Have you ever stumbled upon the term positive psychology?
“The aim of positive psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life.”
– Martin Seligman
In the last few years, the hype about well-being and happiness led to numerous articles, to the covers of magazines, to TV shows, lectures, conferences and so on…
Whenever I meet someone new and explain what I do, I get asked:
What is Positive Psychology?
Well, first and foremost it’s psychology, which means it’s a scientific field that tests its hypothesis in controlled studies to assess their validity.
It’s concerned with understanding the factors that build great thriving lives.
A science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits and positive institutions promises to
improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless.
– Martin Seligman in The American Psychologist
Positive psychology is a scientific field that studies the positive experiences and traits that allow individuals and communities to flourish.
It’s about what’s going well in life and how we can use it to overcome the inevitable obstacles and hardships we all face.
Some of the most common definitions you’ll see are:
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.
– Chris Peterson
“It’s the scientific study of optimal human functioning [that] aims to discover and promote the factors that allow individuals and communities to thrive.”
– Martin Seligman
Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions.
– Jonathan Haidt & Shelly Gable
But Hey Let’s Get Clear Here….
Even though positive psychology studies positive experiences and traits, it doesn’t deny how important and adaptive the “negative aspects of life” are. And it sure doesn’t defend that it’s healthy to look at the positive side of every shitty situation…
If someone disrespects you, feeling angry or sad about it is a normal human response, it lets you know that behavior is not acceptable.
There’s a tendency to look at things in dichotomic terms: if something is good something else has to suck. Hold your unicorns there, it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Positive psychology simply states that the study of the negative and dysfunctional aspects of life needs to be complemented by the study of the positive aspects.
Only then, can we achieve a greater understanding of human experience.
(Source: Nakamura, 2011)
An exclusive focus on either the positive or the negative can only account for a partial understanding of life.
However, complementing our already substantial knowledge about disorders and the factors that lead people to depression and anxiety with the factors that lead to engagement, creativity, hope, and contribution will provide a more thorough and integrated view of human existence.
Dynamics Between Positive and Negative
Just like optimism is a continuum and in some cases can serve us poorly, sometimes negative circumstances lead to positive outcomes, and positive circumstances can turn out in negative ways.
We all know people who seem to grow into a better version of themselves after facing major adversity, these people seem to transform challenges into opportunities for growth and service. We call them resilient and turn to them for inspiration and hope.
So a more balanced perspective will look at phenomenon with less determinism. Meaning , positive psychology doesn’t just focus on:
- Negative conditions that lead to dysfunction and poor functioning.
- Positive conditions that allow optimal functioning.
But also considers:
- How positive conditions can be followed by poor functioning?
- And how negative conditions can lead to healthy functioning?
No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.
– John Donne
Modern psychology studies individuals in context. The contemporary psychological models take into account the importance of the environment and the different contexts we interact with.
Positive psychology looks at the everyday contexts that can be used as resources, contributing to the development of our potential.
To study and understand how these contexts contribute to a meaningful life is one of the goals of positive psychology.
The greatest discovery of my time is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes of mind.
– William James
As human beings, we have this extraordinary capacity to choose our behavior and to take charge of our own development and growth by fostering the attitudes that allow us to flourish.
Positive psychology’s premise is that through effort and intentional behavior, we can build a meaningful and engaged life.
Positive psychology focuses mainly on optimal functioning and quality of life. Some of the most researched topics in the field are:
Wrapping it up
Positive psychology brought the half, understudied, spectrum of life, the one concerned with healthy and optimal functioning, to scientific examination and study.
It showed us that in order to understand life in all its variety and complexity, we also need to study gratitude, relationships, the values that guide our behavior and the things that make for a great life.
So instead of disregarding the inevitable negatives of life, it asks:
How can we transform this into an opportunity for growth and, ultimately, for a full and meaningful life?
The guys at The Positive Psychology People interviewed 20 of the leading experts in the field, for their definition of positive psychology, watch it here!
And now, I’d love to hear from you. What topics would you like to learn about? What other psychology resources would you like to see here? Please leave a comment below, as I learn as much from you.