Bowdoin’s Barbara Held Explores ‘Humanity’s Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy’

"Humanity's Dark Side: Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy," co-edited by Barbara Held.

Barbara Held, Bowdoin’s Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies, is co-editor of Humanity’s Dark Side:  Evil, Destructive Experience, and Psychotherapy, which was just published by the American Psychological Association.

Held has also received the 2012 Joseph B. Gittler Award, which recognizes “the most scholarly contribution to the philosophical foundations of psychological knowledge, ” by the American Psychological Foundation, of the American Psychological Association.

Held’s book, which evolved from a symposium conceived by Held, is a compilation of essays by prominent writers on psychotherapy who offer disparate views regarding humanity’s “dark side,” defined as the capacity for destructiveness that ranges from the everyday little ways in which we hurt each other to atrocities such as genocide and slavery.

In addition to her work as co-editor, Held also contributed a chapter titled “Feeling Bad, Being Bad, and the Perils of Personhood.”

“When did feeling bad turn into being bad?” Held asks.

“By feeling bad, I mean feeling unhappy. And by being bad, I mean being a bad person, one who lacks virtue or goodness of character. Surely this equation did not begin with the positive psychology movement — although in my view no psychologist has done more to promote the equation of positive thoughts and feelings (or happiness) with virtue than has positive psychology’s founding leader Martin Seligman, especially in Authentic Happiness (Seligman, 2002) and Character Strengths and Virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).”

Held says her chapter has three aims: “to demonstrate that by sheer virtue of its existence, the positive psychology movement, like prior positive thought movements, has enabled, however unintentionally, the ubiquitous American belief that to feel bad is to be unvirtuous; to explore the (historical) basis and detrimental ramifications of this belief; and to link this belief to harm, if not outright evil, in terms of its ironically postmodernlike dismissal or denial of the daunting, and sometimes horrific, realities of human existence, or what I here call the ‘perils of personhood’ — this, despite forthright acknowledgment of those realities by many positive psychologists.”

Barbara Held

Barbara Held

The book’s other editors — Arthur C. Bohart, Edward Mendelowitz, and Kirk J. Schneider — also contributed chapters of their own.

In her book Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching: A 5-Step Guide to Creative Complaining (2001) and in subsequent scholarly articles, Held challenges what she calls the “tyranny of the positive attitude in America.”

As a result, she has become a leading critic of the positive psychology movement, work that has led to media attention from the likes of The New York Times, People magazine, and Smithsonian magazine, as well as appearances on NBC’s Today show, ABC’s World News, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered, the BBC, and the CBC.


  1. Claudia Piper- parent '14 says:

    Looking forward to reading this!

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