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.”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):
- 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)
- 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.
News about Positive Psychology:
Last week’s Economist cover article on Happiness (12-19-06)
National Public Radio (NPR) story, Finding happiness in a Harvard Classroom, March 22, 2006.
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.