Positive Education

What is it?

Positive education is an approach to education informed by the growing body of evidence behind positive psychology. It values both academic learning and character development, encouraging a focus on well-being.

Many areas within positive education overlap with other non-academic skill formation programs such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL), Personal Social Health Education (PSHE), Character and Citizenship Education.

The key difference is that positive education uses:  

“empirically validated and scientifically informed interventions and programs from positive psychology that have an impact on student well-being.”

(White & Murray, 2015, p.xiii).

Of course, these interventions and programs can work with and complement existing practices which are already being successfully used within schools. What works best for a school should be taken and used – there is no blueprint or doctrine – it must fit with the values and ethos of the school if it’s going to have a lasting positive impact.

How is it delivered?

Positive education can either be explicitly taught, woven into the school culture/values or both.

Taught: As stand-alone lessons – there are various curriculums available with lesson plans and resources such as Bounce Back!, Personal Well-being Lessons for Secondary Schools, Happy Classrooms Program, Zippy’s and Apple’s Friends, Strengths Gym or the training offered by the Penn Resilience Program.

Blended into core subjects – a good example of this is provided by Jennifer Fox Eades with the use of storytelling to build emotional, social and academic skills.

Caught: Built and embedded into the school ethos, expectations and culture. Research has shown that this is most effective.  A common language is built and the whole school community – children, staff, leadership and parents are encouraged to get involved, creating the opportunity for longer lasting impact.

For those interested in a ‘bigger picture’ sustainable approach to happiness which takes into consideration the impact of our actions on other people and the natural environment, the free ‘Teachers’ Guide to Sustainable Happiness’ by Dr Catherine O’Brien offers useful ideas for lesson plans and activities.

Why is it useful?

  • There are increased reports of anxiety and depression amongst young people
  • Self-reported levels of life satisfaction are low
  • Research has shown that positive psychology practices can enhance well-being
  • Skills such as positive emotions, resilience, optimism, engagement and meaning can be taught to schoolchildren
  • Personal strengths are identified and developed
  • Positive emotions lead to an increased ability to learn/be creative/problem solve
  • Academic learning, character and well-being are equally valued and developed = holistic, well rounded education for children

Two useful documents for further reference are The State of Positive Education (2017) and Global Happiness and Wellbeing Policy Report (2019), Chapter 4: Positive Education.

In the next post on education, some suggested starting points for further exploring positive education will be shared. Online access to practical resources, further reading, webinars and opportunities to network with other educators will provide you with a deeper understanding of what positive education is and how it could be successfully established in your school.

Thanks for reading!

Your Mental Diet

Most of us know what to do to help keep our bodies healthy. We’re aware that lifestyle choices impact on our physical health and things like smoking or over-indulging in alcohol aren’t going to do us any favours. Likewise, it’s drilled into us that junk food should be consumed in moderation and we need to keep active or we’ll soon find our clothes don’t quite fit anymore and it’s a slippery slope to elasticated waistbands…  

That doesn’t mean we live by this – the world is not dominated by health-conscious people doing everything they can to live their best, healthy selves. We’re human – even when we know what’s ‘good’ for us and have the best of intentions, we choose something else. Let’s face it, sometimes binge eating Maltesers whilst watching a marathon of Netflix is ok. Isn’t it?

Lifestyle choices also impact our mental health and many of us can probably think of certain things we do, or people we have in our life that boost or bring us down. I know I can.

Sometimes it’s not clear cut – the same things and the same people can both positively and negatively impact on our well-being, depending on who we are and how we’re interacting with them. This can make it harder to create lasting positive changes. Some common practices that could fall under this category are below. Do you have any others to add?


Scrolling on our phones and flicking through social media is instant and entertaining. At its best, we’re connecting with people and keeping in touch; at its worst it’s mindless distraction and brings out FOMO and social anxiety.

Watching movies and TV series which are thrillers, horrors – full of suspense and gore. Some people love this genre and get a kick out it. Not me. All I get is nervous and edgy, checking and double checking the door (and every other possible entry point) is locked…

The News. Personally, I’m really interested in keeping up to date with world events. On the flip side, I have friends who find the news depressing. Stories about human suffering or the endless coverage of issues like Brexit either upset or make them angry.


