Barbara Held on the ‘Tyranny of the Positive Attitude’

Story posted April 07, 2011

Ask Barbara Held, Bowdoin’s Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies, how she's doing — in any language — and she may tell you, “I hate everything.”

Held, who has made a name for herself challenging what she calls “the tyranny of the positive attitude,” is quoted in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland and in an article on the website of the American Psychological Association.

Barbara Held150.jpg
Barbara Held

Translated excerpt from the Vrij Nederland article, “No, We Can’t!”:

[Held] begins conversations regularly with the challenge “I hate everything.” Yet according to her the Negateers are “not negative, but realistic.”  Life is not always a party and the pressure to be continually happy, optimistic and cheery is unbearable.

Excerpt from the APA article, “Positive Psychology Advances, with Growing Pains”:

Although there may be some very valid and good research coming out of positive psychology, philosophical psychologist Barbara Held, PhD, takes issue with what her read of the literature interprets as a “monolithic message” coming from leaders of the positive psychology movement. She’s been a vocal critic of the field and although she’s seen a move among scientists toward more nuanced messages, she still thinks the dominant message is that happiness is good and good for you and if you can’t make yourself happy, then given positive psychology’s readily available techniques, it’s your own fault. “I take issue with it because it blames the victim,” she says.

Read the full article.

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