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March 26, 2016
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1 Introduction
Positive psychology



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. The emerging field of Positive Psychology is intended to complement, not to replace traditional psychology. By scientifically studying what has gone right, rather than wrong in both individuals and societies, Positive Psychology hopes to achieve a renaissance of sorts. This approach has created a lot of interest around the subject, and around 2002, college courses on positive psychology taught by Martin Seligman, Michael Frisch, and others arrived. Little attention was given by the general public until 2006 when using the same framework, a course at Harvard University became particularly popular.

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, Robert Biswas-Diener, Albert Bandura, Charles S. Carver, Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, and Phil Zimbardo. Each of these scientists has published influential and well-cited articles. Furthermore, these scientists are considered producers of high quality work outside of the positive psychology guild who publish in mainstream, top-tier psychology journals. This is important as positive psychology, in the end, is another topic in psychological science.

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, 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.

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.

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 .

General overview

Some researchers 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. (See related concept, Self-efficacy)
  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 titled "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.

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.

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:

  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

It should be noted that the organization of these virtues into 6 groups is contested. It has been suggested that the 24 strengths identified are more accurately grouped into just 3 or 4 categories: Intellectual Strengths, Interpersonal Strengths, and Temperance Strengths or alternatively Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness

Positive experiences


Mindfulness , may be defined as the intentionally-focused awareness of one's immediate experience. The experience is one of a moment-by-moment attention to thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and surroundings. The practice is always grounded in the present moment. When practicing mindfulness, one's role is simply as observer of the arising and passing away of experience. One does not judge, try to figure things out or change things, or in engage in self-analysis.Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom , Shambala, 2003; Gunaratana, H. (1992 ) Mindfulness in Plain English ', 'Wisdom Publications, 1992. ' It should be noted that mindfulness is not an evolving term. It has a very distinct meaning that has remained the same since it was introduced over 2500 years ago. The practice is challenging and requires determination and dedication, particularly when one is starting out. As time passes, the practice becomes more natural. Benefits of mindfulness practice 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).

Czikszentmihalyi identified nine elements of flow:

1. There are clear goals every step of the way, 2. There is immediate feedback to one's action, 3. There is a balance between challenges and skills, 4. Action and awareness are merged, 5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness, 6. There is no worry of failure, 7. Self-consciousness disappears, 8. The sense of time becomes distorted, 9. The activity becomes "autotelic" (an end in itself, done for it's own sake)


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. This research on the benefits of spirituality is limited, however, to mostly studies using cross-sectional questionnaires.

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.

A related but somewhat differing concept is Personal effectiveness which is primarily concerned with the methodologies of planning and implementation of accomplishment.

Learned optimism

Learned optimism is the idea that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated. It is contrasted with learned helplessness. Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging self talk if it describes a negative event as a personal failure that permanently affects all areas of the person's life.

Buying happiness

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Dan Gilbert describes research suggesting that money makes a big difference to the poor (where basic needs are not yet met) but has greatly diminished effects once one reaches middle class. For example, having even more money for luxuries does not increase happiness as much as having a job and social network that one enjoys. Professor of Economics Richard Easterlin even adds that job satisfaction has not been found to depend on how much it pays either. Gilbert is thus adamant that people should go to great lengths in order to (a) figure out which jobs they would enjoy and (b) find a way to do one of those jobs for a living (that is, provided one is also attentive to their social ties).


Positive psychology is beneficial to schools and students as it encourages individuals to strive to do the best they can whereas scolding has the opposite effect. Clifton and Rath discuss the research conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock in 1925. She designed a study around fourth to sixth grade students to see the effect praise, criticism and ignorance of the students work could have on them. The outcome was determined by how many math problems the children solved after 2, 3, 4, and 5 days. Children who scored a high mark in a maths test were named and praised in front of the class. Those who did poorly were openly scolded in front of the class and those who did very poorly were completely ignored after watching the other students being scolded and praised. A control group was taken to a different room and sat the same test but were given no feedback on their work. Students who were praised or criticised had a higher score on the second day. On the third and fourth day, the students who were criticised were equal with the students who were ignored. The students who were praised continued to excel in their work to the end of the study. The overall improvement was that the praised students improved by 71%, the students who were criticised increased their performance by 19% and those who were ignored increased by 5%. This study shows the importance of embracing positive psychology in schools. Ignoring or criticising students can hinder their education. Positive emotions enable individuals to learn and work to the best of their ability.

According to Clifton and Rath believe that ???positive emotions are an essential daily requirement for survival???.


