Second wave positive psychology

Dr Tim Lomas – Second Wave of Positive Psychology


Dan: So good afternoon to Dr Tim Lomas, one of the co-authors of the Second Wave Positive Psychology. Good afternoon, Tim.

Tim: Good afternoon. Thanks, Tim.

Dan: Thanks for joining me today. Just wanted to talk through some questions about the Second Wave Positive Psychology, if that’s okay? So first of all, what is the second wave of positive psychology?

Tim: Okay, well with hopefully not being too hubristic in labelling this the second wave, I think we have to put it into the context of how the field was when it first emerged, you know, the origin story was that psychology as usual tended to focus more on distress and dysfunction, and there really wasn’t much attention generally paid to the brighter sides of functioning, to constructs like happiness and flourishing and wellbeing. So I think positive psychology did everyone a wonderful service by coming along and shining a light on these important topics relating to wellbeing, and I think obviously met with such enthusiasm and such … you know, just such excitement, because it really serves an important need, because people wanted to find out about important processes and qualities, whether it’s in optimism and hope, find out how to promote these in people’s lives, how to help people lead better lives, which is all I think incredibly valuable. So the last thing we want to do in talking about the second wave is imply that any of that was errant or wrong or flawed, because I don’t think it was, I think it was all very useful, but what I think was, as this first wave, if you like, of research got underway various nuances began to be picked up, and I think some of these, you know, were even present from the start and even before the start of the positive psychology. So, for example, I always refer to the fact in Seligman’s book in 1990, he talks about perhaps people being wary of the tyrannies of optimism and being able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when you need it. So back there, in 1990, I think Seligman was saying that it’s not just we should valorise optimism as this unqualified good and view pessimism as necessarily an intrinsically bad thing.

So as the field got going I think it focused on process and qualities like optimism and so on, and then in that process of researching these qualities it would note occasions, for example, on which optimism might not always be beneficial to wellbeing, you know, and conversely some qualities like pessimism or anxiety in particular circumstances could actually be conducive to flourishing. So for us, we felt that when you get into this territory, when things that we label ostensibly as being positive, actually can be negative, if you will, and vice versa, qualities that we could construct as being negative, like anxiety, actually could help in terms of flourishing, which means the negative becomes a positive, so it kind of problemetises and critiques the very idea of positive and negative. Now for me that doesn’t in any way undermine the idea of positive psychology at all, I think it just means that as the field grows and develops we’re collectively starting to get a bit more of a nuanced sense of the contextualisation of particular qualities under which circumstances are certain things positive and negative, as it were. So for us, rather than undermining the field of positive psychology, we just felt that with all this research that’s been happening over the last 10 years or so the field is moving into a slightly different plane, a slightly different level, as it were, and we just gave a label to this with ‘second wave positive psychology’. So it’s not like we’re suggesting everyone else has been doing things as a sort of first wave approach and here we are with this bold new second wave approach, that’s not what we’re suggesting, it’s more just a way of recognising trends and patterns that have been ongoing in the field for the last 10-15 years, like I say, critique in positive and negative, for example, recognising that we need to perhaps engage with the difficulties of life, they can actually be useful and valuable in some respects and be conducive to flourishing, so just grouping all of this emergent research under the label of second wave. So for me that’s perhaps the second wave in a nutshell.

Dan: Thank you very much for that. Do you feel that this is something that’s needed now for the field?

Tim: I would say perhaps. I mean, I think it would probably still get along fine without us, kind of this idea or bringing this book out, it certainly doesn’t need our help in that respect, but I think it can hopefully bring something to the field, something useful. You know, it can open up this conceptual space where people can bring in slightly more unusual qualities, you know, topics of interest; so, for example, things that could be considered part of the darker aspects of life, uncomfortable emotions, the fact that these can be part of positive psychology. I mean, for example, Itai, my colleague, writes about psychological growth can often mean encountering and transcending difficult aspects of ourselves, so I might only grow personally if I encounter an aspect of myself that is problematic and perhaps painful to face up to, but then it’s necessary to engage with that in order to transcend and develop and to grow. So I think it’s recognising that things that we might deem to be negative can still serve flourishing and adaptation and wellbeing, so it can perhaps expand our way, expand our horizons and concern in the field, so I think it’s useful in that respect. I also think it can help in terms of making other people feel more welcome in the field, because I think one of the motivations for the book was some conversations we’d have with people and they felt there was this … you know, to engage with positive psychology and to study it or to follow it or to believe in it, the sense that you had to be feeling positive or you had to be feeling upbeat, and I don’t think scholars in the field want to give that impression but that’s certainly how some people could feel, that if they were feeling sad or anxious that it wasn’t really for them and it’s only something you can engage with if life is going well, which we felt was a real shame, because it meant that people who might really be in need of positive psychology, you know, at difficult times in their life, perhaps felt it wasn’t for them, perhaps they could feel that their sense of sadness or anxiety wasn’t normal or they shouldn’t be feeling that way, they should be feeling positive, so perhaps they may not have felt as welcome as they might have done in the field, so if we open up this space where those qualities can be talked about and engaged with it could perhaps be more inclusive and welcoming, and also we all know the criticism about positive psychology being a smiley face and positive thinking. So I think for critics in the field as well we can say that it’s not about … I mean, us within the field, we know it’s not about that, we know it’s not about people just thinking positively and so on, but critics from the field can sometimes get that impression. So I think by opening up this side of the second wave it can hopefully disarm some of the critics, if you know what I mean?

