A little background…
Positive psychology was brought to the forefront when Martin Seligman used the term ‘positive psychology’ in his inaugural speech as President of the American Psychological Association in 1999. This set out the perceived need for a change of focus due to the belief that psychology was over-focused on healing mental illness and suffering.
It has been suggested there were three main reasons for this. Firstly, the belief that suffering should be addressed before the well-being of the ‘average’ person; secondly that the disease model of diagnosis and treatment was well established, with funding after World War Two channelled into addressing trauma. Finally, humans may inherently pay more attention to negative events than positive ones.
It is important to acknowledge that scientists were researching aspects of positive human experience well before Seligman’s speech. The umbrella term of ‘positive psychology’ used by Seligman served to unite psychologists from a range of sub-disciplines within psychology, whose research focused on the study of positive human experience.
An initial criticism of the early positive psychology movement was that the use of the word ‘positive’ implied that all other psychology was negative. This is an understandable criticism, however scientists and psychologists working within positive psychology addressed this by describing traditional psychology as ‘psychology as usual’. They acknowledged that traditional approaches were, and are, necessary and have brought many benefits to people.
Having said this, it was pointed out that there has been far more focus on the negative aspects of the human experience and not enough on the positive. Positive psychology was therefore offered as a complementary approach to the prevalent medical model; a way for psychology to acknowledge and examine the complexities of the human condition in a more holistic manner.
Science or self-help?
Positive psychology has faced criticism from those that see it as simply another form of self-help that has been given added authority with the promise of scientific backing. Central to this viewpoint is the belief that there is a simplistic conviction at its core – positive thinking and having a positive attitude will enable us to achieve anything we want.
The view that positive psychology is another version of self-help, should not be seen as inherently negative, and elements of it are true. Self-help is not a derogatory term – it simply means to improve an aspect of oneself with guidance; at worst it can be perceived as individualistic. However, a stigma around self-help exists in the academic world due to the unscientific nature of the popular culture of self-help.
Positive psychology could provide a link between the popular genre of unverified self-help theories and the world of academia. With its drive to identify and develop human strengths using scientifically sound research, positive psychology has discovered proven ways to effectively improve the mental and physical well-being of individuals.
With regards to the second point, equating the field to merely positive thinking or positive attitude is incorrect on two levels. Firstly, it ignores the vast amounts of research that has been, and is being, undertaken on diverse areas of human experience. These include topics such as well-being, personal growth, optimism, hope and strengths; as well as issues such as ageing, resilience and post traumatic growth.
Secondly, it misunderstands what positive psychology tells us about the use of positive emotions. Fredrickson’s ‘broaden-and-build’ theory states that positive emotions have two main functions. They help us broaden our thinking and resulting actions; when we experience a positive emotion such as joy or inspiration, we are able to think more creatively and find a range of solutions to address an issue. They also build up a personal bank of intellectual, physical, social and psychological resources that can be accessed when required.
Fredrickson’s research shows that as one’s resource bank grows, it creates more positive emotions which, in turn, feeds back into the bank in an upward spiral. Therefore, positive psychology does not view a positive attitude or thinking as ‘wishful’; scientific tests have identified that positive emotions have the capacity to make individuals more creative and resilient.
what it is and what it’s not…
In short, positive psychology is an umbrella term for branches of psychology that lead with a strengths-based approach. Research on areas such as positive emotions, positive traits and positive institutions explore how these can contribute to individual and collective well-being.
Positive psychology is not a ‘happiology’ or doctrine for modern societies to follow. The concept of happiness is broadly seen as a way of measuring whether life is going in the direction individuals wish it to, it should not be viewed as the main purpose of life. Instead, there is a focus on exploring what makes life worth living – what gives us joy, satisfaction and a sense of meaning. Through the work of psychologists and researchers, a range of scientifically validated interventions and tools are now available to improve individual and collective well-being.
If you’re interested in learning more about positive psychology, two excellent introductory books (which got me hooked) are Positive Psychology in a Nutshell by Dr. Ilona Boniwell and The How of Happiness by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky.