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Despite the fact that it is hard to doubt the good intentions driving the followers of positive psychology, the scientific approach that they utilize has epistemological issues present in unattended presuppositions and logical fallacies. In the following work I briefly discuss – on the basis of existing critical literature – the faulty dialectic of the conscious and the unconscious, implicitly present in positive psychology as well as the problematic tendency of the field to maintain morally unbiased position, which, on the contrary, is inspired by the Anglo-American cultural values.

The Problem of Conscious Control

Positive psychology claims that anyone can reach their goals if their attitude is positive enough: “Optimism is a tool to help the individual achieve the goals he has set for himself” (Seligman, 2006, p. 291). To this, Seligman (2006) adds that the goals must be realistic and achievable. This reasoning contradicts itself: On the one hand, if a person sets a goal that is realistic and achievable, how is it any different from the plans that would be successfully undertaken anyway? On the other hand, if the goals are rather ambitious and only attainable by changing the present situation, how can a person know in advance if they are realistic? The issue with this reasoning lies in the implicit conscious nature of the concept of goal setting (Miller, 2008).

Seligman, and positive psychology in general, believes that anyone can be reshaped into a goal achiever by controlling his emotions and motivations through rational self-reflection, as if one can assume full conscious control over one’s attitude and beliefs.

The notion of conscious goal setting brings forth Cartesian images: A homunculus that sits in a person’s head, controlling him. Although it is completely legitimate to distinguish conscious, deliberate, and purposeful behavior from the unconscious, instinctual behavior, claiming that a person can consciously control his attitude, motivation and thoughts regresses psychology 200 years in the past, where the consciousness and the psyche meant the same (Miller, 2008).

In the majority of people interests, dreams and plans come to be in life as the possibilities and opportunities arise. They are largely determined by a variety of dispositions: personality traits, attitudes, etc. None of those dispositions are chosen or controlled consciously, especially not as instrumental means to an end, that is, the goals. Nevertheless, the dispositions can be controlled by practicing “self-control” or “self-discipline”. This is usually necessary for the individual to achieve long-term goals in opposition to falling for instinctual behavior that leads to instant gratification. For that, the “self-control” requires persistence and dedication which, again, are (unconscious) personal dispositions (Miller, 2008).

“It is only because computers, machines and businesses do not have minds of their own that they need plans, goals, targets and programmes” (Miller, 2008, p. 594).

The deficiency of “self-control” entails an interesting paradox – when a person deliberately decides not to take a certain action but ends up accidentally doing the exact opposite, leaving him with a sense of guilt due to his perceived “weakness of will”. Goldie (2002) argues that the idea of “weakness of will” can only become conceivable in an ethical framework, as a matter of controlling bodily desires in favor of a “rationally conceived goal”. This idea is very similar to the Aristotelian temperate person that, through moral education, keeps his emotions and desires in check, in the name of a rational good. Miller (2008) claims that rational behavior can only exist in relation to the cultural norms where there exist specific definitions of good life and happiness – in other words, ideals in the context of a political group. Any behavior that fails to live up to these ideals, therefore, is deemed as a “weakness of will”, “irrational behavior” etc.

It is based on the aforementioned arguments, among others, that Miller (2008) claims positive psychology to be based not on a strict scientific approach when describing a successful, happy and healthy individual, but on cultural presuppositions that portray a stereotype of a successful person in western culture: an outgoing, cheerful, friendly, goal-oriented, and status-seeking extravert.

The Problem of Morality

Positive psychology takes pride in using a strict scientific approach, unlike fields like humanistic psychology (Peterson, 2006). This means maintaining distance from morals and ethics. For example, in research about “character strengths” Peterson states:

“…because good character and its components are morally esteemed, we worried that we were entering a domain so value-laden that our project was doomed from the start” (Peterson, 2006, p. 139).

Despite this, followers of positive psychology often use cultural and ethical concepts, among which “eudaimonia” is more distinguished – a Greek term for human flourishing, ultimate good and happiness. The concept of “eudaimonia”, as well as “weakness of will” leads us back to Aristotelian ethics. Lacan (2014) in his seventh seminar speaks about the dangers of happiness studies and criticizes Aristotle’s ethics. Aristotle makes a fundamental distinction between appetitive desires and moral reason – the separation between passions and rationality (Wright, 2013).

