The interventions advocated in positive psychology show, not just a surprising overlap with pastoral theology, but can also be used to deepen and aid Christian practice.
Are psychology and religion fundamentally incompatible? Certainly, some forms of psychology are inconsistent with Christianity, as Paul Vitz pointed out in Psychology As Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. Freud’s atheistic materialism, and reduction of theism to a childish desire for a father figure as a savior from helplessness, exemplifies this conflict. However, the full history of psychology and Christian belief is more complicated and interesting. For example, in his recent book Psychology and Catholicism: Contested Boundaries, Robert Kugelmann addresses the ways in which psychology and Catholicism have, in various ways, collaborated, co-mingled, and, only at times, contradicted each other. The time period highlighted in this fascinating study ends in the mid-1960s, before the advent of what is called “positive psychology.” This contemporary development in the study of behavior and mental processes, opens the door to new ways of conceiving the relationship of psychology to Christianity. Traditionally, psychology has focused on pathologies, such as: bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. In 1998, Martin Seligmann, of the University of Pennsylvania, dedicated his term as president of the American Psychology Association to the study of the positive: optimism rather than helplessness, signature strengths rather than pathology, and growth in happiness rather than depression.
Seligman’s recasting of psychology opened up a flourishing new field. Tal Ben-Shahar, author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, began teaching about positive psychology in what would become Harvard’s most popular undergraduate course. The University of Pennsylvania, and Claremont Graduate University, now offer advanced degrees in positive psychology. Of the many books on the topic for lay people, perhaps the best introduction is: The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. Unlike the power of positive thinking, advocated Norman Vincent Peal, researchers in positive psychology stress that their approach is empirical and scientific. Like new medications, the various strategies for increasing happiness are tested via double blind, replicated studies that make use of placebos.
The interventions advocated in positive psychology show, not just a surprising overlap with pastoral theology, but can also be used to deepen and aid Christian practice. This sort of synthesis may be what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their document, Gaudium et spes, envisioned. It states: “In pastoral care, sufficient use must be made, not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of the secular sciences, especially of psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith.”
One of the key findings of positive psychology has to do with the relationship of happiness and money. In contemporary culture, many people believe that the key to “the good life” lies in the acquisition of vast material goods, and the accumulation of cash. By contrast, true happiness, from the Christian viewpoint, is found in love of God and love of neighbor. Indeed, an excessive love of money is viewed as a great impediment to salvation. Greed was listed as a capital sin, precisely on account of its tendency to lead to other sins, such as: theft, neglect of family for work, manipulation of others, and lying.
The findings in positive psychology greatly support Christian teaching that happiness cannot be found in the accumulation or possession of money. Many studies have investigated the relationship between money and happiness. They found that increases in money do significantly increase happiness, but only if one does not have sufficient material goods for basic living. The person who does not eat three meals a day, or sleep in a bed, or wear warm clothes is made significantly more happy by the acquisition of these necessities. However, once basic needs are met, researchers found no increase in reported happiness. As David Myers points out in his book, The Pursuit of Happiness, over the last 50 years, the average American has become much more wealthy. Americans tend to live in bigger houses, own more cars and televisions, and have greater disposable income than ever before, and, yet, the average American is no more happy than 50 years ago. After the initial shock wears off, lottery winners report no greater levels of happiness than they had before winning. Fortune 500 CEOs are no more happy, and often are less happy, than average people. Almost everyone says that they need ten to fifteen percent more money to be “comfortable.” Yet, the higher their income goes, people will simply adjust to the new level of affluence, again desiring ten to fifteen percent more. For those whose ears are deaf to the Gospel’s warnings against greed, the findings of positive psychology may amount to a natural moral theology.
A similar overlap between positive psychology and pastoral theology, is found in the importance of giving thanks. One of the most common interventions suggested in positive psychology is the “three good things exercise.” In this exercise, at the end of the day, a person writes down whatever three things went well that day—from a good conversation with a friend, a nice meal, or a job well done at work. As this is done on a daily basis, a person becomes more aware of the good things that are already embedded in daily living. A study conducted by Seligman found that among depressed patients, 94 percent of them found relief from consistent use of the three good things exercise.
An emphasis on thanksgiving is found throughout the pastoral tradition. St. Ignatius Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, recommended this practice in the 16th century. The Jesuit examination, to be done at noon and at night, includes thinking over the time since the previous examination, recognizing the blessings that God has bestowed. Ignatius gives a concrete expression to what he had learned perhaps from St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, who identified thankfulness and gratitude, to both God and our benefactors, as special virtues needed for happiness. Each Eucharist (from the Greek word for thanksgiving) is a standing invitation to Christians to call to mind, and have gratitude for, the gifts found in daily life. In the words of Scripture: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18).
