In the last half century millions of Americans have engaged in some form of therapy. Millions have approached psychologists, psychiatrists, or some other trained counselor for assistance in dealing with a wide range of emotional or other life problems. Thankfully, the dedication and skill of these mental health professionals have assisted many of these people. It is interesting to note, as a result, that modern psychotherapy is undergoing a major new development called “positive psychology”. Spearheaded by Dr. Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, this movement emphasizes the human strengths and positive characteristics of a patient rather than focusing on the traumas of the patient. In other words, rather than focusing on a person’s illness and
the so called “learned helplessness” that someone has inherited from family or environment, this movement attempts to help patients focus on the strengths that they have. According to Seligman, the past almost exclusive emphasis on “negative” psychology has had some undesirable consequences. For one thing it has contributed to the widespread victim mentality found among so many in American society today. He believes that too many people think that everyone is a victim in some way of some form of abuse caused by other people. Many of us, he says, can see ourselves as victims-that is, sinned against-but fewer of us recognize ourselves as victimizers, as those who sin against others. This is in part a result, he believes, of the very structure of traditional psychotherapy that can only identify hurts and problems and their possible sources. A further disturbing consequence of this approach is the widespread belief that we are not responsible for our bad actions since they are caused by what others have done to us. While this can be true, of course, it is often not true. Seligman’s “positive” psychology stresses human characteristics like kindness, persistence, and gratitude that promote happiness and well being. He believes that human virtues like charity, temperance, courage and justice heal much pathology and can help prevent future problems. These virtues, of course, have a long history in Christian thought and it’s interesting that modern psychology is rediscovering St. Thomas Aquinas and stating rather explicitly that the cure for many problems is taking responsibility for our lives and practicing virtue. Perhaps psychology is becoming the handmaid of philosophy and theology that some people believed it was always meant to be.