Home All Dare We Let Boys Be Boys? Positive Masculinity and Positive Psychology

Dare We Let Boys Be Boys? Positive Masculinity and Positive Psychology

written by Bridget Grenville-Cleave 27 October 2010

Bridget Grenville-Cleave, MAPP graduate of the University of East London, is a UK-based positive psychology consultant, trainer and writer. She is author of Introducing Positive Psychology: A Practical Guide (2012), and The Happiness Equation with Dr Ilona Boniwell. She regularly facilitates school well-being programs and Positive Psychology Masterclasses for personal and professional development. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter @BridgetGC. Website. Full bio. Her articles are here.

Male Bonding

Male Bonding

I probably wouldn’t have been drawn to write on this subject had it not been for Louisa Jewell’s beautifully-crafted article on Positive Psychology and Femininity, so thanks Louisa!

I’m not going to explore whether men’s happiness has gone up or down in the last 30+ years, however, although that would be a fascinating topic. Instead I’m interested in how Positive Psychology can be used to support troubled men and boys. I was interested to learn about strengths-based approach known as Positive Masculinity. As the mother of a rapidly-growing boy (aged 8, going on 18), I was very interested to come across the Positive Masculinity Model, and wondered what I could learn from it that would be useful to me as a parent.

What Came Before: New Psychology of Men (NPM): A Deficit Model

According to the authors of Identifying, Affirming and Building upon Male Strengths: the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity Model of Psychotherapy with Boys and Men, much work into the psychology of men and masculinity over the past couple of decades has been dominated by the deficit approach, and what has been called The New Psychology of Men (NPM).

In short, NPM is an approach to men and to masculinity which not only questions traditional norms of the male role (such as competitiveness, toughness, emotional stoicism), but also takes the view that male problems such as aggression, detached fathering, and neglecting health are the unfortunate but predictable results of the male socialization process. In other words, NPM is a deficit model of male development, which leads to a remedial approach to help men overcome their problems.

Positive Masculinity Model as an Alternative

This article by Mark Kiselica at the College of New Jersey and his colleague Matt Englar-Carlson at California State University – Fullerton, suggests that a far more effective way of working is the Positive Masculinity Model – a framework which accentuates the positive aspects of male development. The goal, they say, is to help men and boys learn and embrace healthy and constructive aspects of masculinity.

It's Raining Men

It's Raining Men

Wow! As media headlines tend to focus on the problems that men and boys cause in society (boys being disruptive in the classroom, youths making a nuisance of themselves on street corners, men showing aggression in a million and one ways) it makes a refreshing change to read something that celebrates the positive aspects of being male. Was I skeptical? Yes, but too intrigued not to read further!

So what exactly is Positive Masculinity – or more accurately the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity model (PPPM)? In short it’s an approach based on two Positive Psychology principles:

  • Emphasizing strengths and virtue over disease, weakness, and damage
  • Focusing on building in men and boys what is right rather than fixing what is wrong

Male Strengths

So far, so good. But what exactly are these male strengths that we should be celebrating? The authors list 10 representative male strengths:


  1. Male relational styles – developing relationships through having fun, doing active things, doing shared activities (such as participating in sport)

  3. Male ways of caring – being raised with  the expectation that they must care for and protect their family and friends

  5. Generative fatherhood –  the way a father is committed to caring for the next generation through meeting the needs of his children

  7. Male self-reliance – the way men and boys use their own resources to confront life’s challenges (I’m thinking about the cave in John Gray’s Men are from Mars…)

  9. The worker/provider tradition in men – the way men naturally take on the role of the breadwinner and acquire a sense of meaning and purpose through work

  11. Male courage, daring, and risk-taking – e.g. in their choice of work or sport (but balanced by good judgment against foolhardiness and recklessness)

  13. The group orientation of men and boys – the way they band together to achieve a common purpose

  15. The humanitarian service of fraternal organizations – developing social interest and a sense of belonging through involvement in male organizations

  17. Men’s use of humor – as a way to attain intimacy, have fun, develop and maintain relationships, show they care, reduce tension, and manage conflict

  19. Male heroism – demonstrating exceptional nobility in the way they lead their lives, overcoming great obstacles, or making great contributions to others.

Hmmmmm. I’m not sure that these are the same as the character strengths that Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman describe (and on which the VIA inventory of strengths is based), or the same as  Alex Linley’s definition.

General Larking About

General Larking About

Taking a Positive Approach

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe what’s more important is taking a positive approach, and using strengths (however they’re defined) to find ways to build on what works, rather than to focus on what’s wrong. The authors suggest that professionals working with troubled men and boys in the mental health field could use the PPPM to

  1. Help clients understand their areas of growth
  2. Demonstrate respect for and confidence in their clients
  3. Help clients identify more effective alternative beliefs

With great anticipation I read the concluding case study, in which the PPPM is used with a male client who is experiencing conflict at home with his wife and their wayward 16 year old daughter. The case study primarily focuses on using the PPPM to build rapport with the client and develop his confidence and self-efficacy in tackling the conflicts. I was disappointed – I wasn’t convinced that the same result couldn’t have been achieved by any other empathic mental health practitioner without using the PPPM. Nevertheless the great value of this article is the suggestion that men may be more willing and able to overcome their normal reluctance to seek help if practitioners focused on ‘positive masculinity’ instead of on male deficits, by using the PPPM as a bridge to the real issues.

