Do you agree with positive psychology's calling card, that it's rigorously scientific?

A: There is science to show people can feel temporarily better. There's research on spirituality, for example: If you compare people given a diagnosis of cancer, those with a deep spiritual commitment live longer and complain less. Spirituality mutes uncertainty and tension. Positive psychology is based on the fact—which many people have noticed—that a brief period of happiness often follows a kind act, exercise, going to church, or many other experiences. Rituals temporarily make people feel better. You go to a healer or the psychoanalytic couch, or give money to charity, and then feel better. That is a feature of being human. The problem with positive psychology is that all humans do not find happiness in the same ways. Some people feel happy when they deceive another or take revenge on someone.

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