What Is Positive Psychology?

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Positive psychology is a relatively new subfield of psychology that focuses on human strengths and the things that make life worth living. Psychologist Martin Seligman is considered the father of this branch of psychology after he led the charge to popularize it in 1998. Since then, positive psychology has garnered a great deal of interest, generating attention from both psychologists and the general public.

Key Takeaways: Positive Psychology

  • Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and well-being.
  • While positive psychology has received a great deal of attention, it has also been criticized for a number of reasons, including neglecting individual differences, blaming the victim, and being biased towards a Western, white, middle-class perspective.
  • Martin Seligman is considered the father of positive psychology because he introduced it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association in 1998.

Origins and Definition of Positive Psychology

While psychologists have studied topics like happiness, optimism, and other human strengths for decades, positive psychology wasn’t officially identified as a branch of psychology until 1998 when Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Seligman suggested that psychology had become too focused on mental illness. While this had yielded valuable treatments that enabled psychologists to treat a number of pathologies and dysfunctions that helped people become less unhappy, it meant that psychology was neglecting what was good about life—and what the average person could improve.

Seligman called for research into what makes normal people’s lives positive and fulfilling, and suggested that the field should develop interventions that could make people happier. He stated that psychology should be just as concerned with nurturing the good things in life as it was with healing the bad. From these ideas positive psychology was born.

Seligman made positive psychology the theme of his term as APA president and used his visibility in that role to spread the word. From there the field took off. It received a great deal of attention from mainstream media outlets. Meanwhile, the first Positive Psychology Summit was held in 1999, followed by the first International Conference on Positive Psychology in 2002.

Interest in positive psychology has remained high ever since. In 2019, 1,600 individuals attended the World Congress of Positive Psychology, research in the field has generated tens of thousands of academic papers, and a quarter of the undergraduate students at Yale University enrolled in a course devoted to the subject of happiness in 2018.

While Seligman is still the name most closely associated with positive psychology, numerous other well-known researchers have contributed to the subfield, including Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Barbara Fredrickson, Daniel Gilbert, Albert Bandura, Carol Dweck, and Roy Baumeister.

Today, positive psychology is sometimes confused with self-help movements, like positive thinking. However, like all of psychology, positive psychology is a science, and therefore, uses research based on the scientific method to reach its conclusions about what causes humans to thrive. Psychologist Christopher Peterson also pointed out that positive psychology is meant to serve as a complement and extension of the areas of psychology that focus on mental illness and human weakness. Positive psychologists don’t wish to replace or discard the study of human problems, they simply wish to add the study of what’s good in life to the field.

Important Theories and Ideas

Since Seligman first brought widespread attention to positive psychology, several theories, ideas, and research findings have come out of the subfield, including:

  • Flow and mindfulness can help encourage optimal human functioning.
  • People tend to be pretty happy and resilient.
  • There are different forms of happiness—hedonism, or pleasure, and eudaimonia, or well-being. Eudaimonia has been found to be more important than hedonism to a satisfying life.
  • Strong relationships and character strengths can help counter the negative impact of setbacks.
  • Money doesn’t impact happiness past a certain point, but spending money on experiences will make people happier than spending it on material things.
  • Gratitude contributes to happiness.
  • There is a genetic component to happiness; however, anyone can improve their happiness through practices like optimism and altruism.

Critiques and Limitations

Despite its ongoing popularity, positive psychology has been criticized for a number of different reasons. First, humanistic psychologists have argued that, with positive psychology, Seligman is claiming credit for work previously done in humanistic psychology. And indeed, humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow focused their research on the positive side of the human experience years before Seligman turned his attention to positive psychology. Maslow even coined the term positive psychology, which he used in his book Motivation and Personality in 1954. On the other hand, positive psychologists insist their research is based on empirical evidence while that of humanistic psychology is not.

Despite positive psychologists' testaments to the scientific nature of their findings, some have said that the research produced by the subfield is invalid or overstated. These critics believe the field has moved too quickly from research to practical interventions. They argue that positive psychology’s findings aren’t strong enough to support real-world applications, and as a result, it is getting subsumed by self-help movements and pop culture.

Similarly, some claim that positive psychology fails to take individual differences into account, instead presenting findings as if they will work for everyone in the same way. For example, psychology professor Julie Norem has pointed out that positive psychology strategies like increasing optimism and cultivating positive emotions could backfire for individuals she dubs defensive pessimists. Defensive pessimists guard against anxiety by considering every negative outcome that could come out of a situation. This causes them to work harder to avoid those possibilities. In contrast, when these individuals are pushed to focus on optimism and positive emotions, their performance declines. In addition, when people with low self-esteem repeat a personally affirming statement (e.g., “I’m a lovable person”), it makes them feel worse than people with low self-esteem who didn’t repeat the statement.

Another criticism of positive psychology is that it’s too individualistic, which has led to victim blaming. These critics argue that the field's messages imply that if an individual can’t use positive psychology techniques to make themselves happy, it’s their own fault.

Finally, some have suggested that positive psychology is limited by cultural bias. Not only has the majority of research in the field been conducted by Western scholars, positive psychology's findings has often come from a white, middle-class perspective that ignores issues such as systemic inequality and poverty. Recently, however, attempts have been made to expand the findings in positive psychology to incorporate perspectives from non-Western countries and a diversity of backgrounds.

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