Foreword – Positive Psychology

Foreword

Defence Institute of Psychological Research (DIPR), a division of the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Ministry of Defence, Government of India, is currently the most active centre for psychological research in the country. Its foundation was laid by W. Selvamurthy who is himself not a psychologist but a physiologist by training. However he has an abiding interest and deep knowledge of yoga and its relevance today. Following him, Manas Kumar Mandal has built the necessary structure for pursuing psychology from an Indian perspective.

At present, Updesh Kumar and his colleagues are continuing this tradition in a remarkable way. They have already made significant contributions in the field of psychology and have published some important titles. Kumar has edited five quality books on psychology; the present volume on positive psychology being one of them. This exemplifies that the work at the institute goes beyond the usual boundaries of defence to cover the latest trends in contemporary psychology. Positive psychology is clearly one of the front-runners with a promise of being at the centre of future progress in psychology.

Positive psychology has a short history but shows great promise for the future. It is essentially a 21st century phenomenon. Though the phrase positive psychology appeared in Abraham Maslow’s book Motivation and Personality, first published in 1954, the launching of positive psychology as a system of psychology may be traced to the year 2000 when Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi published their paper ‘Positive Psychology: An Introduction’ in the American Psychologist. The rapid strides it made since then may be seen from the extraordinary number of publications.

In the XXXth International Congress of Psychology held in Cape Town, South Africa during 2012, I was amazed to find at least 80 papers of positive psychology being presented. There were 50 posters and eight seminars/workshops on this topic. What is equally amazing is that a great number of contributions came from China and India, far more than from USA and Europe. This made me wonder whether there are any ‘archetypical’ links between Asian psyche and positive psychology. This has led me to take a closer look at positive psychology from the perspective. The result is a target article ‘Positive Psychology and Indian Psychology in Need of Mutual Reinforcement’ (Rao, 2014a) published in Psychological Studies. This article was followed by several peer commentaries, including by some psychologists from other countries published in the same issue along with my response (Rao, 2014b).

All these developments are relevant to the context of publication of this volume, which on the one hand reinforces the expected link and affinity between Indian psychology and positive psychology and on the other hand it makes us cautious to avoid a trap. The trap is the temptation for uncritical imitation and replication of Western concepts and categories. The history of psychology in India as a university discipline is a good example how psychology as a discipline in India had suffered from such a syndrome.

The manifesto of positive psychology as proclaimed by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) is ‘to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life’. This is no different from the goal of Indian psychology which is transformation of and liberation from the existential limitations of the person to higher states of achievement, happiness and self-realization.

Indian psychology is not what many psychologists in India perceives it to be. As often noted, Indian psychologists by and large are generally engaged in imitating and replicating psychological research carried out in the West (Kao and Sinha, 1997). Indian psychology is not cultural psychology or cross-cultural psychology even though culture contributes significantly to the development of psychological thought. It is more than just indigenous psychology as it has global, pan-human relevance. It is not a branch or division of psychology like child psychology or industrial psychology. Indian psychology is a school/system of psychology like psychoanalysis. It is a system derived and constructed from classical Indian thought and psychospiritual practices prevalent in the Indian subcontinent for many, many centuries. Indian psychology offers model/s of human nature that stand in sharp contrast to the existing popular models in psychology. They have significant implications for future psychological research in India and beyond.

Indian psychology, in my model, is the study of the individual. The person is considered a composite of body, mind and consciousness. I call this the BMC Trident Model of the individual (Rao, 2011). Body is the physical structure that sustains the person. Consciousness is a fundamental principle of the universe in which the individual participates and derives his unique nature. Mind is the instrument that connects body and consciousness and makes it possible for setting up goals and achieve them in the human condition. The mind functions in three modes—cognition, emotion and volition. The three constitute the primary psychological processes in the individual. The goal of the individual is self-realization, which is none other than moving away from the moorings in the body to participate in consciousness per se and realize one’s own true nature.

What is the link between Indian psychology (IP) and positive psychology (PP)? What are the points of convergence their perspectival differences? First, Indian psychology and positive psychology grew out of disenchantment with the current state of psychology. They are thus protest movements. Second both concepts focus on positive human strengths and how we can use them to promote happiness and consummate good. Third, both IP and PP claim to be culturally independent and have possible universal applicability.

Indian psychology has inherited a large mine of theoretical ideas and is currently left with the task of systematically gathering an appropriate empirical data base. Positive psychology has made a great beginning covering considerable empirical ground. However, it is weak in theory and, as I see it, there is need for conceptual clarity without which it is difficult to fit the data into a cohesive framework. In as much as IP and PP share the same disappointment with the current state of mainstream psychology and appear to take similar initiatives to correct the current situation, they may be seen in a complimentary relationship. Indian psychology can benefit by drawing on the data provided by positive psychology and the latter could gain much by embracing some of the theoretical constructs of Indian psychology. This can be illustrated by referring to two popular concepts in positive psychology—happiness and flow. Happiness, good life, fulfilling life are familiar terms embedded in the notion of subjective well-being in positive psychology and refer to different things and convey different meanings. For one thing, happiness may mean hedonistic pleasure and absence of pain. Indeed much of the research in positive psychology in this area is consonant with such meaning. The so-called philosophy of positive happiness beyond the hedonistic notions is little understood by positive psychologists. There is some recent research under the rubric of ‘eudaimonia’ to correct this and extend the meaning of happiness. As I see it, this attempt is piecemeal and insufficient to lead to systematic, programmatic research with a sound theoretical footing.