Gossip – there’s something exciting about someone else’s scandal.  But, effectively, we’re getting enjoyment out of something that is probably upsetting or embarrassing another person.  If you listen to and pass it on – remember that – also, next time it might be about you!

Moaning. This is a tough one. Moaning isn’t particularly positive or productive – however, it can feel great. Venting to a friend about that person/situation that really got under our skin is therapeutic. To turn your moan into something productive – find a solution to the issue and act on it.

Negative self-talk – we all have this to some extent. That inner voice that puts you down by telling you you’re not good/popular/talented enough. The greatest critic of all. In some cases, a dose of realism is healthy, but it’s much better to balance this with a focus on your personal strengths and what you do well.

Cut it or keep it?

Obviously, we can’t (and perhaps wouldn’t want to) cut out all these things altogether – some we enjoy and get something positive from. We’re all different. But it’s good to be more conscious of what we’re actively choosing to put into our mind, just like we do with our mouth.

Everything in moderation. Just be aware of the things that influence your frame of mind and view of both yourself and others. Change your actions/what you’re letting in if it impacts on your (or someone else’s) self-esteem or well-being and aim for a healthy mental diet.

Thanks for reading!

Explore Your Passions

After learning more about work well-being the other week, I was reminded of my friend Louella who has made well-being a priority in both her work and home life.

I met Lou when we worked in the UAE as part of the team opening a new school. It quickly became clear that she was an outstanding teacher, much loved by children and parents alike and valued by her colleagues.

What we sometimes forget is we’re not just one thing. Our jobs may contribute to our sense of ‘self’ – but they don’t define us. We all have passions and talents and the capacity to engage with these.

Lou is one of the few people I know that has left one successful career to pursue another, equally successful, path. She is one multi-talented lady. With a passion for well-being and healthy living, she now works in Thailand as a well-being practitioner and entrepreneur. You can find out about some of her home made, natural products on Instagram or Facebook.

Over the years she’s helped many people enhance their well-being in various ways and kindly agreed to share some of her thoughts here.

Q: What does well-being mean to you?

Well-being to me is a sense of calm, happiness and positivity, feeling good in my mind, in my body and in my day to day life. It is about taking time out of busy weeks to care myself, to nurture relationships that are important to me and to keep stress to a minimum wherever possible. It is about having a positive view of self and an optimistic outlook on life.

Q: Over the years you’ve seen many people working to improve their well-being. What do you think motivates them?

I have met people from all walks of life coming to detox and get fit and healthy over here in Thailand – their reasons for coming vary but ultimately everyone is in pursuit of creating a happier, healthier version of themselves, both physically and mentally. I think a lot of the time people simply want to feel HAPPY and are chasing that feeling of contentment and optimal health. So many people suffer burn out and stress these days – whether it be from work, complicated relationships, losing someone special or just from the everyday ‘hecticness’ of life. Unfortunately, a lot of the time people wait until breaking point to try and improve their situation and then pursue better wellbeing in hope of bringing their sparkle back.

Q: With your experience, what can you recommend we do to maintain/improve our personal well-being?

I’d say it definitely starts with the mindset – working on ourselves to create a calm, rational, positive mind. This might be done through meditations (of various forms), reading and listening to self-help books and podcasts but I ultimately feel it’s so important to first realise your worth and that it is absolutely necessary to take some time for YOU.  I stand by the saying ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’. We spend so much of our time looking after, pleasing and worrying about others. So I recommend carving out even just a couple of hours a week to focus on yourself – whether that be to simply sit and read a book, take an exercise class, treat yourself to a face mask and body scrub, make your favourite nourishing meal or snack. Part of this time out could be having a digital detox too – simply turning off your phone for an hour – it feels so liberating and really allows you to switch off without distractions.

Q: How important are other people to our well-being?

So important! If it’s not something you have done before I’d really recommend reflecting on who you surround yourself with. Be mindful of how you feel after spending time with certain people – do they lift you up, inspire and motivate you? Or do they make you feel anxious, insecure or negative? You whole mood can change depending on who you spend time with. Whenever possible be with those who bring joy and laughter to your days. And know the people you can completely trust to talk openly with on days when you need to share worries.

