How Brinkmann Stole Positive Psychology but Later Returned It to Where It Was

I always like to build a New Year post around a fairytale or some story with magic in it. This time I am going to use a story about a “stolen holiday” that was first told in 1957 by famous American children’s writer Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. The story follows the Grinch, a grumpy, solitary creature who attempts to put an end to Christmas by stealing Christmas-themed items from the homes of the nearby town Whoville on Christmas Eve. Children and adults love Grinch because, as it always happens in fairytales, he turns into a nice character at the end and gives the stolen holiday back. Over the last 60 years, Grinch has been an integral part of Christmas and appeared in multiple books, movies, and merchandise. 


What made me think about this story? It all began when, being on board of a plane, I opened a book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann, a psychology professor in Denmark. This considerably small non-fiction work consists of seven chapters. It drew my attention because its title sounded as an obvious antithesis to what we discussed with Tatyana Kovaleva when we were talking about the importance of self-competencies in the life of a person. 3.jpg

We must admit that contemporary authors do not apply to the philosophy of Stoicism so often. However, Brinkmann appeared to be its fan. The Ancient Stoics as we all know believed that nothing depends on our will and that people do not have an ability to influence their own destiny and change it. But they can change their attitude toward external things. Stoics emphasized that "virtue is sufficient for happiness" and believed people should aim to maintain a will that is "in accordance with nature" and accept all twists and turns of fate, including death (like Socrates did). Their ethics does not reveal difference between virtue and vice. According to Diogenes Laërtius, people’s actions are fair or foul.


So, what are the main theses of the book that is built around Stoicism? The author inclines that the book proposes to think negatively, rather than positively. It points out the idea of stability, rather than development. The author emphasizes the importance of being in agreement with self instead of finding self. Brinkmann argues that the theories of self-understanding, self-development, and leadership are tools to manipulate the members of the consumer society. And our beloved positive psychology and self-help philosophy turn people into soldiers of flexible work force who cannot recognize the prospects of becoming more effective cogs in the capitalistic production machine behind all the loud slogans from the life couches. 

I must confess, after having read the book from our Dutch colleague I felt deprived of the holiday because all my professional activity as of a psychologist and a researcher evolves around the ideas of self-development, self-actualization, and leadership. All the things that Brinkmann anathemized. However, my plane was still in the air and I still had time to think over what I had read and try to follow the author’s advice. 

Chapter one, advice one: Stop listening to yourself. I did. And the feeling that my “Christmas” was stolen backed up a little and then disappeared. I tried to listen to what Brinkmann was saying. Was it an attempt at drawing our attention to an obvious conclusion: extreme devotion to any idea, even to positive psychology, may lead to the existential crisis and emotional misbalance?

Chapter two, advice two: Concentrate on negativity. This one is the most difficult and requires more profound reflection. Svend Brinkmann believes that positive psychology is a disguise for disappointment. In other words, a person who is not ready for overcoming difficulties is in danger of depression. They cannot find any solution in what positive psychology suggests. In this case, losing the ones you love may result in losing one’s mind or even committing suicide. Is it a matter of arguing? Do not think so. Such cases are well known. However, concentrating on negativity is a reason to think that Brinkmann is right and wrong at the same time. Because life itself is a constant search for balance between positive (happiness) and negative (tragedy). On the first stage of evolution, people’s mentality was forming as a tool that was aimed at surviving among predators. That is why it was focused on negative emotions as response to danger in the first place. We can see that it is hard to overestimate the role of negative emotions in surviving of human population. 6.jpg

The development of technologies and social institutions increased the level of security and positive emotions, but at the same time, it increased the number of existential problems people need to face. We began to feel lonely, and realized the finitude of being and meaning of life. The contradiction between the feeling of personal immortality and knowing that death is inevitable actualized the search for some new tools that could help to deal with the idea of death and still find positive aspects of existence and motivation for life. Such tools were proposed, among the other things, by positive psychology. They do not offer brand new approaches to understanding how to achieve happiness. Is it really possible to propose anything brand new nowadays? However, positive psychology experimentally proved that positive emotions are also life drivers, just like negative ones are. It is obvious that positive emotions make people friendlier, and the more friends people have, the more chances they have to survive evolutionary.


That is why I believe that Brinkmann argues against infantile compensations of existential crises, rather than against positive psychology itself. Coaches who encourage to forget about negative things and totally ignore them deform the ideas by Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology that is still developing. The evolution of ideas was proposed by Seligman himself in his latest book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. In this book, he re-evaluated his own ideas and wrote, “That the gold standard for measuring well-being is flourishing, and that the goal of positive psychology is to increase flourishing.” One may argue with that. But there is no doubt that admitting imperfection of his or her own theory is a very impressive and strong argument that supports somebody’s authority as of a researcher. It explains why Seligman has been approached by the USA Military Force, NASA, and the World Health Organization. These organizations do not waste money on anything they are not sure of. 8.jpg

As for the Stoics’ position, the idea of suffering as an integral part of life is very dear to me too. But the real happiness may be achieved only by accepting tragedy as a resource for new opportunities. One must learn how to transform problems into potential. For example, for some people losing their child leads to alcoholism and depression, and for some people it is a reason to re-build their lives and start helping the others. That was what the parents of a 15-year-old boy did, having founded a university in his honor that later on became one of the best in the world. Their last name was Stanford. The same happened to Alyona Petrova’s mother. The young girl died of cancer some years ago. Her mother has established a foundation that has been helping other kids to fight with cancer over the last 10 years. This is what a genuine positive thinking and behavior is.

Chapter three, advice three: Learn to say “No”. I see it as one of the best Brinkmann’s advices. The only thing I would not agree on is that a nice “no” is perceived by people nowadays as lack of courage and unpreparedness to changes. Not at all! To give an irresponsible “yes” is much easier than to give a responsible “no”.

Chapter four, advice four: Repress your feelings. Fair enough, if we talk about the feelings of anger, envy, or revenge. But if we talk about love to a child or close relatives, I believe it is a bad advice. It is funny that Brinkmann suggests to fight anger with humor and irony, referring to Seneca the Younger. But those are feelings too!

Chapter five, advice five: Ditch the coach. This is easy! But did Brinkmann realize that his own book was a classic coach-based story? Like usual “do this, do not so that” stuff. The difference is that the Dutch psychologist proposes the methods of Stoicism, not the methods of self-developing theories. 9.png

Chapter six, advice six: Read a novel, not a biography. Well, who would say “no” to a good novel?

The last chapter: Think about the past. We have never stopped! We absolutely agree that without the past there is no future. The past is a key to our self-identification. As for the author’s advice to consider the past as a time when everything was better, well, we can say a nice “no” to that as it was suggested by him in chapter three.

Therefore, this interesting but very contradictory book first gave me the feeling of a “lost Christmas” and then led me to positive evaluation of our life and the idea that our life is too complicated to be limited by the frames of a single philosophical theory.

Such emotional and cognitive transformations are very important. Every time they help to leapfrog and to clear a new bar. Usually, it seems to be random, when we meet a new interesting person or read a new interesting book that make us think differently about the world around. But sometimes, it is a particular point in time, when we draw some kind of conclusions, we re-evaluate our views and plans for the future. Such as December 31. This is what we are facing right now. I wish you all to use this opportunity and set new goals, and go to the next level of your professional and personal growth. I wish you to realize the value of sincere love, friendship, and mutual help.

Happy New Year, my dear friends!

P.S. It turned out that Svend Brinkmann and Martin Seligman have self-explanatory names: “brink” means “edge” in English, and “selig” means “happy” in German. Is that a coincidence?