Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What does "spiritual but not religious" mean, anyway?

NPR had a program on today about "Positive Psychology" - a movement (if that's an accurate term) started in large part by Martin Seligman. I've always like Seligman. The NPR story, available through the link as audio only, leads like this:

Positive Psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on positive human traits, is seen by proponents as an alternative to what they think is traditional psychology's preoccupation with negativity. Sounds harmless, but some people worry about the major financial backer of the movement, as well as the movement's spiritual aspects.

This intrigued me, because I hadn't really seen any strong criticisms of it. The story suggests a couple things that skeptics point to, which actually seem to be summarized in this article from the summer:

(One critic) has no problem with happiness per se. What irritates her is the notion that point of view is all that matters when it comes to changing the world around us – as if switching from the proverbial glass half empty to one that is half full, we could actually change the world.

All right, I guess I can understand that. But I can't necessarily see the problem with trying to get people to be more optimistic, as well as changing their behaviors. If phrased this way, it makes a bit more sense (note that one primary critic of the movement also works at Penn, the same university as Seligman):

James Coyne, a scientist at University of Pennsylvania who studies patient adaptation to chronic illness and treatment, recently disproved claims that an upbeat attitude slowed the progression of the disease. He believes the clinical insistence on a hopeful attitude and “the will to live” in cancer wards can often make sick patients feel worse. “People start to see it in terms of blame and if the cancer spreads it's somehow their fault.”

Still, I suspect in some sense that optimism is helpful. The second major criticism, noted in both the NPR story and the linked article, seems most odd to me:

But not everyone is happy about (a major source of funding) – (...) the John Templeton Foundation, an organization that has also donated more than $11-million to the study of “unlimited love,” “forgiveness” and “gratitude” – into the world of ideas.

The Templeton Foundation funds a ton of "spirituality research" and, for some reason, this seems to upset some critics. I just don't know why. Researchers have to get their money somewhere. It'd be one thing if the Templeton Foundation had a history of trying to bias research. But they specifically do not. Results from a study the foundation funded last year found that prayer had a negative effect on recovery from heart surgery. With very little doubt I say that this is not what the foundation wanted, but the study was published nonetheless.

So, why the concern with the source of funding, unless there is some reason to believe the source is biasing study results?

Oh, and this'll maybe bring me to my next post, about Tiki Barber.

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