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?
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?
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, 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.
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.
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.