Q: Finally, three reliable ‘go to’ actions to lift our mood are… 

  • Music! Always music! Whether you blast out your favourite songs at home or stick in your earphones for a couple of minutes at work – have that play-list at the ready!
  • Get outside – go for a walk, get your face in the sunshine for a few minutes, take deep breaths of air. I will often listen to an uplifting podcast while taking a stroll and it works wonders to lift the mood.
  • Create a ‘happiness journal’ – I have a notebook dedicated to happy thoughts only! I don’t put pressure on myself to write in it every day but at times when I feel like I’ve had an awesome day I will acknowledge it by recording my feelings and experiences from the day. On the not-so-good days it’s lovely to look back over and re-live the happy, positive times.

Thanks for reading!

How happy are you at work?

I recently completed a course on work well-being. As many of us spend a huge chunk of our day in a work environment, it’s interesting to learn more about the different factors that affect our work well-being.

what does work do for us?

So, what does work actually do for us – apart from providing an income, does it have any other benefits? To some extent this will depend on your interest in and enjoyment of your job; it’s harder to look for the positives if you feel like you’re stuck in a role that you’re not enjoying.

There are, however, some broad areas that being involved in a working environment can enhance. At a basic level, work might give us a sense of purpose, a routine and a reason to get out of bed! Luckily, there’s a little more to the potential benefits of working – some of these are:

  • Giving us an opportunity to meet new people and a sense of connection.
  • Providing us with a sense of achievement and pride.
  • Allowing us to use our skills and talents in different ways.  

Some of the external and internal influences that impact our experience of work are discussed below.

external influences

The work environment has changed over the last few decades; in many professions an increase in competition for jobs, restructuring of organisations and time-limited contracts have decreased job security and increased working hours.

This, along with issues such as heavy workload, management style and competing pressures from home/personal lives have impacted on work-wellbeing.  The lack of a work-life balance increases strain on personal relationships and family, as well as reducing productivity at work.

internal influences

Our emotions and moods are an important influence on job performance and satisfaction. This view suggests that our personality affects our understanding of, and reaction to, incidents that happen at work. The five-factor model of personality is a useful way of considering the differences in our personality traits:

  1. Openness to experience – willingness to try new things and listen to ideas which challenge our beliefs.
  2. Conscientiousness – awareness of actions and the impact of our behaviour; level of personal ambition and motivation to meet goals.
  3. Extroversion how outgoing, talkative and confident we are in social situations.
  4. Agreeableness – how friendly, co-operative and amiable we are. This can impact on our colleagues’ opinions of us.
  5. Neuroticism – where we fit on the scale of emotional stability to emotional instability. This may include aspects such as worry and anxiety which will impact on how we deal with stressful situations.

why is work well-being important?

A focus on work well-being is good for the employer and the employee. Promoting it can help prevent stress and contribute to an improved positive working environment, so companies and employees thrive. Good health and well-being are a key factor in employee engagement and company performance.

Poor employee well-being contributes to increased absences as individuals take more time off due to stress-related issues. We’re also more likely to vote with our feet and actively look for an alternative workplace where we feel happier and more valued.

Investing in work-wellbeing would benefit us all. Enhancing employee morale and engagement would likely increase retention and reduce absences. As individuals, we would benefit from a more positive working environment, less stress and, perhaps, an increased sense of job satisfaction.

tips to increase your work well-being

  • Be more aware of how you use your time. Are there any areas you can scale down, yet still work as effectively?
  • Avoid negative gossip, unnecessary judgements and colleagues who drag you/your workplace down.
  • Acknowledge when you do things well but also accept your mistakes – ask for feedback.  
  • Make a connection with your colleagues – offer help and ask for it when you need it.
  • Get up and move. Screen breaks, a quick walk, coffee – take the opportunity to refresh your brain.

After looking at the external and internal influences that impact on work well-being, can you see aspects you would apply to yourself? What do you enjoy about work and what do you feel are your main stressors?

A final point to consider is how you would rate the atmosphere at your workplace – are your colleagues generally engaged and satisfied with their roles; is a work-life balance encouraged? It’d be interesting to find out if your workplace has policies in place to promote employee well-being and how successful these are…   

Thanks for reading!

