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Positive Psychology: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

Until the turn of the 20th century, most of psychology focused on how individuals survived under conditions of adversity. It was largely a field that had a self-help stigma attached to it; rarely did it study the conditions in which normal individuals were happy or happiest. The 2000 paper, “Positive Psychology: An Introduction” by Martin E. P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, changed this. Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi called for psychology to shift its attention from “curing mental illness,” to “making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling.” From this, positive psychology has come to study and understand the “valued subjective experiences… [of] well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present).” Along the way, it has produced several great books that have outlined its findings, and pushed the positive psychology movement as a whole.

This being said, the positive psychology movement seems to have branched into two groups: those that prescribe, and those that describe. Martin Seligman, who has written a couple of books –  Authentic Happiness and Flourish – that outline prescriptive theories that aim to improve happiness and well-being (two very different things according to Seligman, but not important here), represents the former group. As the head of the positive psychology graduate program at UPenn, Seligman is obviously a big proponent of the prescriptive side of positive psychology. As he explains in the introduction to Flourish:

Teaching positive psychology, researching positive psychology, using positive psychology in practice as a coach or therapost, giving positive psychology exercises to tenth graders in a classroom, parenting little kids with positive psychology, teaching drill sergeants how to teach about post-traumatic growth, meeting with other positive psychologists, and just reading about positive psychology all make people happier (2). 

The later group has resisted this self-help attitude. As Dan Gilbert warns in the introduction to his book Stumbling on Happiness, “this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy.” As I said, psychologists in this camp are more concerned with describing happiness – that is, figuring out what makes happy people happy – than they are with prescribing happiness. There are two possible reasons for this. First, they are skeptical of evidence which demonstrates that the findings of positive psychology actually can help people become happy. Second, they believe it is difficult to say that someone has become happier because they read or studied positive psychology literature – correlation does not equal causation, in other words.

These two points are valid, and I am especially concerned by the second one because it is a thorn in a lot of positive psychology research. Consider this. According to a 2008 paper by Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, spending money on others as opposed to ourselves is much more beneficial for our well-being. In their words, “spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending).” So from this we conclude that happy people tend to frequently spend money on others. But here is the question: does spending money on others cause people to be happy? Or do people spend money on others because they are already happy? An interesting question that could be applied to a number of positive psychology studies. For example, one of the biggest findings to come out of the positive psychology movement is that the happiest people have the strongest social relationships. But again, is it that strong social relationships cause people to be happy? Or is it that people have strong social relationships because they are happy?

This is a key question in terms of the descriptive/prescriptive debate. If the correlations between happy people and the activities they participate in are not causal, then there is a big opportunity for people like Seligman who are interested in prescribing happiness. They can identify the characteristics of happy people, and simply tell others to adapt these characteristics (this is what Flourish is about). But if the correlations are causal, then it seems that it would be difficult for psychologists to be prescriptive. In other words, even if psychologists know that people have strong social relationships because they are happy, it doesn’t follow that they would know how to improve sociability.

Ultimately, more time is needed. Positive psychology is young, as I have mentioned, and like any field in its infancy, a few more decades of research will work out the kinks.

Seligman, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 5-14 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.5

Dunn, E., Aknin, L., & Norton, M. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness Science, 319 (5870), 1687-1688 DOI: 10.1126/science.1150952

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard #

    Was there something wrong with the experiment in the article from Dunn, Aknin and Norton (2008) proving the causality of their assumptions?

    July 14, 2011
    • You forgot a few thgins. I belive this land was given to the UR over time and it will be prop. tax free for years with that BENE going to the Developer and the UR who will collect the rent. The retailers won’t see it. The Developer chosen by the UR is from Cleveland as no Roch area Developer had the UR’s vision . The UR with 2B in endowments and annual Revene in the 2to3 Billon range has recieved more tax dollars than any area State School over the last 4yrs. And AREA Mom And Pop business’s and landlords will compete now with the UR and City tax free status. THEY and the DEMS will then be picking the winners in the area private business. Just like Obama. This is a bigger waste than the Fast Ferry. Why won’t a TV station or news paper report the FULL truth on it? Area taxpayers are givig again to the UR if we like it or not.

