The Interface of Positive Psychology with a Psychology of Loss: A Brave New World?

By Miller, Eric D.; Harvey, John H. | American Journal of Psychotherapy, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Interface of Positive Psychology with a Psychology of Loss: A Brave New World?


Miller, Eric D., Harvey, John H., American Journal of Psychotherapy


In this paper, it is argued that a psychology of loss can help to illuminate one of the central themes of positive psychology: That is, showcasing those human skills that emphasize human strengths and optimal functioning. However, the interface of positive psychology and a psychology of loss also contains a definite paradox. Loss is not an intrinsically positive event that will necessarily build human strength. Yet, the experience of loss can become a profound means for showcasing human strengths and potential. We also caution that a positive psychology, in its quest to focus on the more uplifting qualities of the human experience, must also realize that suffering and loss is inherent to the human condition.

Seligman (1) has written compelling articles in the APA Monitor and other publications encouraging the development of a "positive psychology." He argues that psychology has lost what ought to be its fundamental mission:

Before World War II, psychology had three missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent. After the war. the two [latter] fundamental missions of psychology-making the lives of all people better and nurturing "genius"-were all but forgotten.

We became a victimology. Human beings were seen as passive foci: Stimuli came on and elicited "responses," or external "reinforcements" weakened or strengthened "responses," or conflicts from childhood pushed the human being around. Viewing the human being as essentially passive, psychologists treated mental illness within a theoretical framework of repairing damaged habits, damaged drives, damaged childhoods and damaged brains.

Fifty years later, I want to remind our field that it has been side-tracked. Psychology is not just the study of weakness and damage, it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is broken, it is nurturing what is best within ourselves. In short, a "positive psychology" seeks to emphasize the study of human strengths and optimal functioning.

In this paper, we assume that the general rationale regarding adopting a positive psychology is sound. However, we argue that a very important means to understanding positive psychology is to how it may interface with another field that addresses individuals' experiences of loss.

We have theorized in different papers (2-5) that there should be a field concerning the psychology of loss that is broad and interdisciplinary in nature and focused on people's pervading common-sense experience and their recognition of loss in their own and others' lives. Such a field needs to investigate the similarities and dissimilarities in the causes, mediators, and consequences of many disparate loss experiences, such as: death, divorce and dissolution of close relationships, loss of employment, victimization through violence and genocide, loss of physical and psychological functioning due to illness and accidents, and the psychological consequences of stigmatization. These loss events represent only a small sampling of possible loss experiences. We further suggest that while researchers have primarily focused on the impact of negative life events on a variety of psychiatric conditions, such as depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders (6, 7)-very little work in this area has directly considered an individual's personal sense of loss associated with these events and conditions. One notable exception is Hobfoll's (8) conservation-of-resources model that provides new conceptual understandings of how we react to and process stressful life events.

A PARADOX?

At the time of this writing, the tragic crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 had recently occurred, killing all 217 passengers and crew members as the plane plunged into the waters near Nantucket. In recent months and years, many other public loss events have occurred, such as the deaths of John F. …

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