Home All Summing Up Positive Psychology

Summing Up Positive Psychology

written by Jeremy McCarthy 31 December 2009

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

I’ve been thinking about how to sum up the main topics of positive psychology. Many people think of Chris Peterson’s three word summary, “Other people matter.” This phrase, powerful in its brevity, captures some of the incredible findings to date on the impact of our relationships on our overall well-being. But after a year of extensive study in a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree program, I have been trying to process and assimilate all that I have learned . . . and I can’t possibly sum it up in only three words.

Summing It Up

Summing It Up

Five Questions of Positive Psychology

When I am trying to tell someone else about positive psychology, I find myself repeatedly asking five questions that help me capture, categorize, and remember much of what I learned. The questions are:

  1. How do you relate to others? (a.k.a. the “other people matter” question.)
  2. What are you thankful for?
  3. What are you good at?
  4. What are you hoping for?
  5. What does it all mean?

These questions are as close as I have come to summing up positive psychology.

1) “How do you relate to others?” reminds me of research on love, relationships, social networks, bonding, attachment, and so on.



2) “What are you thankful for?” reminds me of research on the powerful effects of gratitude on well-being. But more than that, it makes me think about how people savor, appreciate, and enjoy different aspects of life. This reminds me of the explanatory style people use to describe various elements of their lives.

3) “What are you good at?” reminds me of research on strengths and virtues, learning, growth, and mindsets. It also makes me think of “flow” when people rise to meet a challenging task and find themselves truly engaged.

4) “What are you hoping for?” is the question that Dr. Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician specializing in palliative care, asks families when they learn of their children’s terminal illnesses, helping them see what is in their power to contribute. This question reminds me of research on hope and optimism, goal-setting, anticipation, and visualization. It also reminds me that positive psychology has a role to play in hard times.

5) “What does it all mean?” reminds me of research on the importance of purpose and meaning. But also, it reminds me of the deeper discussions about what positive psychology is all about: Why should people be happy? What makes a good life?

Yellow Rose in Hands

Yellow Rose in Hands

These five questions help me process a vast amount of research and information. But even these five questions do not accurately sum up positive psychology. Where do curiosity, mindfulness, and resilience fit in? How about paradox of choice or peak-end theory? What about positive emotions? Or even negative emotions for that matter? Both play a role in flourishing lives. The list goes on and on and touches almost every aspect of human life.

Positive psychology is slowly exploring the complexities of human nature, measuring and interpreting the many diverse interactions of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions that lead to the good life. As the body of research continues to grow, pointing us in new directions, illuminating new pathways, and uncovering new layers, we may find that we can summarize positive psychology in only two words: “Everything matters.”



Question 1: Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

Question 2: Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.

Question 3: Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Question 4: Carter, B. & Levitown, M. (2004). Palliative Care for Infants, Children, and Adolescents: A Practical Handbook. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Contains information about Dr. Feudtner’s approach.

Question 5: Pargament, K. I. (1997). The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York: Guilford Press.

3-ary Boolean functions (used here as a symbol of summing up) courtesy of Hexidecimal Time
Thankfulness courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Yellow rose in hands – Happy Ramadhan, Eid Mubarak – courtesy of Hamed Saber

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Ryan M. Niemiec 31 December 2009 - 3:50 pm

Nice summary, Jeremy.
In order to capture mindfulness, resilience, and negative emotions, I’d add a 6th question…something like: How do you handle setbacks, obstacles, and life challenges?
And, the next time I go to a spa, I want to go to one of yours!

Timothy So 31 December 2009 - 4:33 pm

Jeremy – Thanks for this beautiful summary in the new year eve.

SomaNStory 31 December 2009 - 6:24 pm


I enjoyed the questions since they direct one to sort and track answers that benefit one’s life. What are your thoughts about the role of positive pyschology and embodiment or somatic practices. I think that somatics can readily join with positive psychology and appreciative inquiry to bring about a deeply meaningful, satisfied and reslient life.



Jeremy McCarthy 1 January 2010 - 11:37 am

Thanks Ryan,
I like that 6th question because it shows that positive psychology is not only for happy people and happy times. I’m sure we are still missing a few more, so maybe others will add to the list as well. Thanks for engaging!

Jeremy McCarthy 1 January 2010 - 11:44 am

Thanks SomaNStory,

I couldn’t agree more on the importance of somatics as a component of positive psychology. If you haven’t done so already, browse some of the other articles in PPND and you will find several that “touch” on this subject. MarieJosee Salvas is one of the writers who typically focuses on this area so she would be a good place to start. Thanks for your interest.

Aaron 4 January 2010 - 4:31 pm

My view is that PP has not yet braced the most important question (more so that ‘what does it mean’), that being: What is important? (i.e., values)… Nice way to summarise the literature and bring things back to basics… Cheers, Aaron.

Todd Kashdan 5 January 2010 - 10:02 pm


Thanks for the roadmap. Too often, researchers and those using the research get caught up in their pet theories and constructs and forget the big underlying questions they are working towards. Too often people trained in positive psychology forget that flow theory, broaden and build theory, self-determination theory, terror management theory, orientations to happiness, and the rest are not immutable laws. Some of these ideas will go through major revisions based on incoming data. I hope that in 2010 and beyond, we all continually return to the basic questions and in doing so, be willing to describe, enhance, and challenge anything and everything.


Jeremy McCarthy 6 January 2010 - 5:54 pm

Thanks Aaron, I like the “what is important?” question. I think it ties into questions about purpose and meaning but this question is one of prioritization and to your point, values. Some of the criticism of PP seems to come from those who believe it is only about promoting a superficial level of happiness. There are those who subordinate happiness to other things which are (in their eyes) more important.

I think there is already some interesting research that has begun to illuminate what is important (eg. WHY is happiness important, WHY are positive emotions important, WHY is physical exercise important to more than just physical health, WHY do other people matter, etc.) Maybe “what is important?” is the overarching question that should be asked before any of the others. Maybe another way of wording it is to simply ask “WHY?”

Jeremy McCarthy 6 January 2010 - 6:05 pm

Todd, your point is well made. Although what you have listed is a series of theories, it is easy for people to latch on to them as fact , especially when the field is so young and every new finding is so exciting and interesting.

It is also like a marketing campaign as some ideas are more marketable than others, so things like paradox of choice, peak-end theory, flow, 3:1 positivity ratios, and “other people matter” are ideas that “stick” not necessarily in correlation to the strength of their supporting research. They are all theories that fill holes in our understanding of human nature and therefore are easy for people to latch onto, weave into conversations, share in the media, etc. In the theme of this article, if I try to convert your comment into a question, maybe the question is “what do we not know?” And if we ask ourselves that question with sincerity, we will realize we have some theories, and even some research to support them, but actually, we don’t know much. Luckily, the quest for knowledge can be just as exciting as the knowing.

Ming 14 March 2010 - 3:58 am

Great summary. I like your 5 questions plus the 6th one suggested by Ryan. I’ve been trying to put together a PP framework on how to know ourselves. These 6 questions are a great starting point to learn more about ourselves.


Jeremy McCarthy 15 March 2010 - 11:15 am

Thanks Ming! I’d love to see the framework that you develop. Best, J


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com