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    What Is Positive Psychology?
    By Warren Davies | August 18th 2010 11:02 AM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Warren

    I am Warren Davies, a 28 year old student of psychology. I am male, and have been my whole life. I became interested in psychology many years ago...

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    There are many definitions out there, but they all point towards roughly the same thing:

    * A science of well-being   
    * A science of well-being and optimal functioning   
    * A scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive     
    * Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions     
    * The scientific study of what makes life most worth living 

    The rest of this article just expands on the above and adds some detail - if you already get the message, stop reading now!

    Martin Seligman founded positive psychology when he became president of the APA in 2000.  His premise was that, quite understandably following the World Wars, psychology had placed a lot of focus on what is wrong with people - curing what ails them.  Perhaps too much.  The purpose of creating a field called "positive psychology" was to attempt to redress this balance.

    It's not a new field.  It's just a label that pulls certain topics under an umbrella to get research going in a particular direction, and bring together lines of research that might previously have been separate.  Of course, once you start labelling something, people will identify with it and start to relate to it.  So naturally people will call themselves positive psychologists, there will be debate over what topics should fall under its purview, etc.  But really, that's not important.  These topics have been discussed within psychology as far back as William James's "Healthy Mindedness" in 1902.  The topic is not new - the labelled umbrella is.

    To give a few examples, the following topic areas fall under the positive psychology umbrella, but have been studied for a long time; some for decades:

    * Happiness / subjective well-being  
    * Optimism  
    * Emotional intelligence  
    * Intrinsic motivation  

    But try looking for papers on the following topics before the year 2000, and you'll find much less to go on (Gable and Haidt, 2005):

    * Awe  
    * Curiosity  
    * Gratitude  
    * Character  
    * Strengths  

    That's basically the gist of it.

    Isn't this prescriptive?

    Although, naturally, there are applied ends in mind with the discussion of many of these topics, and some people feel positive psychology is a little prescriptive (Seligman even said one aim of pos psych is to increase the total tonnage of happiness in the world).  

    I'm not sure I completely agree with that.  I don't read papers saying "People should do xyz", just the usual "We found that x resulted in y."  If the problem is the study of topics which might become prescriptive in applied settings, the same argument applies to clinical psychology, and pretty much every other science too.  Having said that, I do roll my eyes when yet another positive psychologist publishes a self-help book (how many books on happiness to we really need???).

    Why not get rid of the bad, then work on the good?

    There's an argument that can be made.  Why, if there is so much suffering in the world, do we not get rid of that and then all get to work on the positive side of things?

    It's a good question.  But maybe the study of removing suffering isn't enough.  You could argue that by studying the negative aspects of life, you are creating a lexicon, adding words to common vernacular... perhaps this alone isn't beneficial.  Perhaps you can't get rid of the bad solely by studying the bad.

    Also, I'd question why 'removal of suffering' is zero point in this argument.  The common way to describe this (which might not be all that accurate, but makes the point), is the -10 to +10 scale.  If you go for psychotherapy, it's to remove your illness.  So you go from, say, -6 to 0.  But why zero?  Who decided that one? Why isn't the 'zero' point +3; maybe a low level of contentedness? (or, why isn't removal of suffering -3; however you want to look at it).  That's an inherent principle of positive psychology - 'good' is not 'absence of bad'.

    What positive psychology is not

    The number of things that positive psychology is not is essentially infinite, so to save space I'll mention just a couple of things off the top of my head:

       * The alternative to 'negative' psychology  

    Calling a movement "positive" psychology and saying there has been too much focus on disorder up to a certain point is not the same as saying that there is "positive" and "negative" psychology.  For most things that are studied, you probably couldn't apply either label and be happy with it.  Certainly clinical psychology you could say had gotten skewed, which I think is probably where the reaction of positive psychology largely came from, but no one is claiming that everything that isn't "positive" psychology is "negative" psychology.