Meaning and Purpose

Eudaimonic Well-Being

Last time we explored hedonia – one of the pathways to happiness/well-being. Now to look at the second pathway, eudaimonia, in more detail.

Eudaimonia: has roots in the Ancient Greek words ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘daimon’ meaning power, fate, lesser deity or guiding spirit.

A brief review; eudaimonic well-being comes from actions which create a sense of meaning and purpose in us or when we feel we’ve had the opportunity to realise our potential. These acts/situations fit well with our personal values and allow us to apply our strengths. Often, they may include acts which contribute to the greater good.

Eudaimonic well-being goes beyond simply ‘feeling good’, it’s stronger than a sense of satisfaction or pleasure. Research has shown that more lasting positive effects on our well-being are created by actions that promote feelings of eudaimonia.

Four common aspects of eudaimonia are outlined below – these provide us with a useful guide to help actively increase our eudaimonic well-being.

  1. Authenticity: identify your core values and actively use them in your life.
  2. Excellence: aim for excellence in your behaviour and beliefs.
  3. Meaning: think about the ‘bigger picture’, get involved in an area or a cause that goes beyond yourself.
  4. Growth: seek opportunities to learn and grow as an individual, set personal goals and be open to challenges.

We don’t have to target all areas at once; instead making efforts in one or two areas is sufficient to bring an increased sense of eudaimonia. You might like to take some time to reflect on the areas of authenticity, excellence, meaning and growth outlined above and decide how they relate to you.

Your strengths

Being aware of your personal strengths will help you with all of the four areas above. Many people are reluctant to talk about their strengths or may not have thought about themselves in this way before – but we all have strengths. They are characteristics that capture what is best about us, they come naturally, and we enjoy using them.

Take time to note down what you’re good at and ask other people for their views on your strengths. There are also various online strengths assessments such as Strengths Profile or the VIA Character Strengths that you may be interested in exploring.

When you’ve identified some of your personal strengths, why not set yourself a challenge? Think of different ways you can use three of your strengths in everyday life – try and make the actions of benefit to both yourself and others. Being aware of your strengths and actively using them can boost your well-being.

strength scenario

Imagine the situation described below; how does it actively develop the areas of authenticity, meaning and even excellence that were outlined earlier? Why would Matt’s sense of well-being be increased if he applied his strengths to this situation?

  • Strengths: Matt’s identified the strengths of kindness and equality in himself.
  • Situation: There’s someone at his workplace that often gets spoken over in meetings and/or isn’t given credit for their ideas. They’re lacking the confidence to challenge the way they’re being treated.
  • Action: Matt actively shows he’s listening to the person in meetings, giving them encouragement both verbally and through the use of positive body language. He openly credits them for their ideas to other colleagues.

both paths are of value

Over the last few posts we’ve looked at two pathways to well-being, hedonia and eudaimonia. Both are of importance and contribute differently to our well-being, so exploring both are encouraged. Neither offer a direct route to an end point/goal – instead they suggest behaviour and actions which can generate an enhanced sense of well-being.

If you’re interested in developing your eudaimonic well-being a little further, why not make time to act on some of the points above?  

Thanks for reading!



Happiness is often thought of and talked about as if it’s an end goal, something that we’re pursuing and hoping to find or eventually achieve. Once we have it, the hope is it’ll remain for good. Of course, life experience tells us otherwise.  Happiness comes and goes and the things that create it at one point in our life won’t necessarily generate the same feelings at another point.

Therefore, it’s more realistic to think about happiness less as an end point and more as a by-product of action. Changing the way we use our time and re-thinking our overall approach to life will help us appreciate what we have and enhance our experience of longer lasting happiness.  

The two pathways we briefly looked at earlier (hedonia and eudaimonia) suggest types of actions that contribute to our happiness/well-being – not a route to reach an end destination! Hedonia is explored a little further below.


Hedonia: has roots in the Ancient Greek words for ‘delight’ and ‘pleasure’

Just a quick recap, hedonia involves actions and experiences that generate feelings of pleasure, enjoyment and personal satisfaction in us. It’s what we gain from taking care of our immediate ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ while minimising our experiences of pain and dissatisfaction. Acts/experiences which contribute to our hedonic well-being are different for everyone; I gave some examples – but I’m sure you came up with lots of your own!