Open Questions

The topic of ‘positive masculinity’ is in its infancy and requires a great deal more development, research, and refinement.  Even so, it’s an exciting new development in the psychology of men and masculinity, which happily leaves us with many more questions to be answered. Here are a few to get you thinking:

Q.  As a man, how do you identify with the 10 male strengths outlined above?

Q.  If there were an equivalent ‘Positive Femininity Model’, what would it look like? And would it help overcome the issues raised in Louisa Jewell’s article?




Kiselica, M.S. & Englar-Carlson, M. (2010). Identifying, affirming and building upon male strengths: the Positive Psychology/Positive Masculinity model of psychotherapy with boys and men. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(3), 276-287.

Linley, P. A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Male Bonding courtesy of Shawn Allen

It’s raining men courtesy of Ewan Thot

General larking about courtesy of garethjmsaunders

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Jeremy McCarthy 27 October 2010 - 9:58 am

There was an article today in the New York Times by Robert Wright on islamophobia and homophobia (bear with me on why this is relevant.) His article was a discussion of how our culture has shifted in its views towards homophobia and what we might learn from that to allow our fear of muslims and arabs to dissipate. Maybe we are evolving from a culture that discriminates adversely against groups based on their differences to a culture that recognizes and appreciates sameness. Your article makes me think that the next step in our evolution is to not simply appreciate that we are all alike, but to recognize our differences in a celebratory way, reveling in the unique contributions that different groups can bring to society. (not only positive feminism, or positive masculinity, but how about positive racism, or positive discrimination?) Interesting ideas to dream about.

Dan Bowling 27 October 2010 - 12:13 pm

To paraphrase, thank you for raising the issue “Is positive psychology for Guys?” I look forward to the responses. I think so, but it looks like something very different, with very different imagery, than most things commonly associated with positive psychology. The top 10 is a good start. Nuff said.

Sherri Fisher 27 October 2010 - 12:22 pm

Bidget and Jeremy- these are some interesting big questions. How about “positive discrimination”? To be able to discriminate–to tell the difference between and among things–is not intrinsically bad or good. It is what people do with that information that matters. Normalizing positive differences may be an intriguing way to frame this discussion.

Ryan Niemiec 27 October 2010 - 12:31 pm

Thanks for opening the door to an article that is opening doors. To answer one of your questions: Yes, I relate to all of the strengths referenced…sometimes. As with the 24 VIA character strengths, we express and experience them all in combination, to different degrees, with variations based on context. So, the question becomes what combinations of the 24 (or which of the 10 listed here) do I most resonate with? What are most who I am at my core? Which do I bring to the table at adverse times, when I’m at my best, in social situations, at home, etc. etc.

Steve Safigan 27 October 2010 - 4:09 pm

Thank you Bridget for a thought-provoking article. I don’t see a problem with this list being different from the VIA list of strengths because the VIA is intended to be universal, and as Sherri says the above list is discriminatory (in the neutral sense).

It really struck me when you reported, “traditional norms of the male role…takes the view that male problems such as aggression… are the unfortunate but predictable results of the male socialization process.” Could it be that, oh I don’t know, maybe *testosterone* is the culprit? I think people tend to forget that male hormones can have an effect on behavior as do female hormones.

At any rate, I’m glad to see this discriminatory focus. So much effort has been expended to make men more female in order to resolve problems with being male. Roy Baumeister has some controversial things to say about this in his article “Is there anything good about men?” Google it if you’re interested.

Jeremy McCarthy 27 October 2010 - 4:24 pm

Ryan, do you know what the significant differences are in VIA strengths by gender?

Hamish 12 November 2010 - 4:07 pm

For anyone interested in digging deeper, and seeing beyond the myth, I would strongly recommend Roy Baumeister’s book “Is there anything good about men: how culture exploits men”.

More info here: http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm

This is an evidence based foray by one of the world’s leading psychologists into the whole gender debate.

His summary – well, you have to read the book.

Suffice to say that evolution does not support unnecessary species, and we have still have both genders – ergo, there must be a reason – which Baumeister adeptly digs into.

This is a book that is NOT anti-female, or anti-male – and is one of the most balanced examinations yet……highly recommend it….


Hamish 12 November 2010 - 4:10 pm Reply
Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 6:27 am

Hi Jeremy

Thanks for the article – very interesting. What you said here reminds me of the dilemma in organisations posed by the HR focus on ‘diversity’, in other words, recognising and celebrating employee difference yet at the same time celebrating sameness. I think it’s a tricky tightrope to walk. It would be interesting to find out whether diversity training really does achieve anything, or whether it’s just another money-making idea dreamt up by management consultants. Many problems could be avoided if managers actually spent time getting to know the people who work for them (‘bridging’ at its most basic).


