Positive psychology places emphasis on the more upbeat experiences, individual traits, and organizations that can enhance the development of these experiences and traits. This field aims to broaden the focus of clinical psychology beyond simply relieving the symptoms of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety and bring attention to a person’s positive characteristics and strengths (Snyder & Lopez, 2002).
According to Barrett and Ollendick (2004) positive psychology has a very long past but only a very short history. The field was named in 1998 as one of the initiatives of Martin Seligman in his role as president of the American Psychological Association. One of the triggers for positive psychology was Seligman’s realization that psychology since World War II had focused on much of its efforts on human problems and how to remedy them. The yield of its focus on pathology has been considerable (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004). Great strides have been made in understanding, treating, and preventing psychological disorders. Widely accepted classification manuals – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), American Psychiatric Association, and International Classification of diseases – allow disorders to be described and have given rise to a family of reliable assessment strategies. There now exist effective treatments, psychological and pharmacological, for more than a dozen disorders that in the recent past were frighteningly intractable (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004; Seligman, 2002).
However, Barrett and Ollendick (2004) note that there has been a cost to this emphasis. For example, much of scientific psychology has neglected the study of what can go right with people and often has little more to say about the good life than do pop psychologists, inspirational speakers, and armchair gurus. More subtly, the underlying assumptions of psychology have shifted to embrace a disease model of human nature. People are seen as flawed and fragile, casualties of cruel environments or bad genetics, and if not in denial then at best in recovery (Barrett & Ollendick, 2004). This worldview has crept into the common culture of the United States. We have become a nation of self-identified victims, and our heroes and heroines are called survivors and sometimes nothing more.
Positive psychology proposes that it is time to correct this imbalance and to challenge the pervasive assumptions of the disease model (Seligman, 2002). It calls for as much focus on strength as on weakness, as much attention to fulfilling the lives of healthy people as to healing the wounds of the distressed (Seligman, 2002). Psychologists interested in promoting human potential need to start with different assumptions and to pose different questions from their peers who assume only a disease model (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
The past concern of psychology with human problems is understandable and should not be abandoned. People experience difficulties that demand and deserve scientifically informed solutions. Positive psychologists are merely saying that the psychology of the past 60 years is incomplete (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). The most basic assumption that positive psychology urges is that human goodness and excellence are as authentic as disease, disorder, and distress. Positive psychologists are adamant that these topics are not secondary, derivative, illusory, epiphenomenal, or otherwise suspect. The good news is that these generalizations about business-as-usual psychology over the past 60 years are simply that – generalizations (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2002). There are many good examples of psychological research, past and present that can be claimed as positive psychology.
The very long past of positive psychology stretches at least to the Athenian philosophers in the West and to Confucius and Lao-Tsu in the East (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005). In the writings of these great thinkers can be found the same questions posed by contemporary positive psychologists. What is the good life? Is virtue its own reward? What does it mean to be happy? It is possible to pursue happiness directly, or is fulfillment a by-product of other pursuits? What roles are played by other people and society as a whole? (Dahlsgaard, Peterson, & Seligman, 2005)
Somewhat later but still many centuries ago, we encounter the ideas of religious figures and theologians – Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Thomas Aquinas, and many others – who also posed deep questions about the meaning of the good life and its attainment (Seligman, 1998). When we identify common themes across the disparate world views they advanced, we see that they advocated service to other individuals, to humankind as a whole, and to a higher power and purpose, however it is named (Emmons, 2003). Today’s positive psychologists also emphasize a life of meaning and emphasize that it can be found in both spiritual and secular pursuits. In so doing, positive psychology places the psychology of religion in a central place it has rarely occupied in the history of the discipline (Emmons, 2003).
Within psychology, the premises of positive psychology were laid out long before 1998. In the beginning, psychologists were greatly interested in genius and talent as well as in fulfilling the lives of normal people. Setting the immediate stage for positive psychology as it currently exists were humanistic psychology as popularized by Rogers (1951) and Maslow (1970); utopian visions of education like those of Neill (1960); primary prevention programs based on notions of wellness – sometimes dubbed promotion programs – as pioneered by Albee (1982) and Cowen (1994); work by Bandura (1989) and others on human agency and efficacy; studies of giftedness (e.g., Winner, 2000); conceptions of intelligence as multiple (e.g., Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1985); and studies of the quality of life among medical and psychiatric patients that went beyond an exclusive focus on their symptoms and diseases (e.g., Levitt, Hogan, & Buckosky, 1990) (as cited in Seligman, 1998).
Today’s positive psychologists do not claim to have invented notions of happiness and well-being, to have proposed their first theoretical accounts or even to have ushered in their scientific study (Peterson & Park, 2003). Rather, the contribution of contemporary positive psychology has been to provide an umbrella term for what have been isolated lines of theory and research and to make the self-conscious argument that what makes life worth living deserves its own field of inquiry within psychology, at least until that day when all of psychology embraces the study of what is good along with the study of what is bad (Peterson & Park, 2003).
Key Principles of Positive Psychology
Positive psychologists study key topics such as flourishing and resilience; turning points as opportunities for growth; positive traits such as optimism and altruism; meaning; personal goals and virtue; relationships; creativity and genius; and elevation (positive feelings elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty (Peterson & Chang, 2003; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Haidt, 2003).
