project for a new positive psychoanalysis
psychoanalysis and positive psychology were contradistinctive from the inception of positive psychology. it was the claim of Seligman and his eventual followers that psychoanalysis spent far too much time in the past, rehashing tired stories of yesteryear — ones which only served to hinder the psychoanalytic subject under the weight of arguably iatrogenic pressures to rectify his newly illuminated past; analytic injunctions to steer clear of flagrant repetitions in his present (a revelatory process which often induces shame); the most obscene of which naturally leading to the fear of what neurotic episodes there are yet to come!
It would be paradoxical but appropriate here to make the claim that Seligman et. al. sought to redeem psychoanalysis — at the very least its initial curative efforts — by focussing on what can almost literally be referred to as ‘the good stuff’, namely implications subsumed under the idea that through talk therapy one could live a better life, a fuller life with less inhibition and more easily assimilable experiences. And they did just that. They developed a theoretical approach based on legitimate clinical praxes and found that people felt better when their strengths were highlighted, co-occurring with the clinical intervention of leaving the past in the past and certainly not “worked through” ad nauseam.
This seductive clinical outcome is however ironically consonant with one the major findings of Freud — one which could be said to have served as perhaps the impetus for 19th century psychoanalytic research, at least from a point of concern for medicine. Namely the discovery of the suggestive power of the clinician and its counterpart in the suggestibility of the patient. The clinician will always be in a privileged position of influence toward the psychoanalytic subject, if not by the pedigree of her training and credentials alone. Practically anything the clinician puts forth with a calm, intentional demeanor is going to be swallowed up whole by the more suggestible of patients, a condition which is not however uncommon in anyone who contacts a physician in the exasperation of an incurable illness. It can also be said with confidence that when the medical interpretation is not swallowed it will be utterly rejected, spit out, as it were, in a single dissociative burst. The fact remains, however, that the interpretation will be invested with meaning: “This is quackery,” or “My god, I have a chronic condition…” with what can be understood as a basic investment in the esteemed opinion of a medical doctor.
But this critique of the genesis of positive psychology is not at all meant to topple its foundations. It would be too easy to conclude that positive psychologists have committed great folly and oversight: Oh, to ignore the discoveries of Freud! For shame! But no, there’s no sense in abolishing a perfectly reasonable area of research, one which concerns itself with the questions concerning how is it that we might stay mostly happy? And what is it about psychotherapeutic treatments that may inadvertently obstruct that very process? Such an inquiry however always necessarily requires a revisitation to what it means to be happy for all of us still living in the here and now. To be sure, positive psychology has lots of researched results in this regard. From a psychoanalytic perspective however, the results are much more revelatory (or at the very least more interesting) if we wonder for a moment about whether or not people can really want to be happy — might this mean simply being seen or heard as evidence to others of being happy? And what about there being so many who now seem to desire to be seen as unhappy as is evidenced by a growing affection among youngsters for idealized images of melancholy?What can we say about the very demand for happiness?
In Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we are introduced to a reality of practically unacceptable paradoxes. What we are concerned with here is most certainly beyond that of the drive conflicts with the ego — it’s not simply about a utilitarian maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain. Freud has here ceased to be even moderately understandable. He offers to us a theory of how on earth it could be that people will do the most horrible, atrocious things to themselves, knowing full well the consequences of their actions; about a greater, intractable desire to destroy one’s current conditions in favor of the ever-changing dictates of one’s conflicting desires. As I like to refer to it, the controversial death drive refers to one’s peculiar relationship to living according to the ideal of a good death.
Freud was flummoxed with this business of helping people through the development of insight. He consistently found himself at odds with the patient’s outright refusal to be helped by the therapist, and beyond any expected resistances. Lacan, Freud’s as yet most radical interpreter, developed from this deadlock a theory of the very ethics of psychoanalysis. It was Lacan who successfully reintroduced the possibility of happiness into psychoanalysis — a happiness procured from living a true life in which meaning is sought from beyond the analyst, from beyond the professional, indeed beyond the pleasure principle as the latter first achieves satisfaction through a good interpretation coming from without as apposed to from within.
Lacan’s argument was convincing for the psychoanalytic community: a human being suffers most when living beneath the dictates of its own original system of ethics. It is my claim that positive psychology is also a psychology which concerns itself with ethics (as all psychologies are ultimately psychologies of ethics). When we start to talk about happiness, we are going to have to also talk about what happiness really means to each person — and whether or not that has more to do with keeping one’s sense of desire grounded and safe versus the upholding of a desire which is subject to changes and enervated as such. That if we are going to talk about happiness in this way we must also therefore talk about the happinesses that we can’t yet imagine; the ones which exist at the interstices between fantasied expectation and real outcome. Finally, that perhaps even psychoanalysis can be positivized or that positive psychology can reclaim its analytic foundations. Regardless of theoretical points of departure, the concern for happiness remains here to be paramount and indispensable to the chosen mode of praxis.