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)

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)

  • "Within a few years, paraplegics wind up only slightly less happy on average than individuals who are not paralyzed" (p. 48)

  • " percent of Americans report positive life satisfaction" (p. 50)

  • "In wealthier nations ... increases in wealth have negligible effects on personal happiness" (p. 54)

  • "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) On the other hand, at least one large study in Germany found no difference in happiness between married and unmarried people.

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.

Researcher Dianne Hales described a person as

emotionally healthy as someone who exhibited flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, had a sense of meaning and affirmation in life as well as an "understanding that the self is not the center of the universe", had compassion and the ability to be unselfish, along with increased depth and satisfaction in intimate relationships, and who had a sense of control over the mind and body.

Proponents of replacing Gross domestic product with Gross national happiness as the predominant measure of a nation's success often cite positive psychology research.

In education

In 2008 a whole-of-school implementation of Positive Psychology was undertaken by Geelong Grammar School (Victoria, Australia) in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This involved initial training of teaching staff in the principles and skills of positive psychology. Ongoing support was provided by The Positive Psychology Center staff remaining in-residence for the entire year (Seligman et al. 2008).

Staats, Hupp and Hagley (2008) have used positive psychology to explore academic honesty, by identifying positive traits that were displayed by heroes and then determining if the presence of these traits in students could be used to predict their future intent to cheat. Their research has resulted in ???an effective working model of heroism in the context of the academic environment??? (Staats, Hupp & Hagley, 2008).

Applications to Clinical Psychology

A strengths-based approach aims to change clinical psychology to have an equally weighted focus on both positive and negative functioning when attempting to understand and treat distress. The rationale is based on several empirical findings. Positive characteristics interact with negative life events to predict disorder (so studying only negative life events would produce misleading results). Interventions that focus on strengths and positive emotions can be as effective in treating disorder as other more commonly used approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The terms positive clinical psychology and other terms are a bit odd as this field has always had scientists and clinicians that address quality of life outcomes. While positive psychology can inform clinical psychology, it is not helpful to stretch beyond this point. This is about changing priorities to address the breadth and depth of the human experience in clinical settings.

In the workplace

Positive psychology has also been implemented in business management practice, but Wong & Davey (2007) acknowledges that although managers can introduce this concept to a workplace, they don't always have the ability to apply it to employees in a positive way. Furthermore, if positive psychology must be applied to an organisation with transparency if it is to be welcomed and committed to by employees. Managers must also understand that the sheer implementation of positive psychology will not combat any commitment challenges they may face. However, it may help employees to be more optimistic to new concepts or management practices.

In their article The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? , S. Lyubomirsky et al. say: "The cross-sectional evidence reveals that happy workers enjoy multiple advantages over their less happy peers. Individuals high in subjective well-being are more likely to secure job interviews, to be evaluated more positively by supervisors once they obtain a job, to show superior performance and productivity, and to handle managerial jobs better. They are also less likely to show counter- productive workplace behavior and job burnout."

Positive psychology, when applied correctly can provide employees with a greater opportunity to use skills and vary work duties. However, It is important to remember that changing work conditions and roles can lead to stress amongst employees if they are not properly supported by management in their venture. This particularly holds true for employees who must meet the expectations of organisations with unrealistic goals and targets.

So how does an organization implement change? Lewis et al. (2007) have development Appreciative inquiry (AI) which is an integrated, organizational-level methodology for approaching organizational change, based on an understanding of how organizational resourcefulness is generated through accessing many human psychological processes, such as positive emotional states, imagination, social cohesion and the social construction of reality.

Other future research

Positive psychology research and practice is also currently being conducted and developed in various countries throughout the world. In Canada, for example, Charles Hackney of Briercrest College applies positive psychology to the topic of person growth through martial arts training, and Paul Wong, president of the International Network on Personal Meaning, is developing an existential approach to positive psychology.

An ???intense affect??? can certainly be considered with cognitive and behavioral change, which is more slight and complex and is becoming a legitimate area of study, specifically with the links in cognition and motivational responses.

For researchers to make further progress there is a need for past theories and methods to be overcome and to encourage the more contemporary research, says Isen (2009).

Chang (2008) believes emotional intelligence is not definitive to positive affect and researchers have a number of paths that allow the enhancement of emotional intelligence; however more study is required to track the gradient of positive affect in psychology.

Sample (2003) notes that it is argued by Steven Wolin, a clinical psychiatrist at George Washington University in Washington DC, that the study of positive psychology is a reiteration of older ways of thinking in positive psychology.

