Positive psychology is one of the fastest growing and most exciting areas of health and wellbeing science. It’s the study of optimal human functioning – finding the conditions that help people to thrive and flourish.
Positive psychology is not to be confused with simplistic positive thinking, pop-psychology or self-help. It’s scientific research using the same testing as is used for new drugs – multiple random-assignment, placebo- controlled long-term studies.
What Positive Psychology Offers:
1. Scientifically proven ways to increase wellbeing, happiness, and optimal performance.
Previously, our understanding of what builds happiness and wellbeing was based more on observation and philosophy than on hard science. Positive Psychology research puts ways of increasing happiness and wellbeing through the same sort of testing that is used for drug testing – randomised, controlled trials etc.
2. It provides a balanced approach as it focuses on increasing what’s right, as well as fixing what’s wrong.
Traditional psychology has focused more on what is wrong with people, “fixing problems” and trying to ease their distress, like moving people from a minus score to zero or neutral – a deficit model.
Positive psychology is more about creating wellbeing and happiness and focuses on moving people from feeling neutral to feeling positive, with greater happiness, fulfilment and purpose. There’s a lot of research about what makes people distressed but just as importantly, there’s now growing of research about what makes people happy.
What Positive Psychology isn’t
- It is not ‘pop psychology’. It’s serious science coming from the leading universities in the world.
- It is not a fad.
- It is not ‘happyology’. The focus is on scientifically proven approaches that are based on realism.
- It is not ‘motherhood’ statements with no practical application.
A Brief History of Positive Psychology
Professor Martin Seligman is often called the father of modern Positive Psychology. In 1998 he became the President of the American Psychological Association, which is one of the largest peak bodies of scientists in the US. Each president is expected to set a theme for their one year president term.
Professor Seligman chose his theme as being rebalancing psychology from being focused on relieving mental illness and dysfunction to being focused on building health. He’d become aware that psychology to that point had focused on fixing problems about mental illness, on relieving suffering, and on making people less unhappy.
The general assumption at that time was that relieving depression, or helping people to feel angry less often, or relieving stress would somehow make them feel better and therefore feel happy.
But as you would know, not feeling sad doesn’t make you feel happy. Not feeling sick doesn’t make you feel well.
So Professor Seligman started a shift in focus from diagnosing and alleviating psychological problems onto instead focusing on “enhancing happiness”. Instead of merely helping people feel ‘normal’, he said the aim should be to assist them reach their goals and feel fantastic.
Since that time, the number of psychology research studies on what makes individuals and organisations thrive and flourish has skyrocketed. It’s an exciting and fast-growing area of cutting-edge science.
Examples of Positive Psychology research include:
- What is the purpose of positive emotions such as joy, awe, happiness? (Fredrickson, Haidt, Isen)
- What are the inherent positive strengths of people? (Peterson, Park, Seligman)
- What makes people happy? (Diener, Myers, Seligman)
- How can people be happier? (Lyubomirsky, Peterson)
- How can people make great decisions? (Gilbert)
- Does happiness lead to success or success to happiness? (Diener, Lyubomirsky, King)
- How can people use self-talk to succeed? (Seligman, Reivich, Gillham)
- How can people do what they most enjoy and do best at work? (Clifton, Rath)
- How can people get more involved in their activities? (Csikszentmihalyi, Nakamura)
- How can one’s work be a calling, a career, or a job? (Wrzesniewski)
Positive psychology has three broad subject areas:
1. Subjective Positive Experiences – positive feelings. This includes happiness, wellbeing, flow, pleasure, optimism and positive emotions.
2. Positive Traits – traits we can develop. This includes talents, interests, creativity, wisdom, values, character strengths, meaning, and a sense of purpose.
3. Positive institutions – groups of people. Examples include positive teams, families, schools, businesses, organisations, communities and societies.
Positive Psychology studies have found that relying on strategies to prevent or manage negative states – such as stress or illness – doesn’t help people to function at their optimal levels.