Dan: Yeah. No, that makes perfect sense to me.

Tim: Yeah.

Dan: I think it’s a great way of balancing out what you were saying about the happy, smiley face and people feeling almost like a pressure to feel positive and have those happy feelings when, in reality, that’s not going to be realistic.

Tim: Yeah. Well that’s true, because I think there’s an interesting scholar called Barbara Helg, and she wrote of the sort of tyranny of the positive, and in fact she was very influential in that whole idea of coming up with the second wave, and in fact that very label actually comes from one of her papers, she called this a kind of second wave within the field, so we’ve kind of taken her concept and taken inspiration from her, and she would call this, yeah, this pressure perhaps to feel happy, to feel positive, as somewhat of a tyranny of the positive.

It’s a strong polemical word, but I see what she’s getting at, so hopefully this can alleviate that pressure that we should feel happy. Obviously if you do feel happy and positive that’s wonderful, don’t feel bad that you do, but if you’re not feeling that way then you shouldn’t chastise yourself.

Dan: Exactly.

Tim: Because I often think of that Buddhist concept of the two arrows, you know, that however you may be feeling might be your first arrow, so if you’re feeling sad and that hits you like an arrow and that’s painful enough, but then meta feelings, feelings about feelings, you might feel despairing of the fact that we’re feeling sad rather than it just being what’s happening for us at that moment.

So that tyranny can be perhaps the second arrow that can kind of double up on our pain and suffering, so yeah.

Dan: No, that’s great, thank you very much.

Tim: Alright.

Dan: And what areas of the second wave positive psychology are of keen interest to you?

Tim: Well I think for me, in our Second Wave book, the first chapter I did was on dialectics and emotion.

So I know you might want to ask me about, you were planning on asking me about that?

Dan: Yeah, yeah, now’s a good time.

Dan: But I’ll weave that in here in a way, because in the dialectics of emotion it was really taking that critical idea that what seems to be positive could be negative and what seems to be negative could be positive. So in that chapter I was tracing the way in which optimism, for example, in certain circumstances could be disadvantageous or detrimental to wellbeing, you know. There is, for example, a study showing that perhaps what we’d call excessive optimism would lead to a misapprehension of risk and then to subsequent health risk behaviours, like smoking, because people are optimistic that they won’t get ill, for example, and converse would be qualities like pessimism could be really useful, for example, you know, if it meant you did some proactive coping, were more cautionary and took care of things in advance. So in that chapter I was really interested in going through a number of different qualities and saying ‘Well actually, in certain situations, what seems to be positive could be negative’, and vice versa. So in terms of what current areas of the second wave are of interest to me, well, for a start, I’m currently just finishing writing a book.

Dan: Another one already?

Tim: Yeah, I can’t seem to stop, but this is like a non-academic one for more of a general audience, and then trying to look at different negative emotions in turn and not simply just to normalise them but to say how these could be harnessed in a skilful way to help people flourish.

Whether that’s anger, so, for example, the chapter on anger was based on a review I also did on anger, that it can be a moral emotion, you know, so it’s not always a moral emotion, people sometimes just get angry, but it can be a moral emotion, a sign that, for example, some ethic has been breached, some line has been crossed, and perhaps if that’s harnessed in the right way it might lead people to want to improve their situation. So, for example, you can talk about a sense of appropriate anger, not a hateful anger but certain types of anger underpinning some of the great social progressive movements, for example, or conversely entirely you could think about guilt and then reflecting on one’s sense of guilt might lead you to try to become a better person. So yeah, my interest would be really trying to look at these different negative emotions and saying ‘Well actually they’re not just perhaps normal and appropriate, but actually they can be useful and can be harnessed to help people flourish, to lead better lives’.