Contemporary psychological findings, about the importance of forgiveness, likewise vindicate Christian teaching. Jesus, in teaching his disciples to pray, in his actions and in his verbal instruction, emphasized the importance of forgiving the trespasses of others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven times. Christopher Peterson, a leader in positive psychology from the University of Michigan, argues that forgiveness is the trait most positively linked to happiness. He says: “Forgiveness is not a favor to the other person, but a gift to ourselves. It takes an emotional burden off our shoulders. Forgiveness liberates us from the past, although it need not entail forgetting what has happened….” Without forgiveness, long term relationships become impossible, since in any long term relationship there are bound to arise misunderstandings, disagreements, and conflicts. Without good long-term relationships, the researchers found, happiness is greatly undermined.
One more area of agreement is a critique of hedonism, and an emphasis on charitable work. The “good life,” according to Christian belief, consists in loving neighbor and loving God, rather than hedonistic self-indulgence in bodily pleasures found in drugs, drink, and sex. Positive psychology provides empirical confirmation that “philanthropic” activities provide more long-term satisfaction than “pleasurable” activities. The rush of bodily pleasures quickly fades; the glow of corporal and spiritual works of mercy abides.
Finally, positive psychology, especially the work of Seligman, emphasizes cultivating an optimistic, rather than pessimistic, attitude in the face of life’s inevitable obstacles and disappointments. Seligman found that a person’s style of explanation determines whether they are crushed and destroyed by the setbacks of life, or whether they are resilient. This style of explanation can be challenged and changed for the better. In the face of evils, the pessimist believes: “This setback ruins everything, this will last forever, and there is nothing I can do about it.” Seligman devised cognitive therapy interventions that introduce alternative explanations, “This bad thing does not ruin everything, it will not last forever, and there is something I can do about it.”
The Christian with the theological virtue of hope is, in Seligman’s terms, an optimist with the resources to embody resilience in the face of evil. The theological virtue of hope, as understood by Aquinas, has as its object the eternal happiness of heaven, to be achieved with God’s help. In the face of even the worst of life’s trials, the hope-filled Christian can say: “This evil will not last forever because in the end, ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away’” (Rev 21:4). No evil inflicted from without, can ruin everything, since the hope of heaven can never be stolen away, but only destroyed by one’s own sinful action. Indeed, even deadly sin does not destroy the hope of heaven, for as long as life endures, repentance is possible. Finally, there is always “something I can do about it” for the hope filled Christian. Of the deadly sin, I can repent. In the face of non-moral evils, I can pray and work. In the face of suffering, I can unite what I endure with the sufferings of Jesus. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). The “optimistic explanatory style” advocated by Seligman is embedded in the theological beliefs and practices of the Christian.
Indeed, although I’ve found empirical confirmation of many Christian practices in the work of positive psychology, I cannot recall a single instance of contradiction, save one that was at the theoretical, rather than practical, level. At the end his book, Authentic Happiness, Seligman sets aside his typical empirical orientation, attempting a philosophical analysis of God, evil, and freedom. These remarks reveal that Seligman’s understanding of these matters has not advanced far from his undergraduate degree in philosophy. Whatever the religious beliefs of positive psychologists, no doubt, they have a variety of views. The relationship of practical findings of positive psychology, and the spiritual tradition, is not confined to overlapping consensus about the importance of forgiveness, philanthropic activity, detached relationship to money, and thanksgiving. In addition, the findings of positive psychology can be used to aid the spiritual life in terms of the development of moral character in a variety of ways.
In their Oxford book, Character Strengths and Virtues, Seligman and Peterson, tackle the important issues that may help in Christian pedagogy: “How can character be developed? Can it be learned? Relatedly, can it be taught, and who might be the most effective teacher? What roles are played by family, schools, the media, religion, and the larger culture?” Seligman and Peterson describe seven different character strengths that mirror, more or less, the theological and cardinal virtues. What is new and significant is that they have developed tests—albeit self-reporting examinations with their inherent weaknesses—that can help a person identify their signature strengths. According to their findings, people making use of their own signature strengths in new ways, not only report greater happiness, but also can shore-up, in certain ways, areas of weakness. Such testing might be used as part of a discernment process for finding the best fit for an individual seeking to serve the community.
We reinforce, or form, habits in each choice—habits that enhance Christian living, or undermine it. Positive psychology, and contemporary neuroscience, have suggested ways in which we can enhance habit formation. Norman Doidge pointed out, in his book, The Brain that Changes, that the ever changing plasticity of the brain means that no one is “done,” as far as being a fixed and final character. Progress (or regress) occurs on a daily basis through our choices, which reshape ourselves, for better or worse. People of faith, interested in cultivating moral virtue, the habit of doing good acts, can make use of these contemporary findings to help themselves, and others, gain or strengthen good habits, or break bad habits. These insights include the idea that one should focus on one habit at a time, rather than try to pick up several good habits at once. Habit acquisition taxes the brain, so to attempt to simultaneously give up excess drinking, start praying more, and volunteer, is virtually doomed to failure. Once a single habit is chosen, the time acquisition for acquiring a habit varies somewhat, but it is roughly around 30-40 days. It may be helpful, therefore, to focus on a single habit each month, while taking up an especially difficult habit to break during the slightly longer Lenten season.