According to Paul Pearsall (2003) thriving (or flourishing) is defined as reconstructing life’s meaning in response to life’s most destructive occurrences. It is not only rising to the occasion but being raised by it. Thriving is experiencing a renewal of faith, energy, trust, hope, and connection just when doubt, cynicism, fear, fatigue, and alienation seem at their worst (Pearsall, 2003). Positive psychology is also intended to “help us savor living rather than just survive in a stressful world” (Pearsall, 2003 p. 9). Positive psychology is about helping us live fully and joyfully, growing from life’s challenges, whatever our circumstances, and it studies ways to accomplish this.
Flow is another key concept in positive psychology (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). According to Csikszentmihalyi (1997) this is an experience that makes an activity gratifying. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). It is sometimes called “being in the zone”, “ecstasy”, or ” aesthetic rapture”. He describes the conditions when it tends to occur: there are goals that require appropriate responses, there is immediate feedback; there is a challenge where one’s skills match the level of skill required (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, pp. 31-32). Furthermore, he explains that “it is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life. When we are in flow, we are not happy, because to experience happiness we must focus on our inner states, and that would take away attention from the task at hand” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, p. 32) It is later, in remembering the activity, that we feel happy about it.
Signature strengths are important to the study of positive psychology and Seligman (2002) believes that each person possesses several signature strengths. These are strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and if he or she can, exercises every day in work, love, play, and parenting. His idea of the good life is using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness (Seligman, 2002). The meaningful life is using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are (Seligman, 2002). He includes the notion of good character as a core assumption of positive psychology.
Seligman (2002) believes virtues can be measured. In preparation for creating a classification of positive traits (a positive version of the DSM), a number of people read through some two hundred philosophical and religious texts looking for virtues that were common to all of them. They found six: wisdom and knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; spirituality and transcendence (Seligman, 2002). These were expanded to strengths: virtues which can be measured. Strengths are traits, not just one time actions. They are valued in their own right, and are something parents wish for their newborn. Others are inspired when they see virtuous action. The culture supports them with stories, rituals, parables, and role models. They are ubiquitous, valued in almost all cultures (Seligman, 2002).
Altruism is a trait that is particularly good for us. Seligman (2002) commented on a study that linked happiness with altruism. He was surprised, because he thought that unhappy people would identify with the suffering of others and be more altruistic. However, “findings on mood and helping others without exception revealed that happy people were more likely to demonstrate that trait (altruism)” (Seligman, 2002, p. 43). Does this mean altruism helps people be happy? Seligman (2002) gives anecdotal evidence of the causal connection between altruism and becoming happier (e.g., pp. 8-9). Piliavin (2003) discusses studies which look at the effects of helping others. Further studies are definitely needed, but on many levels – psychologically, socially, and even physically – one indeed does do well by doing good (Piliavin, 2003). Perhaps not surprisingly, Piliavin (2003) notes that one study suggested that the most positive effects come when the volunteer feels some autonomy and choice.
Choice and experiencing a sense of control over one’s feelings is important. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1991) people who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. He suggests that to overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment so they no longer respond automatically to its rewards and punishments (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). He proposes that the most important step in emancipating oneself from social controls is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991) This is what happens in flow, where we are engaging in an activity because we enjoy it and it absorbs our attention. Within flow, we have a sense of control, even when engaged in very risky activities such as rock climbing. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) noted that what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control, but the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.
According to Seligman (2002) an important way in which we have some control over our happiness is in our style of explanation, which can be either optimistic or pessimistic. Seligman (2002) considers two dimensions of our explanatory style to be crucial: permanence and pervasiveness. Permanence relates to whether you believe the cause of an event to be enduring or ephemeral. For example, “The boss is a bastard” with an explanation which is universal versus specific (Seligman, 2002, p. 90). For example, “I can never find my way” (universal) versus “I forgot to get the instructions this time” (specific). Seligman (2002) notes that we can view the causes and duration of good events and bad events differently. In fact, an optimist (who tends to be happier) tends to view bad events as temporary and specific, but good events as permanent and universal, whereas a pessimist views them the other way around. Given this, it is not surprising that the positive psychologists do not tend to talk about locus of control, since they are essentially saying that the optimist has an internal locus of control for positive events, but an external locus of control for negative events with the reverse for the pessimist. Seligman (1998) links pessimism with depression. He describes a longitudinal study which showed that “both explanatory style and bad life events are significant risk factors for depression” (Seligman, 1998, p. 143). Seligman (1998) further explained that for many jobs, an optimistic explanatory style leads to greater success. However, there are some jobs that need people who know when not to charge ahead, and when to err on the side of caution. Mild pessimists do well in these fields.
In conclusion, positive psychology is a mere change in focus for psychology, from the study of some of the worst things in life to the study of what makes life worth living. Positive psychology is not a replacement for what has gone before, but just as a supplement and extension of it. Positive psychologists share a desire to determine how to help people live happier, healthier lives. In this process, they are studying the nature of happiness and how institutions could promote happiness. Contrary to earlier schools of thought such as behaviorism, psychoanalysis, and cognitivism, they believe happiness can be studied (Carr, 2004). Positive psychologists are protesting against behaviorism’s lack of recognition of our ability to make choices, the idea in psychoanalysis that we are recovering from our childhood wounds, and the lack of concern about meaning and purpose in cognitive psychology. They believe that happiness comes from having and meeting challenges, choosing one’s goals, and creating meaning in life and are well connected to a spirit of the time that is interested in brain functioning as well as spirituality, that is interested in altruism, and that recognizes our human need to find meaning and purpose in life (Snyder & Lopez, 2002).