What is (And Isn’t) Positive Psychology?

by Marie Yamamoto, April 1, 2022

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on the nurturing of human
virtue and mental strengths as well as the fostering of wellbeing (“Positive Psychology”).
Founded by Martin E. P. Seligman in the late 1990’s, this field aims to combine the core goals of
its predecessor, humanistic psychology, through quantitative methods. Despite common
misconceptions, positive psychology is a multifaceted, empirical field dealing with more than
simple positive emotion.

Part of what made positive psychology so revolutionary was that it steered away from
psychology’s shift towards the examination and treatment of human anguish. Seligman notes that
after World War II, the demand to study mental illnesses and trauma was so pressing and
lucrative that “the other two fundamental missions of psychology— making the lives of all
people better and nurturing genius—were all but forgotten” (“Positive Psychology: An
Introduction”). This heavy emphasis on these aspects of the mind gave psychologists the skillset
to repair mental damage, but without a solid understanding of resilience, it did not necessarily
give them the tools to prevent this pain. Using an empirical lens, positive psychologists presently
conduct research in order to fill this gap. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another influential positive
psychologist, asserts that “[positive psychology] tries to adapt what is best in the scientific
method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it
in all its complexity” (“Positive Psychology: An Introduction”).

However, positive psychology is not meant solely for those who wish to protect their
mental state; rather, it studies how one can flourish even when conditions are satisfactory.
Seligman defined this satisfaction as wellbeing or authentic happiness, which goes beyond
simply being in a constant happy mood (Flourish). For example, this field has produced a
plethora of “happiness interventions,” exercises meant to strengthen core values and habits that
make life meaningful and thereby fulfill one’s psychological needs (Walton). Although the
effectiveness of these practices may vary from person to person based on their comfort level and
life circumstances, happiness interventions are backed with empirical evidence and extensive
research that denotes their accessibility and the reasons why they are successful.

It must be noted that the field of positive psychology cannot be conflated with the self-help
community. Those that “decry positive psychology’s commodification and commercial
cheapening by the thousands of coaches, consultants, and therapists who have jumped on the
bandwagon with wild claims for their lucrative products” are criticizing the people that exploit
positive psychology’s name and principles for their own gains (Smith). Likewise, those that
speculate positive psychology’s “replicability, its dependence on unreliable self-reports, and the
sense that it can be used to prescribe one thing and also its opposite” are describing both what
makes positive psychology a science and what makes positive psychology—and perhaps
psychology as a whole—distinctive from other fields (Smith). This field, like other social
sciences, aims to make generalizations about populations or humanity as a whole through the
research procedures and the scientific method. It cannot remain a completely empirical science
as it must account for differences between people and between populations, but the process in
which abstract concepts like gratitude, happiness, and strength are empiricized and the process in
which studies are performed are no different than the natural or applied sciences.

For those interested in exploring this field, the podcast The Science of Happiness, run in
conjunction with UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, is a great place to start. It can be
found here.

Works Cited

“Positive Psychology.” Psychology Today, psychologytoday.com/us/basics/positive-psychology. Accessed 30 Mar. 2022.

Seligman, Martin E.P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. Atria Books, 2012. 

Seligman, Martin E.P. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Positive Psychology: An Introduction.” American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, 2000, pp. 5–14. 

Smith, Joseph. “Is Positive Psychology All It’s Cracked up to Be?” Vox, 20 Nov. 2019, vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/13/20955328/positive-psychology-martin-seligman-happiness-religion-secularism.

Walton, Gregory M., and Alia J. Crum. (2021). Handbook of Wise Interventions: How Social Psychology can help people change. The Guilford Press, 2020.

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