So that’s of particular interest to me, and then I’ve also taken a real interest, I think I did this in the chapter, but trying to take this notion of dialectics and the interaction between positive and negative and then link it back to sort of dialectical philosophies, like Buddhism and Taoism, which obviously, say particular Taoism, was essentially founded on this appreciation of dialectics, you know, you’ve seen that example of finding the yin yang symbol, and you find that too in Zen Buddhism, and then I’ve been getting very absorbed in looking for examples of Zen aesthetics.

Certain aesthetic principles that kind of capture this appreciation of dialectics, and that these could perhaps be used by us to cultivate that kind of appreciation, so finding that very fascinating at the moment. To be honest, it’s quite … I don’t know, it blows your mind a bit because you feel like you’re going into very strange areas with this, and especially with some of the Zen aesthetic stuff, but I enjoy trying to take these new ideas on and try and develop different theories and models, so it’s all very interesting.

Dan: And I think one of your co-authors, Dr Piers Worth, would say you’re pushing the boundaries of the map or the edge of the map.

Tim: Pushing the edge of the map, exactly. Well yeah, I think we try to. I mean, I think everyone in the field is in their own way, we’re all sort of expanding and developing the field and this is our contribution. Like I say, the one thing, I hate to give this sense of everyone else is still mired in its first wave of thinking and there’s only us pushing the boundaries, I think everybody is, everyone is challenging preconceived notions, everyone is developing their models and their concepts in really interesting ways and engaging in thoughtful ways with critiques of the field, and this is just our little contribution to that I think. Like I say, it’s not just us, I think lots of other scholars are working on ideas that we would perhaps see as fitting within the second wave, whether they do or not, they might not want to see themselves in that way, but we would say that we draw on their work; so people like McNulty and Fincham talk about contextual approach to positive psychology, so for me that’s very much part of what we’re doing. Obviously people like our leading light and mentor, Paul Wong, who really pioneered this territory.

I know obviously Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, with their great book, Upside of the Downside, I mean, I’m not sure what they would think of this notion of second wave positive psychology per se, but for me what they were doing was very emblematic of what we’re trying to do in terms of critique and positive and negative and challenged thinking in that way. So I just think there’s a lot happening in the field and then we’re just hoping to contribute to it, trying to bring it together in this way.

Dan: No, it’s a great contribution, I think.

Tim: Thank you.

Dan: It’s a great book. Then just my final question for you is you talk about, in one of your chapters, in your chapters, about compassion and about how that as well can be a strength and a virtue.

Tim: Yeah, because compassion, it’s such a strange thing, isn’t it, because it’s so valorised and upheld as this vital quality that people should cultivate, which I absolutely agree with, but then, obviously when you think about it, it intrinsically involves negative emotions and suffering, because the ethology of the word is ‘suffering with’, you know, you’re taking on another person’s suffering and you’re responding with insight and empathy and hoping to help them, so you’re necessarily feeling this dysphoric emotions when you’re being compassionate, and yet no one would say compassion was a bad thing, it’s intrinsically valuable and necessary and worthwhile. So for me it just seemed really emblematic of this second wave idea and really seemed to exemplify it, what it meant was the fact that it does involve dysphoric, negative emotions, but ultimately it’s so important and so valuable and so integral to flourishing, and then it really got me thinking, you know, what is it about compassion that’s so important. So one idea I had was we would obviously recognise compassion as being valuable to the recipient, you know, they’ll be helped and they’ll feel cared for and so on, and it’s also obviously valuable for society, you know, it might underpin our system of morals and so on, but then I also thought that it’s actually so important to the actor themselves, and for me I would speculate the reason that is is because it brings them out of themselves, you know, they transcend their narrow sense of self identity and connect with another human being, and even though they’re connecting because they’re sharing their suffering they’re still becoming part of a dyad or a community that’s larger than themselves, which takes them out of their own ego, which, from a Buddhist perspective, for example, would lead them on to kind of high levels of psycho-spiritual development. So I just think it’s one of those really interesting qualities that, in base terms, is a negative emotion, but it’s not negative in its impact or its effects ultimately.

So that’s why it was really emblematic I felt of this whole second wave idea, that things that ostensibly seem negative actually can be positive and conducive towards flourishing, which was for me why it was so interesting.

Dan: Yeah. No, definitely, I love that, I love the way you put that.

Tim: Thank you.

Dan: Well thank you very much then, Tim.

Tim: Welcome, thanks for having me on.

Dan: Hope that the Second Wave Positive Psychology goes from strength to strength, I know that it’s a very popular book. So yeah, thank you very much for your time.

Tim: Thank you, Dan. Cheers, thanks.

Dan: Cheers.


‘Maximising Potential’