Morality and the Good Life,
Michael A. Bishop’s 2015 book, The Good Life, introduces a philosophically informed theory of positive psychology.[i] I’ve been thinking about Bishop’s theory for a couple months now; I will read a paper that responds to some of Bishop’s ideas at a philosophy conference in March 2016. The Good Life touches on fundamental questions in moral philosophy, questions relevant to my ambitions as a philosopher and novelist. Today I will introduce the basic ideas; in future posts I’ll discuss them.
“Positive psychology” has been a growth industry for at least forty years, reflecting the desire on the part of many mental health professionals to move from treating illness to facilitating health. Rather than concentrating on the dark side—neuroses, psychoses, debilitating syndromes, etc.—positive psychologists want to understand the “light” side of human mental functioning. Are there ways for ordinary people to get better? Can we be happier? More content? More productive? How can professional therapists help people achieve their deepest aspirations?
The idea is intuitively appealing, at least to some. So psychologists have produced thousands of empirical studies that investigate one or more aspects of “well-being.” And they have discovered correlations, at least some of which must represent causal connections, between behaviors, patterns of thought, accomplishments, attitudes, perceptions, and emotions. Having discovered causal connections, therapists are sometimes able to say, “Research shows that people who do x fairly reliably experience y as a result. Since you want more y in your life, I recommend you do x.”
A concrete example: C.R. Snyder’s “hope theory” begins with an operational definition of hope and then, having conducted a great deal of empirical research on the basis of that definition, suggests practical interventions by which therapists can help patients increase their hope. Snyder’s research colleagues have collected plenty of evidence that these interventions work, in the sense that patients report improved life outcomes on a number of measures.[ii]
It should be stressed that Snyder’s hope theory is only one example among many. Positive psychologists have researched organizational leadership, creativity, marital success, physical exercise, happiness, video game playing, generosity, workplace satisfaction, and lots of other particulars.
According to Bishop, the problem is that until now no one has proposed a good theory to say what positive psychology is. What is it that all these empirical researches actually study? His answer: “positive causal networks” or PCNs. Here is an illustration.
Many runners report that running improves their mood, their creativity, and their overall mental state. After much experience running, runners have a well-founded belief that goes something like this: “Even though the weather is nasty today and I’m tempted to skip my run, I know I’ll feel better if I do it.” This belief, or pattern of thought, obviously tends to keep the runner participating in her running regimen. So there is a feedback loop: running leads to feeling better; feeling better leads to a pattern of thought; the pattern of thought leads to more running. As Bishop says, persons get “stuck” in a causal network that improves their lives.
Positive causal networks are usually much more complex than my example of running. Bishop lists four components to causal networks: emotions, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments. Notice that my example, running, refers to a “pattern of thought,” which may seem hard to fit into one of Bishop’s components. Bishop might try to squeeze “patterns of thought” into his structure (maybe such patterns contribute to “attitudes”); more likely, he would admit that the components he names may not be all there are. At several points in his book, he stresses that he is offering an initial theory and would welcome corrections. The key idea is that the parts of a positive causal network (he calls these “PCN fragments”) reinforce each other.
There is plenty of evidence that positive causal networks are real, Bishop says. That is, they exist in the world whether or not we understand them or pay attention to them. To a limited degree, people have long been aware of positive causal networks, before modern science began exploring them in detail. Consider the time-honored advice of parents: You say you want to do well in school? Very well, make friends with the good students. Enjoy the activities they enjoy. Copy their attitudes toward books and schoolwork. Build more friendships based on shared academic interests. And so on. Your friendships will help you develop the right attitudes and habits, the right attitudes and habits will help you do well in school, and doing well in school will attract the right kind of friends.
Bishop says we should see a parallel here between positive causal networks and other natural kinds, such as “water.” Obviously, water was an important real thing in the world, though people referred to it for thousands of years without knowing its chemical composition. When chemists discovered that water is H2O they improved our understanding of water and enabled us to do things with water that we were previously unable to do. Bishop says that as psychologists gain better understanding of positive causal networks they will enable us to improve our lives in various ways.
One more example: people who are kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings tend to make friends. Having friends tends to create pleasurable experiences. Having friends is a kind of personal relationship that is highly valued in our society. Having pleasurable experiences that are at the same time highly valued by society tends to make persons kind, generous, and considerate of others’ feelings—and the cycle renews itself. Bishop says that much empirical research by positive psychologists supports the conclusion that PCNs are “homeostatic property clusters.” The emotions, traits, attitudes, and accomplishments in such a property cluster tend to reinforce each other, so the cluster tends to endure. Bishop points to empirical research that indicates that people displaying a high degree of a positive trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t1 will have (compared to those who have a lower degree of that trait, attitude, emotion, or accomplishment) a statistically significant greater chance of having a high degree of that trait, attitude, emotion or accomplishment at time t2—even when t2 is years or decades after t1. Further, persons who have a higher degree of one component of a PCN at time t1, say component c1, will have a greater chance of having some other component of the PCN, component c2, at time t2. Positive causal networks are real and, as homeostatic property clusters, they tend to endure. Positive psychology research can teach us how to build and strengthen PCNs. According to Bishop, that’s what positive psychologists are doing, and that’s how they should conceptualize their work.
That’s enough to start. Next week, I’ll explore a feature of Bishop’s theory sure to be controversial among philosophers.