A Brief Overview of the Field of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology is one of the newest branches of psychology to emerge. This particular area of psychology focuses on how to help human beings prosper and lead healthy, happy lives. While many other branches of psychology tend to focus on dysfunction and abnormal behavior, positive psychology is centered on helping people become happier.
Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describe positive psychology in the following way: “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.”
Over the last ten years or so, general interest in positive psychology has grown tremendously. Today, more and more people are searching for information on how they can become more fulfilled and achieve their full potential. Interest in the topic has also increased on college campuses. In 2006, Harvard’s course on positive psychology became the university’s most popular class. In order to understand the field of positive psychology, it is essential to start by learning more about its history, major theories and applications.
The History of Positive Psychology
“Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent,” Seligman wrote in 2005. Shortly after WWII, the primary focus of psychology shifted to the first priority: treating abnormal behavior and mental illness. During the 1950s, humanist thinkers such as Carl Rogers, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Maslow helped renew interest in the other two areas by developing theories that focused on happiness and the positive aspects of human nature.
In 1998, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and positive psychology became the theme of his term. Today, Seligman is widely viewed as the father of contemporary positive psychology. In 2002, the first International Conference on Positive Psychology was held. In 2009, the first World Congress on Positive Psychology took place in Philadelphia and featured talks by Martin Seligman and Philip Zimbardo.
Important People in Positive Psychology
- Martin Seligman
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Christopher Peterson
- Carol Dweck
- Daniel Gilbert
- Kennon Sheldon
- Albert Bandura
- C. R. Snyder
- Philip Zimbardo
Major Topics in Positive Psychology
Some of the major topics of interest in positive psychology include:
- Optimism and helplessness
- Character strengths and virtues
- Positive thinking
Research Findings in Positive Psychology
Some of the major findings of positive psychology include:
- People are generally happy.
- Money doesn’t necessarily buy well-being; but spending money on other people can make individuals happier.
- Some of the best ways to combat disappointments and setbacks include strong social relationships and character strengths.
- Work can be important to well-being, especially when people are able to engage in work that is purposeful and meaningful.
- While happiness is influenced by genetics, people can learn to be happier by developing optimism, gratitude, and altruism.
Applications of Positive Psychology
Positive psychology can have a range of real-world applications in areas including education, therapy, self-help, stress management, and workplace issues. Using strategies from positive psychology, teachers, coaches, therapists, and employers can motivate others and help individuals understand and develop their personal strengths.
Understanding Positive Psychology
In a 2008 article published by Psychology Today, the late Christopher Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology and professor at the University of Michigan, noted that it is essential to understand what positive psychology is as well as what it is not. “Positive psychology is … a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology,” he writes.
He cautioned, however, that positive psychology does not involve ignoring the very real problems that people face and that other areas of psychology strive to treat. “The value of positive psychology is to complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades,” he explained.
Gable, S. & Haidt, J (2005). What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110
Goldberg, C. (2006). Harvard’s crowded course to happiness. Boston Globe. Found online at http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2006/03/10/harvards_crowded_course_to_happiness/
Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, C. (2008). What Is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not? Psychology Today. Found online at http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not
Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszenmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.