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What is the Lifespan of Positive Psychology?

By on March 8, 2011 – 8:32 am  16 Comments

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Director of Global Spa Operations and Development at Starwood Hotels where he is applying positive psychology to the customer experience in spas and hospitality. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. Like The Psychology of Well-being on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

Biased view - Crazy hill of San Francisco

Biased view - Crazy hill of San Francisco
courtesy of Håkan Dahlström

Positive psychology was created to address an overwhelming bias in the psychological and social sciences towards a deficit based approach to mental health. The science of psychology, which was focused on the cataloging and treatment of mental disorders and weaknesses, was not spending a sufficient amount of time and attention on human flourishing and strengths—the positive side of the equation.

By looking at mental health with a different kind of perspective, one based on prevention rather than treatment, on flourishing rather than illness, and on strengths rather than weaknesses, positive psychology has given us a new vocabulary to use when analyzing human wellness. This was the theme of Martin Seligman’s address to the APA in 1998.

A New Bias?

Another Biased View?

Another Biased View? courtesy of courtesy of frcsyk

But there are some who argue that while positive psychology has done right to address an existing bias, it does so by introducing a new bias, one that underestimates the value of negative emotions, and does not do enough to address the clinical needs of its consumers.

Critics of positive psychology such as Barbara Held argue that positive psychology creates a false dichotomy, presuming that the positive and negative aspects of well-being should be categorized and studied under different umbrellas, rather than via a more holistic, integrated approach.

Some say that positive psychology discounts the importance of negative emotions and overlooks the potential downsides of positive mental resources. Being too optimistic for example, can make someone do things that are imprudent. Some even go so far as to say that positive psychology is guilty of sloppy science. Rather than scientifically trying to understand well-being, they claim it presupposes that positive aspects are good and then sets about trying to prove these preconceived notions.

Has Positive Psychology Served its Purpose?

In spite of these criticisms, I think most people agree that positive psychology has indeed served an important role in correcting the science’s existing bias towards the negative. The question becomes, once this bias is corrected, does positive psychology simply fade away, leaving a more holistic, balanced and integrated psychology behind in its stead? Or will we always need this new domain to keep us from lapsing back to our focus on the dark side?

Alex Linley
Some psychologists, for example Alex Linley and colleagues, have suggested that positive psychology should not live on forever. It will have served its purpose by recalibrating our perspective on mental health in a way that takes the positive aspects into account.

Articles by Ingram and Snyder and by Maddi suggest that an integrated approach that blends the perspective of positive psychology with other existing areas of research would yield the most useful applications.

But Alex Linley, who had previously argued that a successful positive psychology would quietly disappear after nudging psychology into a more balanced approach, recently indicated that positive psychology had passed a tipping point and would be around for quite some time.

What Shape Does the Future of Positive Psychology Take? Three Views

Paul Wong Paul Wong, a psychologist who focuses on the study of meaning and purpose, calls for the creation of Positive Psychology 2.0, a more integrated approach that is not only focused on positive traits that yield positive results but also understanding how negative traits can bring about positive outcomes and how positive traits can sometimes be harmful.

From Wong’s perspective, positive psychology will live beyond simply a corrective mechanism to fix our imbalanced science if it focuses on answering the ultimate questions of what makes life worth living and improving human flourishing, although others might argue that all science should have this goal and therefore this does not in and of itself distinguish positive psychology from other aspects of the social sciences.

Todd Kashdan

Todd Kashdan

Michael Steger

Michael Steger

In their new textbook, editors Michael Steger and Todd Kashdan take a critical look at the state of positive psychology today. They caution that positive psychology’s narrow focus on increasing happiness doesn’t take into account individual differences in goals and values and is diametrically opposed to a broader definition of well-being based on mindfulness or psychological flexibility. In their view, the simple tools, singular variables, and rudimentary measurements used by positive psychology today are too static and fail to capture the complex circumstances and individual differences that are important to well-being.

Steger and Kashdan also warn positive psychologists that the demand for applications is powerful, but can pull the science to market before it has been adequately validated. They caution scientists in the field, who by their nature want to spread their research quickly to make an impact on the world, to consider how their work could be misused. A part of positive psychology’s mission has to be about educating the public on how to understand the limitations of the science.

Jeanne Nakamura

Jeanne Nakamura

Mike Csikszentmihalyi

   Mike Csikszentmihalyi

One of the founders of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, joined with his colleague Jeanne Nakamura to took a fresh look at the possible future of the field in the first chapter of the same book.

Nakamura and Csiksentmihalyi feel there are those who would like to see positive psychology move towards a single unified theory of human flourishing. Others would like to see a balanced, integrated psychology. They propose a third alternative that is probably the most realistic, that positive psychology will remain as an area that draws people to rally around a shared purpose. And while there is energy around that purpose, the domain will grow organically. As he describes it, positive psychologists will continue to hold dual citizenship with one foot on the positive side and one foot in a more traditional area of psychology.

They also sound optimistic about the continued growth and expansion of positive psychology, at least in part driven by the unique nature of the science. An emphasis on strengths, positive emotions, relationships, hope, and a sense of purpose not only creates interesting and previously neglected areas for research, but research findings also give these specialists greater psychological tools to create their own successes in developing this growing field. These virtues might not only be core constructs at the foundation of a new science, but could also serve as the fuel that will propel it into a brighter future.



References and Recommended Reading

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Nakamura, J. (2011). Positive psychology: Where did it come from, where is it going? In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Oxford University Press.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Positive Psychology – YouTube video

Held, B.S. (2004). The negative side of positive psychology. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 44 , 9-46.

Ingram, R. E. & Snyder, C.R. (2006). Blending the good with the bad: Integrating positive psychology and cognitive therapy. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 20, 117-122. Abstract.

Kashdan, T. B. & Steger, M. F. (2011). Challenges, pitfalls and aspirations for positive psychology. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.. Oxford University Press.

Linley, A. C., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.

Linley, A. C. (2010). The Future of Positive Psychology: Promises and Perils. Keynote delivered at the 5th European Conference on Positive Psychology. Summary.

Maddi, S. R. (2006). Building an integrated positive psychology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(4), 226-229. Abstract.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Building human strength: Psychology’s forgotten mission. The president’s address. APA Monitor, 29(1).

Wong, P. T. P. (in press). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology.


  • oz says:

    Jeremy – 10 years ago when I first studied psychology I as disappointed in the curriculum because of its emphasis on illness – I guess that’s why I was drawn to positive psychology.

    10 years later I guess I have moved on from positive psychology. Some of the reasons include:

    1. Its narrow focus – strengths and happiness.
    2. It’s ethnocentric nature – also class centric (think middle class)
    3. The zeal of many PP practitioners (try being critical in PP forums)
    4. PP seems to have been picked up by the quack element in society
    5. The lack of validated interventions
    6. The inability of PP to accommodate and acknowledge diversity
    7. PP’s reliance on gurus – this is problematic as the direction is driven agendas not science
    8. Failure to distinguish itself from placebo
    9. It really hasn’t come up with anything new.
    10. PP’s existence might actually make people unhappy

    So I guess I’m with Todd. Time for PP to move on.

  • Jim says:

    Sounds like the traditional psychologists are circling the wagons.

  • Anny Benetou says:

    I just wanted to add that although Positive Psychology counts more than 10 years in USA, in some countries of the world, like Greece, my home country, it’s just in the beginning.
    It doesn’t work without both. We need both the negative and the positive.

  • Sherri says:

    Hi, Jeremy-
    I’m for continuing to keep “what is working” in any discipline and integrating this for the greater good. In the applied realm, that is what people do, since they are bringing research to their existing knowledge base. It seems to me that the rather semantic question of whether PP will exist or not is somewhat immaterial to whether it is useful. Call it what you will: the name Positive Psychology was not chosen for its marketability. Every mainstream article still needs to define it for readers, despite the fact that there is much ancient wisdom that underlies the modern science.

    If the purpose of PP–or any science–is to make more science, we can keep scientists employed. What if the purpose of science is to support the goal of improving human life on a grand scale? It is a luxury to even be able to engage in semantics of this sort while vast numbers of people in the world are oppressed, suffer from diseases that are mostly non-existent in the developed world, and go to bed hungry day after day.

    What if PP, under any name, can be about making basically whole people more engaged, in the skin they are in, so that they seek to serve others in the world who are less fortunate? That’s my team. If we need to make those basically whole people happier to broaden and build the world, let’s do it.
    :-) Sherri

  • Steven | TEM says:

    Anny – Positive psychology DOES acknowledge negative emotions. I just recently saw an interview with Tal Ben-Sahar at Big Think and he claimed that humans need permission to feel the full range of human emotions (including sadness, fear, regret). He is a Positive Psychology lecturer from Havard.

    The only premis of positive psychology is “how does one be happy?” Any research that aids in the answering of this question can fit under the domain of positive psychology. There is much overlap between Positive Psych and reputable therapeutic techniques like CBT and DBT, as well as Mindfulness-Based therapies and existentialist therapy.

    In my mind, Positive Psych distinguishes itself from Clinical Psych because it isn’t concerned with fixing “broken” people so much as improving “everyday” people. At times there can be some overlap in those approach (depends how you define “broken”) but Positive Psych demonstrates a particular attitude about studying the human mind that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

    Just my two cents.

  • Todd Kashdan says:

    Steven, while true, there is a difference between superficial mention of the topic and deep consideration of the interplay between the life and dark sides of the psyche.

    What you list is under the realm of the superficial. Evolutionary psychologists have been talking about what you wrote since the turn of the 20th century. Acknowledgment is insufficient to understand how to create and sustain healthy living.

    Yes, there is much overlap with mindfulness but the theories and ideas often clash. Joe Ciarrochi are editing a book on how to forge a stronger link between these two worlds. More to come on that as we are signing the contract this week.

    Check out the chapters in DPP. The chapter by Steger and myself is less important than the other authors who address these complex issues in a depth that is often lacking in the field. Again, I didn’t write these kick-ass chapters, I worked with Steger and Sheldon to edit the work of great minds.

    Sherri- The term positive psychology was absolutely a marketing strategy. And a damn good one (maybe too good, as mentioned by Jeremy). I don’t think the issues being raised can be described as semantics. Understanding what leads to good theories and research and how to use them is the bread and butter of people on the frontlines. There is plenty of work showing that trying to make people happier (as you phrase it), leads to more problems than you might think. Well-meaning intentions often lead people down suboptimal directions (think about EMDR, Facilitated Communication, and other charlatan antics under the ruse of science). For details and links on the problem of happines, see:


  • Todd Kashdan says:

    sorry for the grammatical mishaps in the last response. Last time I try to write a multi-paragraph response via iphone.

  • Lisa Sansom says:

    I have shared this elsewhere, so apologies for any repetition, but I’m increasingly believing that “positive psychology” is not a domain of psychology unto itself, but rather a philosophy that permeates many (perhaps all) different fields of psychology. So, you can have positive clinical psychology, positive developmental psychology, perhaps even positive evolutionary psychology – who knows? Every time I talk with a “mainstream” psychologist about positive psychology, he/she reflects that there is some sort of research that has been done in that field that would, in effect, be considered positive psychology.

    Perhaps I have it all wrong, but if the main point of positive psychology is to learn about the “light” side of humans (instead of the “dark” side), and our behaviour, attitudes, way of being, etc, then wouldn’t this apply everywhere, and not be an isolated field?

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Thanks Oz, Our start in psychology sounds very similar (except mine was 20 years ago, ugh!) I didn’t pursue psychology after getting my undergraduate degree because I found it very negative. I was interested in human motivation and that was too small a part of the field at the time. Meanwhile, you have had more time in the positive psychology arena than I have so maybe you have had more time to be disillusioned.

    A lot of your criticisms, while valid, could be levied at pieces (or chunks) of research (or at specific researchers) and not necessarily at the field as a whole (I find this to be the case with most PP criticism.)