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 6:39 am

Hi Dan

Yes that’s exactly what I liked about this paper – it takes a very different slant on the subject, and gives us space to explore Positive Psychology from an unusual angle.

So what imagery do you think is normally associated with Positive Psychology?


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 7:41 am

Hi Sherri

Co-incidentally we had a discussion recently about positive discrimination / positive quotas in organisations. One view was that positive discrimination is just a short-cut way to tackle unfairness which is equally unfair. But maybe it’s justified sometimes in order to ‘shock the system’ into behaving differently. In Norway they have had a policy for some years of having 40% females on company boards and it seems to work for them.

Don’t differences cease to be differences when they are normalised, or have I misunderstood you?


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 7:56 am

Hi Ryan

That’s a good point you make about expressing/experiencing strengths in combination and to different degrees. It’s a question I often get asked in coaching – people want to know how big the gap is between their ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ strengths. To avoid getting hung up on which are top and which are bottom, I encourage them to think of strengths as a toolkit, which they can draw on at any point. It seems to work quite well.


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 8:06 am


Thanks for bringing up the point about male hormones, although (maybe this is controversial) I think people are often too eager to blame hormones for unacceptable behaviour.

Once we have the awareness that hormones do influence our behaviour we can perhaps take steps to modify it, rather than act as if we are at their mercy?

I like your point men having to be more like women – the same thing applies to women by the way. Not sure that it works though!


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 8:24 am

Hi again Jeremy

In answer to your question about strengths & gender, have a look at Linley, Maltby, Wood et al (2007) Character strengths in the United Kingdom: The VIA
Inventory of Strengths:

“Where gender differences were found, they were typically such that women scored higher than men on interpersonal strengths, such as kindness, love, and social intelligence. However, the same pattern was also found for appreciation of beauty and gratitude, although again the effect sizes were small… The only exception to this pattern was that men scored higher than women on creativity. Other gender differences were so small as to be essentially meaningless, as indicated by the effect sizes…and it is unlikely that they would have been detected, had it not been for the large sample size (n = 17056) …There was considerable consistency between the signature strengths of both men and women: open-mindedness, fairness, curiosity, and love of learning were in the top five signature strengths…”

And there was also consistency in the bottom 5 (hope, prudence, self-regulation, humility and spirituality).

Apparently these findings are in line with US research.

So it would seem that there are more similarities between men’s and women’s strengths than there are differences.

Let me know if you want nore details.


Bridget Grenville-Cleave 29 December 2010 - 9:22 am

Hi Steve (again) and Hamish

Thanks for pointing out Baumeister’s article (and book) – a very engrossing and entertaining read!

It’s good to see someone point out the ‘statistical mischief’ that confuses more than it clarifies. And the idea of trade-offs (rather than a conspiracy) is actually very helpful.

Since Baumeister’s main argument rests on differences between male and female social networks, I wonder if the rise of the likes of Facebook etc has started to change all that?


Morris Mann, Ph.D. 14 January 2011 - 4:46 am

I always enjoy your articles.
I did not graduate MAPP, but have studied and mentored with Tal Ben-Shahar since his time at Harvard. I now speak, teach and use Positive Psych concepts and methods in all my work.

This particular topic is relevant for me because I am making a presentation in 2 weeks to a national conference of mental health professionals in Israel about the topic “Fathers May have more stress than mothers”.

An interesting look at males / fathers is Roy Baumeister’s books “What are Men Good For”.

So a book or approach that validates men in a positive way is very appealing.

Can you send me a reference to an article or something substantive. I have tried to google the topic or Kiselica or Englar-Carlson and cannot get anything. No paper, no article or even a book review.

Appreciate your help and reference.

Morris Mann
Clinical Psychologist and Certified Coach

Bridget Grenville-Cleave 22 January 2011 - 5:46 am

Thanks for your vote of confidence Morris! I’ll get in touch.

Good luck with your presentation. Why not come back to PPND and tell us how you got on?


J 21 May 2012 - 8:30 am

I agree with all of this, except the provider thing. It’s all good if you’ve found an honest gal, but there are times when we’re paying the bills and taking care of the children while the woman’s out with a more exciting man.

Not all women are like that, but it’s easy to fall into that trap.

On the flip side, if I were a woman I wouldn’t want to be stuck with the notion that I should be obedient and submit control to him. As in the provider case, a woman who stands up against the gender norm is better protected from negative males who would use her.

And in the end she’ll be able to give her love and devotion to a better man becuase she stood up for herself.

Feminism introduced the idea that a woman ought to foot some of the bill too instead of constantly relying on a bread winner in exchange for sex and companionship. It’s a good idea, as being able to pull your own weight makes you less “co-dependent” and more in control of your own life.


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