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Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology

Positive PsychologyPositive Psychology is one of the biggest of the big ideas to emerge during my adult lifetime. It starts with an even bigger idea: that insights into the way our minds work can help us address problems. And then it turns that idea on its head.

The impact has been no less than phenomenal. Yes, it has spawned a vast and growing library of books and self-help programs. But it has also genuinely helped people.

Not only has positive psychology given us the tools to live a more fulfilling and happier life. But it also equips us to make workplaces better, more sustainable, and more productive. So, if that doesn’t interest you, I do wonder just how big an idea has to be to grab your attention.

Why ‘Positive’ Psychology?

‘for the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only – mental illness’

So said Martin Seligman, in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. That was 1998. Up until then, Seligman had trodden a pretty standard path through clinical psychology, publishing the leading textbook on Abnormal Psychology in the previous year.

But what can psychology tell us about well-functioning people? Can we use its methods and insights to help the majority of us have better lives, rather than ‘only’ helping mentally unwell people to get back to normal?

Can we move the needle on normal to a better position?

Of course, this story is something of a fiction. There are many psychological disciplines that focus on the debit side of human wellness, such as:

  • clinical psychology
  • abnormal psychology
  • forensic psychology

But there have also been plenty of branches of the discipline that focus on the credit side, like:

  • social psychology
  • sports psychology
  • organisational psychology
  • developmental psychology

But this doesn’t negate Seligman’s argument. We need positive psychology because the world will be a better place if we could be happier, and more fulfilled. If we could thrive and flourish, drawing on our strengths and leading more virtuous lives.

The many and growing number of branches of positive psychology are providing us insights into how we can do this.

What is Positive Psychology?

Among the leading proponents, four people are widely credited as the co-founders of Positive Psychology:

  1. Martin Seligman
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  3. Barbara Fredrickson
  4. Christopher Peterson

It is Peterson’s definition that is most widely quoted. On the Psychology Today website, he says:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.’

However, I like best the definition on University of Pennsylvania Center for Positive Psychology site:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. 

The Three Primary Components of Positive Psychology

They go on to set out its three central concerns. Positive:

  1. Emotions
    This is about our past,present, and future. Positive emotions include contentment, happiness, and hope. Fredrickson and Csikszentmihalyi have focused here, along with researchers like Ellen Langer and Philip Zimbardo.
  2. Individual traits
    Strengths and virtues have long been primary concerns of Seligman and Peterson. These include compassion, resilience, courage, creativity, and self control. Other researchers interested in these areas include Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck.
  3. Institutions
    Here, researchers are looking at social structures in communities and created institutions like the workplace. Their interests turn towards ideas of purpose and meaning, justice, responsibility, leadership and teamwork, and productivity. Howard Gardner‘s Good Work Project is at the forefront of this research.


The Areas of Positive Psychology

Research into positive psychology has opened up many channels of hopeful research into how we can thrive. This makes the wider topic too big to cover in one short article.

But it does allow me to sign-post you to many interesting areas, like:

  • Flow – the mental state where we are totally absorbed in an activity and therefore completely content
  • Mindfulness – complete awareness that unlocks your mind’s full potential
  • Happiness – positive emotions in the present
  • Gratitude – increasing your wellbeing by focusing on what you have, rather than what you don’t
  • Learned Optimism – Seligman’s original contribution to the field
  • Strengths – we flourish when we do what we are good at
  • Meaning in life – we are at our best when our work (and life) has meaning
  • Time Orientations – Philip Zimbardo’s research on how we perceive past, present, and future
  • Positive Organisational Scholarship – taking the ideas of Positive Psychology into the workplace

Even More Positive Psychology on the Pocketblog

Here are some of our favourite past articles, that relate to the topic of Positive Psychology:

What is Your experience of Positive Psychology?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.


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