Positive psychology has emerged as a rapidly growing sub-discipline of psychology that explicitly focuses on promoting wellbeing, happiness, and optimal functioning of individuals, communities, and institutions. But it has been criticized for its relevance, impact and credibility as a scientific discipline and as a capitalistic venture.
Positive psychology specifically focuses on understanding the positive states, -traits and -behaviours required to live happier, healthier, and more meaningful lives. This approach spawned many new theories and models that aimed to explain, measure, and develop the optimal conditions for individuals to thrive and societies to flourish. Positive psychology’s unique focus led to the development of several new sub-disciplines within psychology ranging from positive organizational psychology to positive ageing, and its scientific discoveries adopted in several adjacent fields (e.g. education, medicine, architectural design, and even environmental sciences). It also proved to be popular in practice, with many popular psychology and management books based on positive psychological principles and theories reaching the best sellers‘ lists in multiple countries. While its contribution and growing popularity are undeniable, positive psychology has also been criticized and critiqued for its relevance, impact and credibility as a scientific discipline or practice domain.
The main criticisms and critiques
Over the years, critics have questioned various aspects of the discipline ranging from the novelty of its distinct contribution to understanding the human condition, to the validity of the philosophies, theories, methodologies, and interventions on which it is built. Positive psychology has received criticism for its Western-centric focus, over-emphasis on individual-level approaches/interventions, over-simplification of the human experience, and reliance on poor methods and methodologies.
A recent systematic literature review by Van Zyl, Gaffaney, Van Der Vaart, Dik and Donaldson (2023) aimed to consolidate and categorize positive psychology’s various critiques and criticisms. The review identified 117 distinct challenges that critics raised, which were consolidated into six overarching categories of criticisms/critiques. Critics argued that positive psychology (a) lacked proper theorizing and conceptual thinking, (b) was problematic as far as measurement and methodologies were concerned, (c) was seen as a pseudoscience that lacked evidence and had poor replication, (d) lacked novelty and self-isolated from mainstream psychology, (e) was a decontextualized neo-liberalist ideology that caused harm, and (f) was a capitalistic venture.
Professor Llewellyn van Zyl has a Doctorate (Ph.D), a Master of Commerce, Honours and a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Psychology and Statistics from the North-West University. He holds an Extraordinary Professorship of Positive Psychology with the Optentia Research Programme at North-West University and an Assistant Professorship with the Human Performance Management Group at Eindhoven University of Technology. Professionally, he is an established academic researcher, having published various scientific articles and specialist books on positive psychological approaches to wellbeing assessments and interventions. He also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Positive Psychology.