I attended a retreat with my scholarship program this weekend, which concluded on Sunday with a speaker who came to talk to us about “positive psychology.” The speaker was exceedingly friendly and energetic and cared deeply about the “good news” that he carried with him, but I’m afraid he will not be able to count on me as among his converts.
Positive psychology emphasizes the ability of individuals to re-frame the world around them and more or less recreate their reality. The lecturer noted that positive psychology doesn’t pretend to give the individual absolute power over the universe; rather, it suggests that we can overcome the problems that exist within our control, so that we can turn to address those problems outside of our control.
But reality is that things simply don’t exist within our control. At best, positive psychology might entail a reconsideration of the hand we are dealt. It sometimes gets bound up with “mindfulness,” which isn’t harmful in itself. But positive psychology, at its worst, puts the responsibility for one’s well-being on the individual in a radically broken society. It victim blames, and it lacks any analysis of power.
During that session, a “wish bracelet” that I’ve been wearing on my right wrist since November finally snapped. Mere superstition, the bracelet had promised to make a wish come true when it finally came off. Its talk was bigger than its walk, however, and the wish I made at the time never occurred. After a couple of hard weeks, that wasn’t ideal, but it was alright. The wish bracelet lets me move on–I tried to employ the resources available to me, but my shortcoming is not a testament to my inadequacy.
This time of year I also struggle a bit with seasonal effective disorder, a depression related to the changing of seasons that affects me particularly in the early spring and early fall. My depression does not occur because I don’t have the right things in my life–biologically speaking, it occurs because of changes in natural light patterns. I’m able to handle my seasonal depression rather well, because I’m able to keep exacerbatory factors to a minimum, and because I know that it will pass in a few weeks. But no amount of “positive thinking” can take away pain when it is present.
People struggle with depression that doesn’t have such a limited scope as mine. People also struggle with hunger, homelessness, police harassment, sexism, racism, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia. Each of these social marginalizations entail material as well as psychological costs. Asking the people who are systematically marginalized and excluded to change their mentality wrongly suggests that they can “opt out” of the oppression they face. Re-framing doesn’t put food on the table or a roof overhead and it doesn’t heal the heart. If we genuinely want a psychology that empowers us to create the world we want, then we’ll need a psychology that rejects the systems of power that impose unbearable conditions upon the people and then blames them for their oppression.