13 March 2005

Psychology Trancendent

People I know who are currently doing graduate studies in Psychology in Northern California give me the impression that, if Religion is discussed at all, it is relentlessly pathologized. As if the only role that Religion could play in a person's life were as a crutch to make up for his or her deficiencies. I get the impression that most of the students and their professors are - in psychotherapeutic parlance - completely unprepared to deal with the counter-transferrence issues they would face, if they were to have a devoutly religious client.

How refreshing to read an article by Paul C. Vitz in the current issue of First Things entitled, "Psychology in Recovery." Vitz observes that psychotherapeutic psychology is outgrowing some of its early hubris as it turns from "negative psychology" (the study of traumas and mental illness) to "positive psychology"(the study of personal strengths and mental health).

A one-sided emphasis on negative psychology has changed our culture. Let me quote:

The general perspective provided by negative psychology is that we are all victims of past traumas, abuse, and neclect caused by other people. This victim mentality has been widely noted and criticized, quite legitimately, as having become extreme....

A further disturbing consequence of this mentality is the widespread belief that we are not responsible for our bad actions.....

Positive psychology, on the other hand, as Vitz quotes Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman from their book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification:

should reclaim the study of character and virtue as legitimate topics of psychological inquiry and informed societal discourse. By providing ways of talking about character strengths and measuring them across the life span, this classification will start to make possible a science of human strengths that goes beond armchair philosophy and political rhetoric. We believe that good character can be cultivated, but to do so, we need conceptual and empirical tools to craft and evaluate interventions.

Peterson and Seligman (the originator of the theory of "Learned Helplessness" as a contributor to depression) identify three conceptual levels in descending order: virtues, character strengths, and situational themes. They argue that their selection of virtues is universal, drawn from world cultures and traditions, and may even have a basis in the evolutionary biology of ourselves as a social species.

And their six core virtues are: wisdom and knowledge, humanity, courage, justice, temperance, and transcendence. As Vitz points out, these are not far from the Cardinal Virtues of prudence, charity, courage, justice, temperance, hope and faith. The mention of those last virtues, transcendence or its equivalent hope and faith, make me think here may be more than an incidental connection with Seligman's earlier work. It seems to me that if you have absolutely no hope or faith in anything, you are likely to be or to become depressed.

Psychology may be turning from an exclusive regard for the past to preparing people for the future. All things considered, it seems like a good turn to me. And I must admit, it is also refreshing to see someone pathologize un-faith for a change. Vitz is the author of a book called Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.

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