In recent years, there has been a trend toward what is called “positive psychology.” In brief, the point of positive psychology is to examine what makes people happy or fulfilled, rather than focusing upon the negative circumstances that have led to problems or serious pathologies. Positive psychologists ask what leads to a life of flourishing.
Interestingly, one common idea is that difficult, challenging, and even painful experiences can eventually lead to greater overall happiness or fulfillment. This argument can be found in the works of psychologist Martin Seligman or captured in the movie Happy.
In his book Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman suggests that people can grow psychologically in response to trauma or adversity. He identifies three skills that can help people respond well to adversity: 1) building mental toughness, 2) building strengths, and 3) building strong relationships. Seligman argues that these traits can also be developed in a person….again, by effort. Optimism, including “learned optimism” even has positive biological effects. A person’s conviction that his actions and responses to situations can affect her future make a difference. A person’s social support system – having friends and family that he can count on – make a difference in responding well to adversity.
When it comes to Catholic moral theology, the role of experience is often debated. Understanding someone’s experiences by listening carefully and accompanying them in their suffering and struggles is a key pastoral and Christian task. The risk of Seligman’s positive interpretation of negative experiences is twofold: 1) a dismissal of or callousness to others’ suffering: “It’s good for that man to know what it’s like to be laid off and unemployed.” 2) blaming unhappiness or ill health on the person: “She wouldn’t be clinically depressed if she would just learn to be optimistic about her husband’s affair.” Such reactions to others’ suffering are clearly problematic and unhelpful.
On the other hand, the strength of Seligman’s argument is also twofold: 1) the recognition of the importance of free will and choice: “I can never take back my father’s abuse, but I can move forward, seeking therapy so I can make my life and my children’s lives better.” 2) acknowledging a bigger, long-term picture of one’s life: “Parenting young children is so difficult, but it won’t last forever, and hopefully I will be able to see I’ve become a more giving and selfless person.”
We can add to this the Catholic perspective of a supernatural (or God’s-eye) view of life. Negative experiences can increase our humility and dependence on God, such that we become holier people united to Christ on the journey to heaven. St. Therese Lisieux, in her autobiography Story of a Soul exhibits the learned optimism that Seligman describes; we can also see psychologist Dan Gilbert’s synthetic happiness expressed. St. Therese is constantly re-narrating negative experiences in a positive light. Whether it is someone taking her paintbrushes without permission, splashing her with dirty water, criticizing her youthful mistakes, and yes, even her “dark night” of doubt and her suffering with tuberculosis, Therese has a positive narration reflecting her supernatural vision.
There are aspects of the Catholic faith that can be challenging, and there are many people who have had negative experiences as they tried to live the Catholic faith. One challenge faced by moral theologians is how to acknowledge sympathetically the fact of these negative experiences, while also thinking through Church teaching and the reasons behind it. If we take seriously the research of positive psychologists, we may consider, particularly when examining our own lives, that the difficulty of adhering to Church teaching – and even the negative experiences that may occur coincident with that – could possibly result in a more naturally fulfilling life, while also aiding us in our supernatural life.