In addition to focusing on one habit over a few weeks, self-monitoring is important. As Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney point out in their book, Will Power: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, monitoring awareness—both self-awareness and awareness of others seeing us—is related to self-control. Daily monitoring of progress (or lack of progress) is a key to growth. They write: “Keeping track is more than just knowing where things are. It means knowing where they are in relation to where they should be. … Changing personal behavior to meet standards requires willpower, but willpower without self-awareness is as useless as a cannon commanded by a blind man.” This insight echoes the advice of spiritual directors who recommend daily examination of conscience to keep track of one’s moral growth.
Likewise, the practice of the “presence of God”—as awareness that one is being viewed by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, advocated by so many spiritual guides—finds a resonance in the findings of the researchers. Baumeister and Tierney found that religious participation helps with two aspects of self-control; namely, building will power, and improving self-monitoring. It builds will power through the habits of prayer, focus of attention on God, and proscribed times of fasting. It improves self-monitoring through belief in God’s seeing them, as well as being monitored by other members of the religious community. Moral behavior is not, obviously, guaranteed by religious practice, but it is made more likely to occur.
Moral character is built from good acts; evil character from evil acts. But when one is in the midst of habit development, what can be done when one is tempted to do evil, or tempted to omit the good? Many people know the right thing to do, but struggle in the moment, choosing the wrong thing. What can be done to help someone suffering from weakness of will?
Some researchers suggest increasing self-control in the moment, by increasing the level of glucose in the body. Low blood sugar reduces the ability of a person to resist temptation. Another technique is called “gratitude breathing.” Neuroscience distinguishes various parts of the brain that engage in various activities. In times of stress, the amygdala and striatum—the pleasure driven centers of the brain’s limbic system—can become overactive; the logic centers of the brain—the anterior cingulated gyrus—less dominant. In order to restore balance, three or four deep breaths, combined with calling to mind something for which one is grateful, restores greater control to logic centers of the brain, and calms down erratic breathing, enabling a person to better deal with temptation. In times of stress, such as temptation, the logic and pleasure driven centers become less engaged with one another, gratitude breathing restores their proper connection. In her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal writes: “You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost will power: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. … Slowing the breath down, activates the prefrontal cortex, while increasing heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress, to self-control mode.”
The technique of gratitude breathing can be combined with the importance of awareness of others mentioned earlier. Gratitude breathing undertaken as prayer to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit combines the physiological benefits of deep breathing, and the benefit of being aware that one is in the presence of Divine Persons.
Let me take one concrete example of how positive psychology can help those struggling with a bad habit, namely, the use of pornography, and unwanted sexual behavior. It is sometimes suggested that those who struggle with these issues should “just think about something else” when confronted with temptation. This advice is unlikely to help someone with unchaste habits. Psychologists speak of “ironic processing,” the phenomena whereby efforts not to think about something, lead to increasing thoughts about that thing. If someone tries not to think about pink elephants, of course, pink elephants will be on the mind. The Candeo program, an online aid in breaking habitual pornography use, and other unwanted sexual behaviors, was developed in accordance with recent findings in positive psychology and neurology. Rather than using mere will power, and “don’t think about it,” to combat the unwanted sexual habits, Candeo students are encouraged to confront, with reason and logic, the internal or external triggers tempting them to unwanted behavior. The Candeo techniques help put the logic and reasoning centers of the brain back in control. There is evidence that this approach is fruitful. An article appearing in the scholarly journal, Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, entitled: “A Preliminary Study of an Online Psychoeducational Program for Hypersexuality,” found that Candeo participants “showed significant improvements in all measured aspects of recovery when comparing retrospective and current ratings.” In the Candeo program, psychology is an ally in helping people achieve orthopraxy.
The current Christian’s situation, with respect to psychology, is somewhat analogous to Christian engagement with Aristotle in the 13th century. The rediscovery of Aristotle in the in that century led some Christians to fear and condemn the errors of Aristotle. But this rediscovery led other Christians, in particular St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, to investigate the new learning more deeply, and out of this investigation, these saints forged a new and powerful synthesis of Christian wisdom. So, it is today. Although some manifestations and approaches in psychology are clearly incompatible, and vitiate Christian faith, positive psychology offers both surprising confirmations of Christian practice, and helpful aid in Christian living. Indeed, just as Aristotle’s natural theology bolstered Christian theology, so, too, can positive psychology provide an empirical justification, and aid, for the pastoral practice of the Christian community, a kind of natural moral theology.