What is Positive Psychology?

What is Positive Psychology?

What is Positive Psychology?

This introductory article explores the science of positive psychology to promote wellbeing.

Led by Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania, Positive Psychology (PP) was developed as a ‘science of well-being’  (Seligman, 2002), with empirical evidence that continues to grow, to support its practical application side (Platt et al., 2020).  The pillars of this science, stem from well-being approaches such as the science of character strengths, health, achievement, and a range of other positive outcome approaches.

Positive Psychology evolved to address the imbalance in Psychology

Identifying the imbalance in psychology, where most research focused on mental illness, was the motivation for the Positive Psychology movement (Gable et al., 2005). Psychology was “not yielding enough knowledge of what makes life worth living” (Seligman et al., 2000, p.5), nor does it exist just to study mental illness, pathology, weakness, and damage, treating these by ‘fixing what is broken’, Seligman claims. His conclusion is that the disease model did not move psychology closer to being able to prevent major problems, and that major advancements in prevention were due to a focus on building competency (Seligman et al., 2000).

To address these concerns, the field of positive psychology was initiated to study – the “full spectrum of life and the other side of the coin” (Gable et al., 2005, p.105.) and the ways healthy individuals, families and institutions are created, by exploring the ‘brighter sides of human nature’ (Lomas, 2016).

As a remedy to the gaps he observed, Seligman positioned the Positive Psychology mission to utilizing quality scientific research and scholarship to reposition psychology towards studying the science of human strength and virtue and thereby to nurture what is best in people (Pawelski, 2016). This involves focusing on what makes life most worth living, character building and cultivating the most positive outcomes and qualities of people (Lopez et al., 2015). Positive Psychology scholars hence seek to focus of the many paths that lead to such betterment.

The Positive Psychology mission is utilizing quality scientific research and scholarship to reposition psychology towards studying the science of human strength and virtue and thereby to nurture what is best in people (Seligman)

Diving deeper into defining Positive Psychology

To delve deeper into defining Positive Psychology, a comprehensive definition can be sourced from American Psychologist:

  • “At the subjective level, it is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present).
  • At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom.
  • At the group level, it is about the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic”. (Seligman et al., 2000, p.5)

From another complementary window, Positive Psychology can be defined as, the scientific study of optimal human functioning, discovering and promoting the factors that help individuals and communities to thrive (Pawelski, 2016).

The second wave of Positive Psychology

A decade on from its beginning, arose a second wave in defining Positive Psychology, characterised by a more expanded approach to what positive and negative encapsulates and a recognition of the “dialectical nature of wellbeing”, (Lomas, 2016, p1754), due to improved understanding of the socio-cultural influences, thanks to scholars such as Wong and Wong (2012), McNulty and Fincham (2011) and others (Lomas, 2016). Likewise, Seligman’s further refinement clarified that the topic of positive psychology as “well-being”, with its standard base for measuring it being ‘flourishing’. Hence, to increase and build flourishing in one’s life and in the world is its ultimate purpose. (Seligman, 2013)

As a well-being theory, it is a construct with various measurable real elements, none of which we can say define it, but that each contribute to it significantly. The five elements or ‘pillars’ of well-being are positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationships and accomplishment (PERMA). The task is not to prescribe and therefore limit what people do to achieve well-being, but to simply describe it (Seligman, 2013).

What does Positive Psychology need for future growth?

Turning now to what many scholar’s content that positive psychology requires for future growth, it is the continued clarification of its definition, namely, of its most basic concept: the ‘positive’ in PP. Wong (2011) notes this dilemma too with the impreciseness of the language, such as the fact that happiness and the good life have many meanings. To this end, PP scholars agree that the study of PP needs to understand these complexities in theories and empirical designs.

Pawelski’s (2016) research offers a solution, extracting the five components, common to positive psychology and which are foundational for the meaning of the positive.

  • First is the “orientational definition”, where the positive is used to complement the negative and indicates the basic focus of PP.
  • Second is the “topographical definition”, which refers to the lists of topics for study, such as optimism and social responsibility.
  • The “contextual definition” is next, where the target population and beneficiaries of the field are considered, (non-clinical).
  • “Procedural definition” is fourth, which identifies the kinds of processes it uses, such as the approach for achieving building strengths and good qualities.
  • The fifth definition is about how to live life well, “connected to an empirical vision for understanding and cultivating the good life” (Pawelski, 2016).

Pawelski’s (2016) also points out that though positive psychology has made great impact on psychological research and practice, the field is still in the process of evolving, where further work will be needed to continue to expand its potential.

Written by Aisha Meguid
Well-Being Teacher, Educator, Consultant & Coach

This article is an excerpt from an essay written during my Masters Degree in Applied Positive Psychology (Melbourne University)

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