“A whole large field of what constitutes for us the sphere of sexual desires is simply classed by Aristotle in the realm of monstrous anomalies - he uses the term “bestiality” with reference to them. What occurs at this level has nothing to do with moral evaluation. The ethical questions that Aristotle raises are located altogether elsewhere” (Lacan, 2014, p. 5)

The philosophical discourse of Aristotle is based on a very particular understanding of truth – the rationally proved ultimate good. This in itself wouldn’t have implications worth the criticism if it wasn’t for Descartes that an important tendency appeared: to conflate the consciousness and rationality. Due to this, what opposed the consciousness - namely the field of sexuality - was altogether discarded from the virtuous, ethical life. It was therefore the unconscious in its entirety that - as it would seem - stood in opposition to a good life, therefore the consciousness must have taken the reins of power over it. This is precisely the Freud’s metaphor that the ego psychologists so eagerly adopted: “Thus in its relation to the id [the unconscious] it [the ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Freud, 2013, p. 25). Although the rest of the quote is usually left out: “Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go” (Freud, 2013, p. 25). All this is to say that if an argument of happy life is made with the opposition of the conscious and the unconscious, there is no ultimate rational good to speak of. Positive psychology may claim - just like the entirety of self-help culture - that through conscious control, one can get a hold of himself and have a good life but there is no life without the unconscious (and certainly not a happy and ethical one, as I will go on to show by Lacan’s example). More importantly, the moral bias cannot be escaped by pure rationality in science, especially in the field where the goal is to study “what goes right in life” and “how to encourage it” (Peterson, 2006, p. 4).

Lacan claims that morality requires a priori belief and to illustrate this, he compares the reasoning of Emmanuel Kant to Marquis de Sade. Kant, in Aristotelian fashion, regards the sphere of desires and passions as “pathological” and to overcome it, he offers us rather formal rationality of his Categorical Imperative. It is interesting that, according to Lacan, Sade adheres to exactly the same principles of rational universality but reasons to prove the exact opposite: the goodness that comes from disposing of moral restrictions in pursuit of sensual pleasure (Wright, 2013).

Is it possible to know “what goes right” in life by pure rational reasoning, devoid of any moral components that are given a priori, i.e unconsciously? Positive psychology, although portrayed as a strict field of science, is based on a vast multitude of a priori cultural beliefs, which is evident in many different fields of psychology in Anglo-American culture, be it ego psychology, humanistic psychology or others. Since people acquire and go against values and beliefs mostly by unconscious processes, without rigorous epistemological analysis, the ideas of positive psychology like what is positive, desirable, strengths and weaknesses of character and others are mere unconscious cultural values, namely Anglo-American values that are often criticized by Lacan in his seminars, deeming them repressive and ego-centered.

Such an epistemologically unrefined approach can have many negative moral, political and theological implications, such as pleasure commodification through capitalism (Wright, 2013), military exploitation and “playing god” (Beier, 2014).


Although in positive psychology the image of a successful and healthy person is based on empirical research, it utilizes a stereotype of a particular person, which is determined by the ignorance in the dialectic of the conscious and the unconscious. The position positive psychology takes in regards to morals is, on the one hand, formidable, as (ideally) the science should be morally unbiased but on the other hand, when dealing with humanitarian sciences, it becomes impossible to make conclusions without a priori values and the insistence against moral bias leaves important factors unattended which, in turn, brings negative results.


Beier, M. (2014). “Always look at the bright side of life?”: “Positive” psychology, psychoanalysis, and pastoral theology. Journal of Pastoral Theology, 24(2), 3-1-3–35.

Freud, S. (2013). The Ego and the Id. W.W. Norton Company (NY).

Goldie, P. (2002). The Emotions: A Philosophical Exploration. Oxford University Press.

Lacan, J. (2014). Seminar VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis. London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Miller, A. (2008). A Critique of Positive Psychology—or ‘The New Science of Happiness.’ Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42(3–4), 591–608.

Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Wright, C. (2013). Against Flourishing: Wellbeing as biopolitics, and the psychoanalytic alternative. Health, Culture and Society, 5(1), 20–35.