Pleasure and enjoyment have a huge part to play in our well-being, yet it can take a back bench for many of us when work and family commitments take over. Below are three simple ideas for building more opportunities for hedonic well-being in your life.

1: Playlist

Creating a playlist is easy. It involves simply writing a list of five to ten things (big or small) you really enjoy doing. These could be things that you already occasionally do or, alternatively, activities that you rarely feel you have time for. As long as they bring a smile to your face and generate pleasure they can be added. For the next fortnight, commit to making time for one or two of these things in your life and reassess how you feel after the fortnight has passed. If it’s been a success, choose other activities from your list and start to incorporate them into your life.

2: You-Time

This is as simple as it sounds. If you’re busy at work and home with the demands of life, it’s likely time to yourself is pushed to the back of your priorities. Not today! Make plans in your schedule for you. Block out some time (whether it’s half an hour or a whole evening) once or twice a week when you know you can do something for yourself and have uninterrupted headspace. This time is yours – don’t let something from your general ‘to do’ list creep in!


Explore a new area in your city/country that you haven’t been to before and see where it takes you. Cafes, an exhibition, a hike in the forest, the beach… get some friends to join you and make a day of it.  Combining new experiences and time with friends is a guaranteed way to bring a smile to your face.

Making time for activities that give us pleasure and enjoyment is key to enhancing our well-being. Not only are we relaxed and in a better mood, our relationships with others can be strengthened. In addition to this, when our minds are stimulated and recharged, we’re often more creative and able to problem solve more effectively. There are few down sides to having fun!

If you’ve any tips for alternative activities that you know work well for you and you’re happy to share them, please do.  

Thanks for reading!

Pathways to Well-being

Subjective Well-Being (SWB)

In the last post about well-being, we saw that the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ are often used interchangeably to describe feelings such as joy, contentment and a sense that life is meaningful within positive psychology. What generates these feelings in our lives is unique to us.

SWB = satisfaction with life + high positive affect + low negative affect

Subjective well-being is how happy we are with our life. People who are more satisfied have higher levels of positive emotions/experiences and lower levels of negative ones – creating a greater level of subjective well-being.

If you had some time to think about who or what contributes to your personal well-being – did anything come up that surprised you?

Two scales were suggested to measure your subjective well-being – the ‘Satisfaction With Life Scale’ and the ‘Scale of Positive and Negative Experience’, I’d be interested to know if anyone tried these and if you found them user friendly?

For those of you that decided these weren’t for you, maybe you took a moment to reflect on how you would rate areas of your life that contribute to your personal well-being (e.g. relationships, family, work, health etc.) using a scale of 1-10. Did you identify areas you were really satisfied with and maybe some you’d like to work on?

Remember, the next step is to make small changes – break your goal into manageable chunks and go for it! You can reassess your subjective well-being in the near future and see if anything has changed for you.

Two Pathways, same goal

This post will briefly introduce two pathways to happiness/well-being which will be explored in more detail later. Positive psychological research emphasises that it’s important to recognise that both offer paths to increase our well-being in different ways.

Pathway One – Hedonia

Hedonia: has roots in the Ancient Greek words for ‘delight’ and ‘pleasure’.

This pathway involves actions and experiences that generate feelings of pleasure, enjoyment and personal satisfaction. It’s what we gain from taking care of our immediate ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ while minimising our experiences of pain and dissatisfaction. Acts/experiences which contribute to our hedonic well-being are different for everyone, but some examples might include:

  • Sleeping in at the weekend
  • Eating that second (third) piece of chocolate caramel brownie
  • Sex
  • Gorging on series after series of your favourite show
  • Buying a new car

Pathway Two – Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia: has roots in the Ancient Greek words ‘eu’ meaning good and ‘daimon’ meaning power, fate, lesser deity or guiding spirit.

