Two nations

So there's an article from today's Globe (doesn't that sound familiar? I do read other things...) on a course here at the hallowed halls of Harvard, Positive Psychology, which "focuses on the psychological aspects of a fulfilling and flourishing life. Topics include happiness, self-esteem, empathy, friendship, love, achievement, creativity, music, spirituality, and humor." You can check out the lectures, on video or (shudder) PowerPoint, at the course website. Now, I'm going to mostly bracket the question of whether this course, despite its obvious value to Harvard's undergraduates, is academically defensible as a credit towards a bachelor's degree, and limit my opinion to a snide, unsubstantiated, two-word comment: It's not.

What I really want to talk about, though, is an apparently offhand remark by a professor Marty Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, the apparent "father" of positive psychology. When asked about the appeal of positive psych to students and to society at large, he remarked

''When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that's what positive psychology is about,"

But wait a minute: we are at war. And who among is all that wealthy? And where in our cities is there not a great deal of turmoil? Among the undergraduates attending Harvard, Penn, and, one might wager, not just the Ivy League but the vast majority of American colleges and universities, these realities of war, poverty, and insecurity really don't exist, for all intents and purposes. But for many, many Americans, those being sent to fight in Iraq, those struggling for their next meal, those who are left working 39-hour-a-week shifts at Walmart so they don't have to be paid health benefits, there isn't the leisure to "start asking what makes life worth living." It's a shocking statement, true only of a certain class of people in Florence and a certain class of people today. But if we're going to be honest with ourselves (and I'm the last person to claim that I'm not thoroughly ensconced in bourgeois academia), then we have to at least notice how different are our lives in apparently the same nation when compared to those of vast numbers of our co-citizens, and be grateful for the chances we have to be movers and shakers. But we have to be careful about assuming that our status is typical, or that we don't have a responsibility to those who are also part of our national community - those who don't have time to take positive psych.

No comments: