Getting better v. being better: Wellness, Positive Psychology, and morality in mental health

The New York Times Magazine this weekend is a special issue on the science of healthy living, and in the On Language column (a weekly entry on etymology — that’s words, not insects) Ben Zimmer covers derivation of “wellness.” I haven’t entirely recovered from the absence of Bill Safire’s wordly genius (1929-2009; Safire was the On Language columnists for almost that long), but I do peek at the titles now and then. “Wellness: How did we end up with this alternative to ‘health’?” caught my eye. I read it, and was struck by the language of morality in the article.

Consider the following description of Halbert L. Dunn’s “high-level wellness”:

an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable.

Maximizing potential? In the medical context of this week’s On Language, this sounds like getting really buff. But wellness is used frequently in psychology as well, and talk of maximizing potential hearkens to Rogerian self actualizing potential (Carl Rogers practiced unconditional positive regard in order to unleash clients’ self actualizing potential) and other key concepts from humanistic psychology. Modern psychology’s has an updated version of this in the booming field of happiness studies and Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology is based around the idea that psychology should examine the non-pathological phenomena of the human condition. In this way it’s a sort of “anti-Abnormal Psychology.” Okay, that’s nice; who doesn’t like a “strengths-based” approach? A criticism of Positive Psychology is that it often infuses the language of morality into its key concepts. But is it really morally prescriptive? Let’s ask the experts.

Here’s a quick answer from the FAQ section of the Martin Seligman’s University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center:

5. Is the science of positive psychology descriptive or prescriptive? In other words, are we trying to tell people how they should live?

Positive psychology is descriptive, not prescriptive, at least in Seligman’s view, although others disagree. We are not telling people which choices they should make; we are merely informing them about what is known about the consequences of their choices. The good life for one person is not necessarily the good life for another. Objective, empirical research on the conditions that lead to different outcomes, however, can help people make more informed choices, but we take no theoretical stand on the desirability of the different choices.

Hm, I guess it’s not. So…. here’s a couple non-prescriptive titles from Seligman: Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002); Character Strengths and Virtues A Handbook and Classification (2004). A handbook of “virtues” takes “no theoretical stand on the desirability of… different choices”? Really?

The fact is that health and wellness of any kind inevitably involves moral judgment, and as such their practitioners are often called upon to act as experts in morality. But we in mental health are not well-trained in morality — I’m not saying we’re a bunch of jerks, just that most of us don’t get training in ethics beyond learning our respective professional codes of ethics (which are, by the way, are mostly limited to specific things we shouldn’t do — e.g., don’t sleep with your patients, unless two years have passed since the end of treatment — and a few vague pronouncements about overarching principles — e.g., treating or referring everyone who seeks treatment). We would do well as a field to further examine how the “shoulds of getting better” bleed into the “shoulds of being a better person”.

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3 Responses to “Getting better v. being better: Wellness, Positive Psychology, and morality in mental health”


  1. 1 Rochelle Mitchell May 9, 2010 at 2:38 am

    I am wondering how you would answer this question…
    Wellness and ‘Positive Psychology’ are terms that help us to focus our attention on what is working in our lives. What are the elements of wellness planning that you think are important in life? How can you make realistic plans for attending to your wellness?

    • 2 andyrasmussen May 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm

      A fair question. I like that positive psychology focuses attention on “what is working in our lives.” But I think of that as just good clinical psychology — reinforcing healthful behavior, discouraging unhealthy behavior. I think with the emphasis on “virtues” the Positive Psychology movement has taken the very reasonable and appropriate reinforcement of healthful behavior and extended it into a prescriptive frame for “moral well-being.” When psychologists (or any healthcare providers) do that, they stray into a realm previously occupied by religious leaders… only now they are religious leaders with some claim of science behind them.

  2. 3 Farah Nasim June 28, 2012 at 5:39 am

    I find the morality aspect in positive psychology a bit confusing. In my culture, most of the internal conflicts are based on choosing the religiously and culturally defined morally right thing. which become the biggest reason of unhappiness and leads to different psychological illnesses.


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