    Also, the claim is not being made that 'positive' topics are better in some way, or can teach us more about people and the world.  Or that 'negative' topics are worth less or can teach us less.  On the contrary - you could claim that it is precisely because the study of disorder has proceeded at such a magnificent rate that an imbalance between this and 'positive' topics has become apparent!! (Gable&Haidt, 2005)

       * Positive thinking  

    Sometimes, I wish positive psychology had been called something else.  I'll be honest, I find the name quite cheesy, and I cringe inside a little every time someone asks what I'm studying.  They assume I'm talking about positive thinking, Tony Robbins, or the "Law" of attraction.  

    It is not a prescription to only look on the bright side.  Instead, it's a call to study these things scientifically.  If all the data points to positive thinking, so be it; if it doesn't, that's fine too. 

    It is also not a denial about problematic mental states, which are real and debilitating.  This is not a take-over!!  The study of topics like well-being, character, gratitude etc., is supposed to go alongside other topics - not take the place of them!

    References

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

    See this paper also for more info:

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


    Comments

    A great synposis - well done!

    Hank
    I'd never heard the term before (obvious, given my old age and its young) but I like the idea.  When I was at university, psychology was existential-phenomenological, so it was fun to say but not much value in telling anyone that Husserl didn't think their problems existed.

    Like medicine, some prevention in the way of being positive in a psych sense may have terrific value.  The people certainly have to be more fun to be around.
    Warren Davies
    That's a really good point I'd forgotten to mention - the idea of prevention being better than the cure.  There's some good research on exactly that, building resilience so that people are either less susceptible to or recover faster from problems.  And also like with physical problems, exercise seems to be one way to go about it too.  Wonder if Husserl was a couch potato?
    Gerhard Adam
    I would be interested in seeing what the correlation is between positive psychology and some of the more traditional rituals and behaviors that other peoples have used over the centuries to deal with the same issues.

    It seems that some of what we write off as being religious, is actually positive psychology in that it is intended to help people deal with the issues of their lives in acceptable ways.  In particular (given my limited knowledge) of things like the Navajo sings and sand paintings, which seem very much intended to deal with an individual's psychology towards events rather than the events themselves.

    After all, even in religion, if we remove the actual trappings of belief, aren't a great many elements of the philosophy and ritual intended to do the same thing?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Warren Davies
    Yeah it's really interesting, I love it when science and some ten thousand year old ritual practice say the same thing.  There have been so many religions and traditions etc., that a few of them at least have to have been systematic about finding things out.  The question is, which ones?  Buddhism is the perfect example of this, and there's a lot of monks being thrown (not literally) into fMRI scanners to see what's going on in their heads.  The Happiness Hypothesis by Jon Haidt is on exactly this topic - comparing old philosophies and religions to the science.  It's a pretty good book if you're interested.
    Gerhard Adam
    I'm not sure that wondering "which ones" is necessarily relevant as long as we're looking at the religion or ritual within the culture it evolved from.  For example examining Christianity in the U.S. would reflect artifacts of the original religion, but in many ways it would seem out of place.  After all it was a religion that developed during the Roman occupation of a nomadic desert people.  This is the context in which we would have to look for its effectiveness.

    I don't believe it's a coincidence that many more primitive "religions" are intimately associated with the geography of the people.  In many ways there had to be mechanisms to pass on knowledge that was acquired by the group, in addition to have knowledge/rituals that defined how one participated with the group, and how to provide assistance for anyone having trouble or creating disharmony in the group.

    All of these would have been critical elements of allowing various social groups to survive.  In modern times we tend to lack such group cohesiveness because of the sheer size of many of them and which (in my opinion) is what makes many people's psychological issues so difficult to deal with.  In an environment where it is possible to be alone and disconnected, it is hard to find a group that is invested enough to work towards resolving someone's problems.  Consequently we have taken the position that someone's problems are strictly their own, instead of treating them as something the group can address.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Warren Davies
    All of these would have been critical elements of allowing various social groups to survive.  In modern times we tend to lack such group cohesiveness because of the sheer size of many of them and which (in my opinion) is what makes many people's psychological issues so difficult to deal with.  In an environment where it is possible to be alone and disconnected, it is hard to find a group that is invested enough to work towards resolving someone's problems.  Consequently we have taken the position that someone's problems are strictly their own, instead of treating them as something the group can address.