      October 21, 2013
  2. sammcnerney #

    I went back a re-read the study. Here is what I found. They state that “These experimental results provide direct support for our causal argument that spending money on others promotes happiness more than spending money on oneself.”

    So all they are saying is that according to their evidence, people become happier after they have spent money on others (compare to those that spent it on themselves). From what I can tell, they really don’t address the causal question that I have mentioned. They just ran the study, collected the data, and reported it.

    Here is another important blurb I found: “Although the correlational nature of this design precludes causal inferences, this study provides initial evidence that how people spend their money may be as important for their happiness as how much money they earn – and that spending money on others might represent a more effective route to happiness than spending money on oneself ”

    I guess they are avoiding the causal question and just reporting the data.

    July 14, 2011
  3. Richard #

    I thought the causality would have been sufficiently proven. Yes, the sample size could have been larger than n = 46 but randomly assigning participants to a 2×2 treatment design (windfall size “$5” versus “$20” and spending direction “personal” versus “prosocial”) and calculating an ANCOVA with prewindfall happiness as covariate looks legit to prove causality.

    July 15, 2011
    • Times are changing for the better if I can get this online!

      October 17, 2013
    • So if it is illegal for gomnnevert employees to manage political campaigns, how did Katherine Harris in Florida get away (and rewarded with a congressional seat) with subverting the 2000 vote as an officer of the Bush campaign? Do we live in a one party state like the USSR, Cuba or North Korea?

      November 6, 2013
  4. sammcnerney #

    I think that is right. The study shows that people who spend money on others are happier than people who spend money on themselves.

    But the causal question I am interested in is if, in the real-nonexperimential world, spending money on others causes people to be happy? Or if people spend money on others because they are already happy? And I don’t think the study address that question.

    July 15, 2011
  5. Oli #

    “But again, is it that strong social relationships cause people to be happy? Or is it that people have strong social relationships because they are happy?”

    Maybe both. You need strong social relationships to be happy. Without being happy it’s hard to maintain good social relationships.

    I think most of it is covered by attachment theory.

    August 12, 2011
    • It’s not always a qoestiun of what “anyone can do”.Don’t forget that there’s a prevalence of TV episodes where the woman or women not only engage in psychological manipulation of the male heel but actually physically subdue him, as well.The first overt example of this might have been Mary Tyler Moore judo-flipping Dick Van Dyke.But even earlier on, there was also an Andy Griffith episode, where his beau — armed with a steely expression of militant purpose on her face — defeats him in a rifle-shooting competition and then punctuates that accomplishment with some sort of in-your-face comment.As I recall, poor old Andy hadn’t even really done anything wrong, but he had to pay for some sort of idiot remark that the geeky Barney Fife had delivered on his behalf.In any event, since then, there have been, of course, an onslaught of TV episodes and movie scenes in which an attractive woman makes her point by physically subduing in some fashion her boorish male companion. It’s standard fare that that’s going to happen at least once in any situation comedy that has a long enough shelf life.I’m not really sure that “any woman can do this” though. I’m a criminal defense attorney who does a lot of domestic violence cases, and amazingly enough, in the vast majority of cases that come to the attention of the authorities, it’s the man hurting the woman.Female-on-male domestic violence isn’t at all unheard-of, and it’s most likely to occur when the woman is armed with a weapon and/or the element of surprise and/or being benefited by the fact that her male target is afraid to even defend himself.But in most straight up confrontations, it’s the woman getting the worst of it.For some strange reason, however, in such instances, the authorities don’t give the male suspect any plaudits for the use of domestic violence as a means of empowering himself.Depending on the frequency of his domestic-violence crimes and the severity of the injuries that he causes, he’s treated either as an embryonic monster or as a full-fledged monster and locked up.And I certainly don’t counsel my clients that laying angry hands on their partner is legally or morally justifiable.Yet, from a purely sociobiological standpoint, it can be shown that the male half of the partnership is likely to have at least as great a need for “empowerment” as the female half.

      November 6, 2013
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    July 9, 2014
  7. Anonymous #

    what did barney say happiness is

    March 17, 2022

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