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Home » All, Awe, Business, Decision-Making, Habits, Optimism, Positive Feelings, Strengths, _1 Positive Experiences, _2 Positive Traits, _3 Positive Organizations

What is Positive Psychology?

By on January 1, 2007 – 5:28 pm  18 Comments

Senia Maymin, MBA, MAPP, PhD, is the coauthor of Profit from the Positive. Maymin is an executive coach to entrepreneurs and CEOs. Maymin runs a coaches network and is the founder and editor in chief of PositivePsychologyNews.com. Her PhD is in organizational behavior from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Full bio.

Senia's solo articles are here, her articles with Margaret Greenberg here, and with Kathryn Britton here.



Today is January 1, 2007, a new day, a new year.  Often on birthdays and on the New Year, many people think that their lives start a new chapter.  And that is so often true. “Yes, now things are going to be good.”  “Yes, anything is possible.”

What is this part of the human belief system that wants us to do well, to succeed, and to feel great?  It’s the most natural part of who we are.  It’s not only ingrained in our bodies and central nervous systems, but it also shows in our beliefs, our actions, and our surroundings.  It’s the part of us that has recently come to be studied in a new field called Positive Psychology.

Positive Psychology studies what is right with people and how people live the good life.
 

History of Positive Psychology

Yes, we might think that all of life should be about living the good life.  But Psychology overall has had a rocky history of studying the good aspects of life.  Seligman (2005) writes, “Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent.”  But after the war, the latter two missions – making lives more fulfilling and nurturing talent – fell away, and curing mental illness became the primary and almost entire mission of practicing and academic psychologists.  (Psychology’s focus switched to mental illness for two strong economic reasons – in 1946, the Veterans Administration was founded and psychologists started to practice by counseling post-war veterans, and in 1947, the National Institute of Mental Health was founded and academic psychologists learned that grants were more forthcoming to studies of pathology and mental illness.)

The “positive” in Positive Psychology refers to strengths, optimal functioning, and flourishing.  Gable and Haidt (2005) write, “However, positive psychology does not imply that the rest of psychology is negative, although it is understandable that the name may imply that to some people.”

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman

A key thing happened in 1998: Martin Seligman became the president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and launched as the central theme of his tenure the idea of studying the positive functioning of people.  As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) and Seligman (2005) say, and as Shapiro (2001) further emphasizes, there were many predecessors to the idea of studying positive psychology.  Not only did Aristotle and other Greek philosophers lay out the groundwork thoughts of what Positive Psychology still regards as the foundation of the good life and happiness, but also past APA presidents Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow had focused on what makes people be at their best.  In short, as Peterson (2006) writes, Positive Psychology has a very short history (less than a decade) and a very long past.  Peterson further describes some studies of the Greeks, the Eastern philosophers including Confucius and Lao-Tsu, the religious figures who advocate a life of meaning and service to others, Rogers and Maslow, Neill, Albee, Cowan, Bandura, Winner, Gardner, Sternberg, and many others who studied the best in people long before 1998.  Let’s end this overview of Positive Psychology by summarizing some of the current research.

Topics Studied in Positive Psychology

The questions studied by Positive Psychology are constantly changing. In the first comprehensive paper on positive psychology in 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi wrote that positive psychology is the study of positive subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive institutions. Peterson writes, “Positive psychology is the scientific study of what goes right in life, from birth to death and at all stops in between.”

Here are some currently studied topics (and some of the researchers studying these topics):

INDIVIDUALS:

  • What is the purpose of positive emotions such as joy, awe, happiness? (Fredrickson, Haidt, Isen)
  • What are the inherent positive strengths of people? (Peterson, Park, Seligman)
  • What makes people happy? (Diener, Myers, Seligman)
  • How can people be happier? (Lyubomirsky, Peterson)
  • How can people make great decisions? (Gilbert)
  • Does happiness lead to success or success to happiness? (Diener, Lyubomirsky, King)
  • What can people do to live long, healthy lives?
  • How can people use self-talk to succeed? (Seligman, Reivich, Gillham)

WORK:

  • How can people do what they most enjoy and do best at work? (Clifton, Rath)
  • How can people get more involved in their activities? (Csikszentmihalyi, Nakamura)
  • How can one’s work be a calling, a career, or a job? (Wrzesniewski)
  • How can people use appreciative inquiry at work? (Cooperrider)

This is not at all an exhaustive list.  Please add to the comments other researchers whose work especially interests you.  Thank you. 

The study of Positive Psychology is just beginning, and so the topics and main areas of focus can certainly change in a large way and very quickly.

 


Keywords: Positive Psychology, Happiness, Seligman, Peterson, Csikszentmihalyi, Good Life, Flow, Strengths, Positive Emotions, Subjective Well-Being, Optimism, Decision-Making, Self-Talk.

References

News about Positive Psychology:

Time Magazine special issue on Positive Psychology (The Science of Happiness) (01-17-05)

Last week’s Economist cover article on Happiness (12-19-06)

Positive Psychology is the most popular class at Harvard University (03-10-06)

National Public Radio (NPR) story, Finding happiness in a Harvard Classroom, March 22, 2006.

Other Sources:

The Positive Psychology Center at UPenn

Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.

Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gable, S. & Haidt, J (2005). What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110

Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszenmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 3–9). New York: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, S. (2001). Illogical Positivism. American Psychologist, 56(1), 82.


18 Comments »

  • Senia says:

    Links about Positive Psychology: 

    The Positive Psychology Center at UPenn 
    News: Time Magazine special issue on Positive Psychology (The Science of Happiness) (01-17-05) 
    News: Last week’s Economist cover article on Happiness (12-19-06) 
    News: Positive Psychology is the most popular class at Harvard University (03-10-06) 

    Recommended Reading:
    Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology.   New York: Oxford University Press. 

    Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic Happiness.New York: Free Press. 

    Snyder, C. R. & Lopez, S. J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. 

    References:
    Gable, S. & Haidt, J (2005).  What (and Why) is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103–110 

    Seligman, M. E. P. & Csikszenmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction.  American Psychologist, 55, 5-14. 

    Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Positive psychology, positive prevention, and positive therapy. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 3–9). New York: Oxford University Press. 

    Shapiro, S. (2001). Illogical Positivism. American Psychologist, 56(1), 82.

  • Hi Senia,

    Thanks for kicking off Positive Psychology News Daily with such an informative post! It sets the stage for everything we will be writing about going forward!

    Happy New Year to you!

    David

  • Nick says:

    Nice with the references! :)
    I’m so glad you started this!
    Nick

  • Senia Maymin says:

    David and Nick, thank you very much.

    I am so excited to see the site growing with articles and comments. I’m really interested in the variety of topics about which our authors are posting articles! All of us are interested in different topics, which is so fun to read.

  • Margaret says:

    :smile:This is “re-entry” week for me, so with coffee cup in hand I’m just now enjoying the entries — what a wonderful overview of PP! Thank you Senia! Margaret

  • […] Very interesting to read about cognitive therapy and then read Senia’s great introduction to What is Positive Psychology? […]

  • […] NOTE:  In Senia Maymin’s New Year’s Day article, she writes, “Positive Psychology is the study of positive subjective experiences, positive traits, and positive institutions.”  This article is about the later.  I will share some highlights from a recent panel discussion and conclude with some additional thoughts.      […]

  • […] Hi, welcome to Senia.com Postive Psychology Coaching. I am an executive coach, working primaily with small business owners, entrepreneurs, and people changing careers. The style I use is positive psychology coaching – lots of assessments, exercises, techniques – very interactive. Positive Psychology is the study of what makes people happier, more productive, and more successful. It is a branch of psychology, and was launched in 1998, which makes it younger than the Internet! […]

  • […] You might think that as Editor of Positive Psychology News Daily, I would wholeheartedly support more positive news in the world (”What is Positive Psychology?“).  The interviewer for the radio program thought so too.  But it really doesn’t matter what a Positive Psychology-trained coach would think about the benefits of “positive” news – some Positive Psychologists may be for more positive news and some may be against.   What matters is what it is moral to do.  The news is the news is the news.  If you are the government and you censor the news, then you are taking away the people’s right to hear.  […]

  • […] With Positive Psychology News Daily, we’re targeting people who work in and do research in Positive Psychology as well as people new to the field (”What is Positive Psychology?“) This Seth post is illuminating to me because yes, the people who get most excited about what we’re doing on Pos-Psych.com are the people passionate about the field to begin with: our best comment discussion people, our best guest articles, our best email responses – all come from people in the field and in the process of expanding the field! « Business Game #002: Most, Best, First   […]

  • […] Advice for getting happier: Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with people, try focusing on what’s right with people -what makes people happy, successful and more productive. This is what the positive psychologists do. […]

  • […] You might be wondering why we separated our questions into those categories. Well, first we brainstormed a lot of topics we would want to study, and then we used the three “pillars” of positive psychology to group all our brainstormed topics. […]

  • […] I decided to move after reading a lot of research about what makes us happy — in my mind, it all points to a small, inexpensive city. We used to think that happiness was a mystery, but it’s not. The positive psychology movement is scientific, mainstream, and taught at 150 universities in the United States. At Harvard, positive psychology is the most popular undergraduate course. This is not fringe stuff, and it’s hefty enough to guide big life decisions. […]

  • Aaron Agassi says:

    No, as I understand it, the other two missions of psychology besides “curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent” did not simply “fall away” but where actively repressed.

    And alas, I am not all that impressed with the state of Positive Psychology to reclaim those missions. Indeed, my one real interest therein, is in further development from the so called Happiness Formula.

    Know more at: http://www.FoolQuest.com

  • Mike Butler says:

    Greetings all,

    I was glad to have stumbled upon this site. I am developing research in a few areas and would invite any input about existing articles or your ideas on things to look at. My areas of interest are:

    1)Positive Psychology and Community Service (as related to benefits of community service to the individual, as well as aspects related to community service organizations)
    2)Positive Psychology and Shift Work
    3)Effects of Group and Individual Laughter on Various Measures of Happiness.

    Any feedback would be appreciated.

    Mike

  • Alfreda Johnson says:

    Keep positive psychology alive, I found the overview of positive psychology interesting.

  • Najme says:

    hello senia
    thank you very much for introducing us the field that our world really require it
    I’m really appreciate it

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