What is Positive Psychology?

16th October 2023

The Positive Psychology Movement and its History

Penn State University, which could be considered the home and birthplace of Positive Psychology, states, "Positive Psychology is one of the most innovative, relatively new, approaches to psychology. It involves the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive."

Positive Psychology begins on a positive foundation, that of building on one's strengths with a positive goal in sight, rather than the negative foundation of much of modern psychiatry, which matches symptoms with a disorder resulting in a negative label.

The Positive Psychology Center at Penn State University, promotes research, training, education, and the dissemination of Positive Psychology.

This field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.

Core Principles of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology has three central concerns:

1. Positive emotions

2. Positive individual traits

3. Positive institutions

Understanding positive emotions entails the study of contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future. Understanding positive individual traits consists of the study of strengths and virtues, such as the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom.

Understanding positive institutions entails the study of the strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.

Another definition of Positive Psychology states,

Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology that "studies the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive". (Shirae, E. 2014) Positive psychologists seek "to find and nurture" genius, creativity and talent, as well as "to make normal life more fulfilling", not to cure mental illness (Compton, W. 2005).

The ideas of Abraham Maslow influenced the Positive Psychology movement.

Background of the Development of Positive Psychology

Several humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm developed successful theories and practices that involved human happiness. Recently the theories of human flourishing developed by these humanistic psychologists have found empirical support from studies by humanistic and positive psychologists, such as in the area of self-determination theory.

Martin Seligman, Penn State University, founder of Positive Psychology - Photo - TED: Ideas worth sharing

Current researchers in Positive Psychology include: Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, C. R. Snyder, Christopher Peterson, Barbara Fredrickson, Donald Clifton, Albert Bandura, Shelley Taylor, Charles S. Carver, Michael F. Scheier, and Jonathan Haidt.

Martin Seligman and the Birth of Positive Psychology.
The Influence of Abraham Maslow

Psychiatry's Focus On "Mental Illness" Is Not a Healthy Foundation for Psychology

Martin Seligman is considered the father of the modern positive psychology movement, and chose positive psychology as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association. The term itself first originated with Abraham Maslow, who, in 1954 in his book “Motivation and Personality”, first coined the term.

Seligman candidly observed that, for the past fifty years, clinical psychology "has been consumed by a single topic - mental illness", echoing Maslow's comments (Seaward, B. 2011). He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life. This observation by Maslow and Seligman has much substance.

Why the Positive Psychology Movement?

The modern practice of psychology, and especially that of psychiatry, has overemphasized the medical model and drug treatment, partly because it is fast, easy, convenient, as well as profitable for practitioners, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

In doing this, the field of psychiatry has largely become one in which symptoms are determined, a label is assigned to the disorder, and therefore to the person, with the next consequential step usually involving pharmaceutical treatment, possibly accompanied by additional therapy.

The opposite of positive is negative, and this negative foundation of labeling and treatment, which is the most common approach in modern psychiatry based on the "medical model" of mental health, sometimes leads to a “guilty until proven innocent mentality” in the psychiatric world.

For this reason, people can be labeled much too hastily, and that label can put one into a mind-set of compliance and apathy, rather than help them improve their situation.

Positive Psychology takes the opposite approach, building on strengths, searching for the positive, avoiding to attach labels, unless absolutely necessary. For this reason, it can be a much more beneficial framework or springboard from which to begin when considering the subject of psychology, a much needed breath of fresh air, coming not too long after atypical antipsychotics were introduced into mainstream psychology.

The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002.

Ideology of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology can be perceived as reflecting ideas that have been expressed in world religions and philosophies. The ideals of Cristo-Judaism are somewhat reflected in this framework, as well as some aspects of ancient Greek philosophy.

Positive Psychology sometimes sounds almost religious in its discussions, and might be likened to "applied" or "humanistic religion," minus scripture and reference to God. Like most behavioral sciences, it uses terms reflective of mankind's evolutionary development, in its defense of the movement.

Individualism, self-fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness are also some of the ideals embraced by Positive Psychology. In this respect, it differs from the theme expressed by major religions, in its stress on "self-fulfillment" as opposed to "self-sacrifice" and active interest in the welfare of others.

Positive Psychology - the Book “Character Strengths and Virtues”, Along with Positive Traits

The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook espouses positive traits in much the same way as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the "bible" of psychiatry and catalogs symptoms of mental illness.

Some of these virtues and strengths are as follows:

1. Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective

2. Courage: bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality

3. Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence

4. Justice: citizenship, fairness, leadership

5. Temperance: forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, self control

6. Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook, see:
The Ennegram Institute Discussion Board

Conclusion on Positive Psychology and Its Place in Psychology Theory

The Positive Psychology Movement provides one of several viable counter-theories to the "medical model" of mental health, which many professionals and educators believe to be an inadequate model on which to base mental health evaluation and treatment. The medical model of mental health has resulted in a tremendous increase of over-diagnosis and misdiagnosis of mental health disorders, with treatment of mental health disorders disproportionately and needlessly focused on labeling and medicating.

Positive Psychology offers a foundation on which to base both prevention and treatment of mental health difficulties. It presupposes strong individual traits on which to build constructively, rather than searching for what is at fault and treating symptoms with drugs.

By building on the positives, rather than searching for the weaknesses, Positive Psychology helps to balance out the fields of psychology and psychiatry. The Positive Psychology Movement, along with the Bioecological Model of mental health, proposed by Urie Bronfenbrenner, provide a more realistic foundation on which to address mental health disorders.

Positive Psychology helps to more fully preserve the dignity of the one experiencing mental health difficulties, and empowers the individual, encouraging him to make positive changes, rather than attaching an often stigmatizing label.

The "label and drug" method of psychiatry pre-supposes some physical, biological, or genetic deficiency or defect, which cannot be remedied, but only controlled, and only managed with psychiatric drugs, carefully monitored by a psychiatrist. This (the medical model of mental health), is based partially on fallacy, and at its best is a foundation for mental health treatment which is fraught with gaps.

Positive Psychology then, is something to be considered by mental health professionals, in refocusing their way of interpreting and treating mental health disorders.

Positive Psychology, however, also comes very close to being on the border of religion in its own right, espousing principles which have already been encouraged by the world's major religions for millenniums.

Sometimes, the movement goes so far as to promise happiness, something that can be an elusive goal for many, especially in view of the fact that the angle that Positive Psychology takes on finding happiness falls more along the lines of self-fulfillment, rather than altruism or self-sacrifice. Maslow's theory found its pinnacle in self-actualization, which is certainly a worthy goal for anyone. On the other hand, in offering a humanistic approach that borders on religion, Positive Psychology might not be able to deliver what it offers as a path to happiness.

As any other approach to the human mind, Positive Psychology may not be ideally suited to everyone. It does, however, offer a perspective based on realistic positivity and the pursuit of self-induced happiness, rather than seeking to place individuals into strict boundaries of mental health or illness. In that, Positive Psychology can be greatly beneficial to many who are looking to improve their overall mental health and address mild psychological disorders.

References for Positive Psychology Movement and History

1. Compton, W. (2005) An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Independence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing.

2. Gable, S. Haidt, J. (2005, June). What (and why) is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology, Vol 9(2), Jun 2005, 103-110. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.103 http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2005-06355-002

3. Penn State University. Positive Psychology

4. Seaward, B. (2011). Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Well-Being. 7th edition. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

5. Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

6. Shiraev, E. (2014). A History of Psychology: A Global Perspective Second Edition Edition. SAGE Publications, Inc.