Positive psychology is a recent branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 2000 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities." Positive psychologists seek "to find and nurture genius and talent", and "to make normal life more fulfilling", not simply to treat mental illness. This approach has created a lot of interest around the subject, and in 2006 a course at Harvard University entitled "Positive Psychology" became the most popular course that semester.
Several humanistic psychologists—such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm—developed 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 positive psychologists. Positive psychology has also moved ahead in a number of new directions.
Current researchers in positive psychology include Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Christopher Peterson, Carol Dweck, Barbara Fredrickson, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, Jonathan Haidt, Shelley Taylor, C. R. Snyder, Donald Clifton, Albert Bandura, Charles S. Carver, Michael F. Scheier, and Ilona Boniwell.
Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman, considered the father of the modern positive psychology movement, chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association, though the term originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality. Seligman pointed out that for the half century clinical psychology "has been consumed by a single topic only - mental illness", echoing Maslow’s comments. He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.
The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002. In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place.
Positive psychology finds its roots in the humanistic psychology of the 20th century, which focused heavily on happiness and fulfillment. Earlier influences on positive psychology came primarily from philosophical and religious sources, as scientific psychology did not take its modern form until the late 19th century. (See History of psychology)
The ancient Greeks had many schools of thought. Socrates advocated self-knowledge as the path to happiness. Plato's allegory of the cave influenced western thinkers who believe that happiness is found by finding deeper meaning. Aristotle believed that happiness, or eudaimonia is constituted by rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life. The Epicureans believed in reaching happiness through the enjoyment of simple pleasures. The Stoics believed they could remain happy by being objective and reasonable.
Christianity continued to follow the Divine command theory of happiness. In the Middle Ages, Christianity taught that true happiness would not be found until the afterlife. The seven deadly sins are about earthly self-indulgence and narcissism. On the other hand, the Four Cardinal Virtues and Three Theological Virtues were supposed to keep one from sin.
During the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, individualism came to be valued. Simultaneously, creative individuals gained prestige, as they were now considered to be artists, not just craftsmen. Utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill believed that moral actions are those actions that maximize happiness for the most number of people. Thus, an empirical science of happiness should be used to determine which actions are moral. Thomas Jefferson and other proponents of democracy believed that "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are inalienable rights, and that it justifies the overthrow of the government.
The Romantics valued individual emotional expression and sought their emotional "true selves," which were unhindered by social norms. At the same time, love and intimacy became the main motivations for people to get married.
Some researchers in this field posit that positive psychology can be delineated into three overlapping areas of research:
These categories appear to be neither widely disputed nor adopted by researchers across the 12 years that this academic area has been in existence.
In an article entitled "The undoing effect of positive emotions," Barbara Fredrickson et al. hypothesize that positive emotions undo the cardiovascular effects of negative emotions. When people experience stress, they show increased heart rate, higher blood sugar, immune suppression, and other adaptations optimized for immediate action. If individuals do not regulate these changes once the stress is past, they can lead to illness, coronary heart disease, and heightened mortality. Both lab research and survey research indicate that positive emotions help people who were previously under stress relax back to their physiological baseline.
After several years of researching disgust, University of Virginia professor Jonathan Haidt and others studied its opposite, and the term "elevation" was coined. Elevation is a moral emotion and is pleasant. It involves a desire to act morally and do "good"; as an emotion it has a basis in biology, and can sometimes be characterized by a feeling of expansion in the chest or a tingling feeling on the skin.
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions suggests that positive emotions (e.g. happiness, interest, anticipation) broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. For example, curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence.
This is in contrast to negative emotions, which prompt narrow survival-oriented behaviors. For example, the negative emotion of anxiety leads to the specific fight-or-flight response for immediate survival.
The development of the Character Strengths and Virtues (CSV) handbook represents the first attempt on the part of the research community to identify and classify the positive psychological traits of human beings. Much like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of general psychology, the CSV provides a theoretical framework to assist in understanding strengths and virtues and for developing practical applications for positive psychology. This manual identifies six classes of virtue (i.e., "core virtues"), made up of twenty-four measurable character strengths.
The introduction of CSV suggests that these six virtues are considered good by the vast majority of cultures and throughout history and that these traits lead to increased happiness when practiced. Notwithstanding numerous cautions and caveats, this suggestion of universality hints that in addition to trying to broaden the scope of psychological research to include mental wellness, the leaders of the positive psychology movement are challenging moral relativism and suggesting that we are "evolutionarily predisposed" toward certain virtues, that virtue has a biological basis.
The organization of these virtues and strengths is as follows:
Mindfulness, defined as moment-to-moment awareness out of choice is a state of being most often cultivated over many years. It is also characterized as non-judging, non-striving, accepting, patient, trusting, open, letting go, gentle, generous, empathetic, grateful, and kind. Its benefits include reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
Flow, or a state of absorption in one's work, is characterized by intense concentration, loss of self-awareness, a feeling of control, and a sense that "time is flying." Flow is an intrinsically rewarding experience, and it can also help one achieve a goal (e.g. winning a game) or improve skills (e.g. becoming a better chess player).
Spirituality is associated with mental health, managing substance abuse, marital functioning, parenting, and coping. It has been suggested that spirituality also leads to finding purpose and meaning in life.
Self-efficacy is one's belief in one's ability to accomplish a task by one's own efforts. Low self-efficacy is associated with depression; high self-efficacy can help one overcome abuse, overcome eating disorders, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. High self-efficacy also improves the immune system, aids in stress management, and decreases pain.
Learned optimism is the habit of attributing one's failures to causes that are external (not personal), variable (not permanent), and specific (limited to a specific situation). For example, an optimistic person attributes his/her failures to external causes (the environment or other people), to variable causes which are not likely to happen again, and to specific causes that will not affect his/her success in other endeavors.
This explanatory style is associated with better performances (academic, athletic, or work productivity), greater satisfaction in interpersonal relationships, better coping, less vulnerability to depression, and better physical health.
Hope is a learned style of goal-directed thinking in which the person utilizes both pathways thinking (the perceived capacity to find routes to desired goals) and agency thinking (the requisite motivations to use those routes)
Practical applications of positive psychology include helping individuals and organizations identify their strengths and use them to increase and sustain their respective levels of well-being. Therapists, counselors, coaches, and various psychological professionals, as well as HR departments, business strategists, and others are using these new methods and techniques to broaden and build upon the strengths of individuals who are not necessarily suffering from mental illness or disorder.
How the positive psychology virtues and strengths are portrayed in movies, and how individuals can use movie viewings for self-improvement or to help others, are illustrated in a more recent book by Ryan Niemiec from the VIA Institute on Character and Danny Wedding from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health  entitled Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths.
Positive psychology research and practice is also currently being conducted and developed in various countries throughout the world.
Precursors to Positive Psychology:
Traditional disciplines of psychology have been said to focus too much on the negative aspects of human experience. Positive psychology attempts to find a balance between the negative and the positive. Generally speaking, positive psychology focuses on how to optimize the human experience, and on what makes people healthy, happy, and wise.