Investing in Happiness: Philanthropy as a Guide to Positive Psychology

After a century in which behaviorism and Freudianism were the dominant schools of psychological thought, positive psychology is a breath of fresh air. Behaviorism assumed that humans were reactive mechanisms whose internal mental, emotional, and spiritual lives could be dismissed as mere epiphenomena. Freudianism reduced the complexity of human motivation to a few fundamental “drives” associated with sex and aggression, and dismissed our understandings of our motives as delusions. Both regarded as irrelevant nonsense any view of human beings as intentional agents.

Positive psychology, by contrast, has rediscovered that our experience as intentional beings is intimately related to our ability to experience happiness. It has thereby validated many traditional notions of well-being, including the importance of meaning and purpose in our lives and the importance of virtue, character, and transcendent belief. After a hundred years in which the field of academic psychology promulgated paradigms alien to the experience of our lives as human beings and hostile to the world’s wisdom traditions, it is gratifying that academic psychology has finally come around to a perspective that is more attuned to our lives as we experience them.

However, although positive psychology validates much of human experience and traditional beliefs, it includes a highly questionable assumption: that through the experimental method it has derived evidence-based findings that afford it an expertise on the issue of happiness that is superior to what is available to people through their own experience. Given the historical biases of social science (against common sense, wisdom and classical liberalism), philanthropists interested in investing in endeavors they think will increase human happiness ought to examine carefully the assumptions of positive psychology as a social science, to ensure that their investments bring a positive return.

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