In this context, we have in Indian psychology rich theoretical support. Here we find a model of happiness more appropriately called ‘bliss’ (ānanda). Bliss is altruistic happiness which is distinct from hedonistic pleasure. Bliss is more than just mere absence of pain. It is a positive emotion, beyond sensuous pleasure inherent in human nature but something to be cultivated by practice. Hedonistic happiness is individual-centric. Altruistic happiness is transpersonal in that ‘I’ and the ‘other’ become reflexive of each other.

Ed Diener and associates, for example, refer to two distinct ways of looking at what constitutes happiness. One view is similar to what we have called altruistic happiness. According to this view, happiness consists in leading a fulfilled life characterized by love, wisdom and non-attachment. The other view is the utilitarian notion that considers absence of pain as the criterion of happiness. The utilitarians, the descendants of Jeremy Bentham, are ‘the intellectual forerunners of subjective well-being researchers’ (Diener, Lucas and Oishi, 2005, p. 63). The Indian model has ego-transcendence as central to happiness; therefore, altruism is the main characteristic of fulfilled life and happiness. In Gandhi’s terminology, it is reducing oneself to zero, which is melting the ego into ‘nothingness’ and setting up goals of sarvodaya and non-possession. What is self-fulfillment in positive psychology is self-realization in Indian psychology.

Another widely researched concept in positive psychology is ‘flow’. Flow is ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991/2008, p.4). In this state of ‘optimal experience’, one feels ‘a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like’ (ibid, p.3). A lot of research has been carried out coupled with a number of publications to give us an understanding of flow. A good deal of descriptive information is accumulated and some practices are suggested to cultivate the experience of flow. However, much of it is ad hoc; I find little cohesive structure in all this research that gives a clear and unambiguous conception of flow. What we have is a conglomerate of subjective feelings with no binding rationale (Rao, 2014a).

In Indian psychology, we have the analogous concept samādhi. It is similar to flow, but much more. Samādhi has behind it a theory of mind; and systematic methods are suggested for cultivating it. Samādhi is not a cognitive state. Rather it is a transcognitive experience which manifests transformative behaviour. Here is a state which defies conventional categorization of experience into cognitive, emotive and conative forms. It is a unitary state of knowing and blending into each other. There is nothing parallel to it in conventional psychological wisdom.

In the Indian tradition, it is possible to control the mind by practising such disciplines as yoga. The control of mind essentially involves ego-transcendence. The ego is pseudo-self that masquerades as the true self and generates illusory identities that create the barriers between ‘I’ and the ‘other’. The pseudo-self is culturally bound and is the conditioning influence on the person. Its needs are not intrinsic to human nature. If Csikszentmihalyi had taken the theoretical model of samādhi to construct the concept of flow instead of drawing it from the varied experiences of people from different backgrounds, he would have gone beyond noting the phenomenology of flow to a more coherent theory-laden concept with great potential. It would have helpful in cultivating consciousness with significant outcomes and transformational consequences to people, than is presently the case.

We need to explore positive psychology in India from the perspective of Indian psychology. This would have important implications for enriching positive psychology and extending it beyond the limited Western perspective that currently dominates it. It is in this context I suggest that the present book may be seen as extremely relevant.

The editors of the volume state that the book is prepared from ‘the perspective of building efficiency rather than targeting deficiency’. It is intended to provide a wider perspective to the reader by putting forth ‘a comprehensive synthesis of Western and Eastern perspectives’. The editors seek to achieve these goals by providing ‘comprehensive understanding of general issues of positive psychology’ and by examining the applications. It is for the readers to judge the extent to which the editors have succeeded in achieving these goals.

Updesh Kumar, Archana and Vijay Parkash, the editors of this volume, are scientists working at the Defence Institute of Psychological Research. This book is a laudable attempt to focus on the relevance of positive psychology to address current issues in psychology. The wide range of topics deal with Indian inputs in progress of positive psychology, virtues, character strengths and well-being, resilience, happiness, stress and so on. There is a chapter on mindfulness meditation as an aid ‘to combat the stress-load of military services’. There is also a chapter attempting to develop an ‘analytical model of happiness’.

The book is a welcome addition to literature on positive psychology from India. My perusal of the contents and the rationale behind the book reinforces my belief that Indian psychology in general has great relevance to several contemporary psychological issues and that positive psychology and Indian psychology have much to benefit from each other. If this interesting volume could spur further interest in pursuing positive psychology from the perspective of Indian psychology its publication would have been very rewarding for all those associated with it

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991/2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Diener, E., Lucas, R.E. and Oishi, S. (2005). “Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and life satisfaction. In C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez” (Eds.). Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 63–73). New York: Oxford University Press.

Kao, H.S.R. and Sinha, D. (1997). Asian perspectives on psychology. New Delhi: Sage.

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Rao, K. R. (2011). Cognitive anomalies, consciousness and yoga. New Delhi: Center for Studies of Civilizations and Matrix Publishers.

Rao, K. R. (2014a). Positive Psychology and Indian Psychology in Need of Mutual Reinforcement. Psychological Studies (in press).

Rao, K. R. (2014b). Indian psychology in prospect. Psychological Studies (in press).

Seligman M.E.P. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.

 

K. Ramakrishna Rao, Padma Shri
Chancellor, GITAM University, Vishakhapatnam