Works without Faith

Positive psychology excites a desire for happiness. But can it deliver?

Joseph Smith asks, “Is positive psychology all it’s cracked up to be?” (Vox, November 20, 2019). His answer is, probably not.

Positive psychology burst on the psychological scene in 1998 under the leadership of Martin Seligman, who believed that psychology had lost its way, and needed to turn from curing pathologies to encouraging human flourishing. 

Seligman enlisted a large following to his view that people should be encouraged to nurture their character strengths and to focus on a more positive vision and direction for their lives. The movement has become quite large and very popular, so much so that critics are now beginning to look for chinks in its armor.

Seligman and his colleagues sought to construct a science “that investigates and nurtures the best human qualities: a science of strengths, virtues, and happiness.”  Positive psychology “promises personal transformation through the redemptive power of devotional practices: counting blessings, gratitude, forgiveness, and meditation. And it is expressly designed to build moral character by cultivating the six cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, humanity, temperance, and transcendence.”

If this sounds very evangelical, it may well be because the Templeton Foundation has been instrumental in supporting the happiness movement. Seligman himself is not shy about likening the beginnings and substance of the movement to a kind of secular religion. Joseph Smith sums up the state of the movement at present: “To many of its followers, the movement is a godsend, answering a need to belong to something larger than themselves and holding out the chance of better, fuller lives through truly effective techniques backed by science. To its critics, that science is undercut by positive psychology’s moralizing, its mysticism, and its money-spinning commercialization.” He then asks, “But how valid are these concerns, and do they matter if positive psychology makes people happy?”

They do of course. Positive psychology seeks the works of vibrant Christian faith without the faith. But human beings are not strong enough on their own to achieve the happiness their souls truly desire. Just as faith without works is dead, being alone, so too works without faith cannot lead to the full and abundant life for which God has created us.