    From my perspective PP as a field is not narrow, not ethnocentric, not reliant on gurus, etc. although you could classify some (or much) of the research into these categories. It may be helpful to differentiate what is good or bad about identifying a field of study around positive psychology, from what is good or bad about the way the field is being studied.

    If you thought Physicists were not doing enough research on gravity, for example, would you argue for better (or more) Physicists or would you suggest that Physics is not a worthwhile pursuit of science?

    My sense from the authors and editors of the aptly named “Designing Positive Psychology” is that they want to improve PP in both content and method, i.e. evolve PP, not abandon it.

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Hi Sherri, I agree with your wisdom. There is a lot of time and energy consumed discussing the labels and boxes that we try to use to categorize our science, rather than just realizing that science in general should be used to understand and promote human flourishing (call it what you will.)

    This is a sense where PP could gently nudge science back on course and then “quietly disappear”. Lisa’s point is well taken also that this positive nudge, could be administered across a number of domains. I think this relates to what Csikszentmihalyi referred to as the “dual citizenship” nature of PP, that scientists would have one foot in the positive world and one in a more traditional aspect of the science.

  • Jeremy McCarthy says:

    Steven, Your comment gets at the conclusion of Csikszentmihalyi’s article which is that some people will be more energized by a call to study the positive side of the equation, (while surely others will be equally energized by fixing the things that are broken.) Those different motivations will draw people together towards different camps. The challenge comes in when we try to draw lines around the categories and decide what goes in or out of each one.

    You could argue that the boxes we put things in don’t really matter (I would argue that,) but in Sherri’s and Todd’s comments you can see some of the challenges when people take some of the ideas of PP in isolation as opposed to a more holistic approach. Unfortunately the way science flows to the consumers (not just PP) has more to do with the marketability of the message and the media spin on it than the meaningfulness and strength of the research.

  • Judy Krings says:

    Thanks for this discussion. After reading all your comments, what immediately hit me was a metaview of PP since 1998. Oz, I hope you don’t walk away from PP but instead dive in and help to design it. I appreciate how you see PP. But I see PP an an integration, not an extant entity. Yes, popular press stirred up the happiology pot, but it is up to us to decide if we let it boil over. I’m one of the gray hairs in clinical psych for 33 years. Now coaching as added many apples to my tree of life. PP applications have taken on a new importance re: how my clients’ focus and see themselves and world. I see and feel an incredible shift from what is wrong about them to what is right and good and whole.

    Applying PP to my own almost burned out in private practice life several years ago, expanded my brain to novel exploration. It was truly life-shifting. I can tell you first-hand my newly acquired PP applications have helped both patients and clients more than I would have ever dreamed. Life is never all or nothing. But PP researchers, like thankfully, many of you here, are shaking the apple tree all the time. I’m making pie whether some of the apples are bruised or not.

  • Dan Bowling says:

    Without taking issue with any of the rich commentary so far, from my vantage point, primarily on the applied side (working with corporate executives, law firms, and law schools in both applications and research, mostly in the deep south) positive psychology is in its infancy in these domains. I find few people in this population who are even aware of the term or what it means – and doesn’t mean. Many are intrigued upon careful exposure, the term and what it implies opens many heretofore closed doors, and some are willing to devote economic resources to exploration of some of its themes (a capitalistic form of validity testing; i.e., strengths-based coaching, yes; gratitude visits and 3 blessings, no). At times, to those of us ‘in the movement” it seems like the world is awash in emotions-based interventions or new strengths measurements, and maybe among those who do experimental work at a level far more sophisticated than I it is time to move on from a pure science standpoint, but positive psychology has only scratched the surface in its serious application.

  • Hi Dan, Good reminder for all of us to take a step back when looking at these issues. Thanks for bringing some perspective.

  • MrSkeptic says:

    It seems to me that positive psychology is also a deficit based approach. If an individual would just use his or her strengths, they would get better. The deficit is the inability or unwilliness to use his or her strengths.

  • Mr. Skeptic, Yes I suppose you could look at it that way. Maybe “assets” and “liabilities” would be clearer terms. Thanks.

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