    I agree completely.  We all want to be separate and fence off what's ours, there is literally no community spirit where I live.  People are cordial, friendly etc, but there's not much helping going on.  At least not that I can see.  Or maybe everyone just doesn't like me...


    Anonymity is another funny thing.  You can walk around your society making and idiot of yourself but have no repercussions at all, try doing that a few thousand years ago and your the village idiot for life.  
    Excellent concise summary of an important movement!

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Positive Psychology

    * A science of well-being   
    * A science of well-being and optimal functioning   
    * A scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive  
    * Positive psychology is the study of the conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing or optimal functioning of people, groups, and institutions  
    * The scientific study of what makes life most worth living 


    At last a new and useful development in psychology, other than fMRI scanners showing which parts of the brain are active when people are using their brains and the occasional new brain chemical drug treatment or version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The DSM is published by the by American Psychological Association for clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and policy makers to diagnose and label people with mental illnesses.

    I've always thought that it must be a very negative psychological experience to be given a label from the DSM. Until relatively recently homosexuality was included in the list of mental disorders along with pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder and Masochistic Personality Disorder. When forced to learn the whole book for an exam recently, I couldn't help feeling that everyone I know could probably have been labelled with one of these disorders, at some time in their life, including myself.

    Its difficult to believe that my Abnormal Psychology unit at university thought it was reasonable to expect us students to go into a closed book exam and answer 5 compulsory questions on the psychological causes, symptoms and treatment of any one of the hundreds of mental disorders in that book.

    To my amazement I received a score of 100% or 50 out of 50, which I still don't really understand, especially as I had to practically make up one of my essay answers on schizoid affective disorder. I used to have a photographic memory when I was younger, so maybe I somehow resurrected it for this exam. Or maybe there was a computer error when the marker allocated me the score. Anyway, I decided not to question the result, who am I to argue with a psychologists assessment of me?
    .
    The problem with labelling is that it sticks. Its like a self-fulfilling prophesy for some people. It also means that pharmaceutical companies can manufacture drugs to treat mental illnesses which fits in very nicely with the medical model of mental illness. These drugs are the mental straitjackets that took away the need for psychiatric hospitals and wards in general hospitals and have instead left us with the revolving door policy, that means that psychotic and suicidal people are admitted to hospital before or after self or other harm or suicide attempts and then released next day with a packet of drugs and no counselling or therapy. Not unsurprisingly, many go on to be successful at harming someone, often themselves, the next time the door swings around.
    My latest forum article 'Australian Researchers Discover Potential Blue Green Algae Cause & Treatment of Motor Neuron Disease (MND)&(ALS)' Parkinsons's and Alzheimer's can be found at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    Warren Davies
    It's a tough topic, the diagnosis.  Probably psychologists have been over-zealous at times, and surely the drug companies have played a role in it too.  But also, our world is changing quickly, but our brains are very much the same... so it might not be that people have a 'disorder' per ce, maybe their brains are operating just as nature intended, only nature didn't intend for them to operate in this particular environment.
    Probably a combination of them all.  You could make a case though, that if there's a measurable phenomenon going on in enough peoples' heads, and it's interfering with their lives, that putting a label on it will encourage more research etc., in that area.  But you're right that being labelled itself must have an effect on how people see themselves.

    You must have written an awesome exam!  I can top that though - Once I passed a piece of work I didn't even hand in!
    Most people confronted with the question ‘what is positive psychology’ have simply no idea about it. The term psychology is very well known but it has connotations of dealing with a variety of mental problems.