This pathway comes from actions which create a sense of meaning and purpose in us or when we feel we have had the opportunity to realise our potential. These acts/situations fit well with our personal values and allow us to apply our strengths. Often they may include acts which contribute to the greater good. Eudaimonic well-being goes beyond simply ‘feeling good’, producing feelings which are stronger than a sense of satisfaction or pleasure. Again, these acts/experiences are different for everyone, but examples could include:

  • Spending time with your loved ones
  • Successfully completing challenging work
  • Exploring something you’re passionate about
  • Helping someone in need
  • Applying a personal strength in a new way 

Research has shown that more lasting positive effects on our well-being are created by actions that promote a sense of eudaimonia, however the benefits of pleasure and enjoyment brought by hedonia shouldn’t be undervalued.

It’s also useful to point out that activities that create a state of hedonia or eudaimonia are not exclusive; some activities create both types of happiness. Meaningful experiences can give us pleasure and taking care of ourselves is meaningful.

With this knowledge, balance is needed. Pursuing acts that generate both types of happiness are beneficial to our well-being. So, seize some ‘me time’ in your busy day and take time to treat yourself; embrace your hedonic pleasures! Also, have a think about what your personal values are and where your strengths lie – keeping these in mind and active will help build your eudaimonic well-being and produce more lasting effects in your life.

Thanks for reading!


Well-being is a buzz word these days. Everyone wants a piece of it and there are endless suggestions on how to get it. How many people do you know that are dabbling in mindfulness and meditation? Earnestly colouring in mandala patterns or partaking in a body scan and breathing exercise after completing their sun salutations? Maybe you (like me) are one of these people!

Next time you walk into a shop, try and count the number of products on sale emblazoned with positive quotes, declarations of happiness and ways to improve your life. We are told that ‘self-love’ isn’t selfish and adverts and popular media encourage us to have ‘me’ time. There’s no doubt that there’s a growing market designed to cater to our interest in personal well-being. In this post we’ll dig a little deeper and explore the question of what well-being is from a positive psychology perspective …

Well-being and happiness

Positive psychology strives to scientifically answer the question ‘what makes life most worth living’. Within this, the terms happiness and well-being are often used interchangeably to describe feelings such as joy, contentment and a sense that life is meaningful.

There isn’t one solid definition of well-being that’s applicable across individuals or cultures. What gives us joy and brings a sense of satisfaction and meaning to our lives is unique to us. However, the feelings and emotions that both create and are produced by well-being are valued and coveted by people across the world. In addition to this, research has shown that, while happiness is desirable in itself, higher levels of happiness may increase desirable life experiences. People who are happier can enjoy better relationships, more success at work and improved physical and mental health. Luckily, happiness does not have a set point and we can work to consciously improve our well-being.

What contributes to your well-being – giving you a sense of joy, satisfaction and a sense of meaning? It might be time with family, challenge at work, volunteering to help others, walking your dog… there are endless possibilities.  How do you feel when you have these experiences? If you take time to reflect on these points, or even write them down, you might be surprised by what you come up with.

Subjective Well-being

Diener, a well-known American psychologist, has conducted prolific research on well-being and is responsible for the definition of subjective well-being (SWB) that is widely used in positive psychology today to assess an individual’s perceived life satisfaction. This is:

SWB = satisfaction with life + high positive affect + low negative affect

To put this into context, this means that people who have a high level of subjective well-being are more satisfied with their life, they experience higher levels of positive emotions/experiences and lower levels of negative ones. If you’re interested in exploring your subjective well-being, have a look at the ‘Satisfaction With Life Scale’ or the ‘Scale of Positive and Negative Experience’.

If these scales aren’t for you, why not just take a moment to think how you would rate your current level of well-being? Reflect on what contributes to your personal well-being and, on a scale of 1-10, think about how you would rate areas of your life e.g. relationships, family, work, health etc.

Are there any areas you are particularly satisfied with? If yes – fantastic – take time to savour and appreciate who/what you have in your life. Most of us will also have areas we would like to make changes to! If you find this applies to you, take time to think about how you could start this process. Some tips that may help include:

  • Talking through your goal with someone you trust
  • Chunking your goal into smaller, manageable steps
  • Making small changes and trying to stick to them

Next time we’ll be looking at two pathways to happiness and enhanced well-being called hedonia and eudaimonia – exploring what these are and how they contribute to personal and collective well-being.

Thanks for reading!

Positive Psychology

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.