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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."[1] Positive psychologists seek "to find and nurture genius and talent", and "to make normal life more fulfilling",[2] not simply to treat mental illness.[2] 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.[3]

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,[2] Ed Diener,[2] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,[2] Christopher Peterson,[2] Carol Dweck, Barbara Fredrickson,[2] Sonja Lyubomirsky,[4][5] Kennon Sheldon,[6] Jonathan Haidt,[7] Shelley Taylor, C. R. Snyder,[2] Donald Clifton, Albert Bandura, Charles S. Carver, Michael F. Scheier, and Ilona Boniwell.[8]



Positive psychology began as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman, considered the father of the modern positive psychology movement,[9] chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association,[10] though the term originates with Maslow, in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.[11] Seligman pointed out that for the half century clinical psychology "has been consumed by a single topic only - mental illness",[12] echoing Maslow’s comments.[13] He urged psychologists to continue the earlier missions of psychology of nurturing talent and improving normal life.[2]

The first positive psychology summit took place in 1999. The First International Conference on Positive Psychology took place in 2002.[2] In June 2009, the First World Congress on Positive Psychology took place.[14]


Historical roots

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)

Judaism promotes a Divine command theory of happiness: happiness and rewards follow from following the commands of the divine.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]


General overview

Some researchers[15] in this field posit that positive psychology can be delineated into three overlapping areas of research:

  1. Research into the Pleasant Life, or the "life of enjoyment", examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions that are part of normal and healthy living (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.).
  2. The study of the Good Life, or the "life of engagement", investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals feel when optimally engaged with their primary activities. These states are experienced when there is a positive match between a person's strength and the task they are doing, i.e. when they feel confident that they can accomplish the tasks they face.
  3. Inquiry into the Meaningful Life, or "life of affiliation", questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems).

These categories appear to be neither widely disputed nor adopted by researchers across the 12 years that this academic area has been in existence.

The undoing effect

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.[16]


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)[17] 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.[17]

Strengths and virtues

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.[18]

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.[19]

The organization of these virtues and strengths is as follows:

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

Positive experiences


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.[20]


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).[20]


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.[20]

Positive futures


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.[21]

Learned optimism

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.[21]


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)[21]

Other findings

  • "A systematic study of 22 people who won major lotteries found that they reverted to their baseline level of happiness over time, winding up no happier than 22 matched controls" (p. 48[15])
  • "Within a few years, paraplegics wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed" (p. 48[15])
  • "[83 percent] of Americans report positive life satisfaction" (p. 50[15])
  • "In wealthier nations ... increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness" (p. 54[15])
  • "Unlike money, which has at most a small effect, marriage is robustly related to happiness.... In my opinion, the jury is still out on what causes the proven fact that married people are happier than unmarried people." (pp. 55-56[15]) On the other hand, at least one large study in Germany found no difference in happiness between married and unmarried people.[22]


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 [23]and Danny Wedding from the Missouri Institute of Mental Health [24] entitled Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths.[25]

Positive psychology research and practice is also currently being conducted and developed in various countries throughout the world.

See also


  1. ^ Seligman, Martin E.P.; Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2000). "Positive Psychology: An Introduction". American Psychologist 55 (1): 5-14. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Compton, William C, (2005). "1". An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing. pp. 1–22. ISBN 0-534-64453-8. 
  3. ^ Ben-Shahar, Ben (2007) "Happier - Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment", First Edition, McGraw-Hill Co.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Kennon M. Sheldon Curriculum Vita
  7. ^ Ong, Anthony D. and Van Dulmen, Manfred H.M. (2006). Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press U.S.
  8. ^ "Ilona Boniwell Research Profile". 
  9. ^ Goldberg, Carey. "Harvard's crowded course to happiness." The Boston Globe. March 10, 2006.
  10. ^ Time Magazine's cover story in the special issue on "The Science of Happiness", 2005
  11. ^ The last chapter is entitled "Toward a Positive Psychology".
  12. ^ Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. xi. ISBN 0-7432-2297-0.
  13. ^ "The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side. It has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illness, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology has voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, than the darker, meaner half." (Maslow, Motivation and Psychology, p. 354).
  14. ^ Reuters, Jun 18, 2009: First World Congress on Positive Psychology Kicks Off Today With Talks by Two of the World's Most Renowned Psychologists
  15. ^ a b c d e f Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 275. ISBN 0-7432-2297-0. 
  16. ^ Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). "The undoing effect of positive emotions," Motivation and Emotion. 24, 237-258.
  17. ^ a b Compton, William C, (2005). "2". An Introduction to Positive Psychology. Wadsworth Publishing. pp. 23–40. ISBN 0-534-64453-8. 
  18. ^ Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516701-5. 
  19. ^ Peterson, Christopher & Seligman, Martin E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 51. ISBN 0-19-516701-5.
  20. ^ a b c Snyder, C.R.; Lopez, Shane J. (2007), "11", Positive Psychology, Sage Publications, Inc., ISBN 076192633X 
  21. ^ a b c Snyder, C.R.; Lopez, Shane J. (2007), "9", Positive Psychology, Sage Publications, Inc., ISBN 076192633X 
  22. ^ Marriage Is Not the Key to Happiness, by Anne Becker, Psychology Today, March 18, 2003.
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ Niemiec, Ryan & Wedding, Danny (2008). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe. ISBN 978-0-88937-352-5.


Further reading

External links

Outline of psychology

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiversity

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.


See also

Wikipedia-logo.png Run a search on Positive psychology at Wikipedia.

External links


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