The uptake of positive psychology by the popular press, primarily promoting among other claims the health benefits of positive psychology. Snyder and Lopez (cited in Held 2004, p. 17) warn of possible damage to the field of positive psychology through the scientific community becoming caught up in the media???s claims of positive psychology. Warning researchers of the field, Snyder and Lopez suggest that they remain within the parameters of scientific professionalism and utilise any research or studies appropriately.

Some negative attributes of positive psychology as described by Held (2004) include the movement???s lack of consistency towards the aspect of negativity. She raised issues with the simplistic approach taken by some psychologists in the application of positive psychology. A ???one size fits all??? approach is not seen by Held to be beneficial to the advancement of the field of positive psychology, and she suggested a need for individual differences to be incorporated into its application.

Held (2004) argued that while positive psychology makes contributions to the field of psychology, that it is not without its faults. Her 2004 article in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol.44, no.1. offered insight into topics including the negative side effects of positive psychology, the negativity that can be found within the positive psychology movement and the current division inside the field of psychology caused by the differing opinions held by psychologists on positive psychology.

  • Happiness

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Eudaimonia

  • Gross national happiness

  • Happiness economics

  • Meaning of life

  • Psychological resilience

  • Theory of humor

Precursors to positive psychology

  • Humanistic psychology

  • Maslow's hierarchy of needs

  • Needs and Motives Henry Murray

  • Argyle, Michael (2001).

    The Psychology of Happiness . Routledge.

  • Benard, Bonnie (2004).

    Resiliency: What We Have Learned . San Francisco: WestEd

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990).

    Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience . HarperCollins Publishers.

  • Haidt, Jonathan (2005).

    The Happiness Hypothesis. Basic Books.

  • Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality . In C. L. M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.)

    Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-lived . Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 275???289).

  • Kahneman, Daniel , Diener, Ed, Schwarz, Norbert (2003).

    Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology . Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

  • Kashdan, T.B. (2009). Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life . New York, NY: HarperCollins.

  • Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.)

    Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-lived . Washington DC: American Psychological Association. (pp. 275???289).

  • McMahon, Darrin M. (2006).

    Happiness: A History . Atlantic Monthly Press.

  • Robbins, B.D (2008). What is the good life? Positive psychology and the renaissance of humanistic psychology .

    The Humanistic Psychologist , 36(2), 96-112.

  • Sample, I 2003,

    How to be happy , The Guardian UK, 18 May 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/nov/19/1

  • Seligman, Martin (1990).

    Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life . Free Press.

  • Seligman, M.E.P. (2004).

    Can Happiness be Taught? . Daedalus journal , Spring 2004.

  • Snyder, C.R., and Lopez, Shane J. (2001)

    Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press.

  • Biswas-Diener, Robert, & Diener, Ed. (2004). The psychology of subjective well-being. Daedalus, (133)2, 18-25

  • Held, BS 2004, ???The Negative Side of Positive Psychology???, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 44 No. 1, pp. 9???41, retrieved 27 April 2010, PsycINFO database.

  • Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?

    Review of General Psychology, 9, 103-110. Full text

  • Economic Downturn: Can Money Buy Happiness? WhyFiles.org

  • Niemiec, R., & Wedding D. (2008). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Using Films to Build Virtues and Character Strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

  • Eric Fromm, The anatomy of human destructiveness (New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1973) ISBN 0030075963

  • APA Division 17, Section on Positive Psychology American Psychological Association Division 17, Society of Counseling Psychology, Section on Positive Psychology - dedicated to the study and promotion of positive psychology.

  • Ed Diener, Positive Psychology , University of Illinois site.

  • Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania

  • Positive Psychology at Claremont Graduate University

  • Martin Seligman presentation on positive psychology (Video) at TED conference

  • Authentic Happiness : A commentary on Martin Seligman's book

  • Debating Human Happiness - a conversation between Martin Seligman, Steven Pinker, and Robert Wright

  • Publications on elevation and other subjects within positive psychology , such as "What (and Why) Is Positive Psychology?" (pdf)

  • Meaning and Happiness - Research on meaning and happiness from the perspective of positive psychology

  • Centre for Confidence - Resources for positive psychology including information on Professor Carol Dweck's work on 'mindsets'

  • International Positive Psychology Association - to promote the science and practice of positive psychology and to facilitate communication and collaboration among researchers and practitioners around the world who are interested in positive psychology

  • Zone Positive - Created to help people thrive in their personal and professional life using the tenets of positive psychology

Outline of psychology

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Positive psychology".

Last Modified:   2010-11-25

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