what is positive psychology

Positive psychology may be understood as a newer branch of psychology that focuses on the strengths, virtues, and talents that play a vital part in the successful functioning and flourishing of the individuals and communities. Founded by Martin Seligman, its core topics include happiness, wellbeing, resilience, flow, and mindfulness, among others.

What Is Positive Psychology

The term positive psychology is explained as follows:

Positive psychology is the study of the good life, the positive facets of human experience, and what makes people flourish. It focuses on helping humans prosper and lead healthier and happier lives.

In simple words, positive psychology may be called the scientific study of happiness, wellbeing, and positivity. In essence, it is the scientific study of every aspect that makes life most worth living.

  • Throughout history, traditional psychology mostly dealt with identifying and treating human illnesses. It focused largely on reducing the defective emotions and actions, while generally ignoring the positive and best behavior.
  • In contrast, the goal of positive psychology is to diagnose and develop the positive aspects of life, like the human strengths and virtues that make life worth living. It focuses on measuring the facets of human life that lead to happiness, fulfillment, and flourishing.
  • Its attention and resources target the study of positive human traits like hope, wisdom, gratitude, creativity, kindness, courage, spirituality, love, resilience, and grit.
  • While traditional psychology tends to focus on the dysfunctions and abnormalities of human behavior, positive psychology centers around helping people thrive.
  • Away from an exclusive emphasis on distress, illness, and dysfunction, positive psychology moves the area of focus to wellbeing, health, and optimum functioning.
  • The central point in positive psychology is this pursuit of happiness, satisfaction, and wellbeing, which its practitioners hold as worthy as the study of the negative mental health conditions in traditional psychology.
  • Unlike the positive thinking movement promoted by the likes of Norman Vincent Peale (of the power of positive thinking repute)and Rhonda Byrne (of the secret/law-of-attraction fame), positive psychology follows only the scientifically informed viewpoints on what makes life worth living.
  • Being the science of the positive things that make life worth living, positive psychology concerns itself mainly with: positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions.
  • It keenly observes and explores how people, institutions, and communities flourish. It bases itself on the idea that the absence of illness is not equivalent to a joyful and fulfilling life.
  • This new science does not intend to replace the traditional psychology. Positive psychology strives to work side-by-side with traditional psychology, and find out what is wellbeing in terms of living a good life.

At any point, positive psychology does not advise on ignoring the problems that people face. It also does not try to negate other areas of psychology that strive to treat mental health issues like depression, anxiety, bipolar, or personality disorders.

Christopher Peterson, a founder of the positive psychology movement and the author of A Primer in Positive Psychology, explained in 2008: “Its value is to complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades.”

Martin Seligman quote
Martin Seligman On The Aim of Positive Psychology
  • Positive psychology is not about fake happiness, telling people to smile it up while denying the existence of hard times. What positive psychology informs us is that when we face challenges, we can wield our weapons from its armory of the positive interventions.
  • We can learn what makes us more resilient, gritty, and hopeful, and cultivate responses which enable us to meet adversity with mindfulness and equanimity.
  • The wisdom of positive psychology lies in using our strengths and resources gathered from our experiences to push through the tough times and grow from them. It tries to uncover why a life lived merely around pleasure and positive emotions isn’t a fulfilling one.
  • Finally, it is an empirical science, meaning it is based on observations.

A life lived well consists of elements other than those which allow us merely to survive, and those other elements are what the science of positive psychology seeks to understand and spread.

10 Key Findings From Positive Psychology

The following 10 pivotal findings from positive psychology are:

  1. Most people declare themselves to be happy and are actually happy.
  2. Happy people make good things happen. And happiness is a reason for good things in life and a precursor to success and good outcomes.
  3. Politically, the conservatives are happier than liberals.
  4. Most people are resilient and can bounce back fine from adversities.
  5. Happiness, good relationships, and strengths of character shield against the harmful effects of failures and setbacks.
  6. Religious people are happier and cope better with stress as compared to non-religious people.
  7. The effects of money on wellbeing peters out beyond a point, and then more money doesn’t get more happiness. But money can buy happiness if spent on others (prosocial spending).
  8. For a satisfying life, a life of meaning (eudaimonia) outdoes a life of pleasure (hedonism).
  9. Good days are marked by a feeling of autonomy, competency, and connection to others.
  10. The principles of a good life can be learned and taught.
what is Positive Psychology

25 Positive Psychology Terms

A glossary of twenty-five important terms used frequently in positive psychology:

  1. Strength: A positive trait or quality of character considered morally good and valued for itself as well as for promoting individual and social wellbeing. Worldwide, the strengths most associated with satisfaction in life are hope, zest, gratitude, and love. Researchers call these strengths of the heart. 
  2. Virtue: A character trait that makes it possible for people to pursue worthwhile goals and is beneficial to one’s psychological health.
  3. Flourishing: Living optimally and striving for wellbeing in terms of positive emotions, pleasure, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments. Filled with vitality and functioning well in personal and social life. People who flourish score high on emotional, social, and psychological well-being, and low on mental illness.
  4. Languishing: A state of emptiness, stagnation, quiet despair, absence of purpose in life, lack of mental health; a languishing person shows ennui, apathy, listlessness, and loss of interest in life.
  5. Subjective Well-Being (SWB): Involves life satisfaction, the presence of positive affect, and the relative absence of negative affect. Associated with hedonic happiness.
  6. Psychological Well-Being: includes Self-Acceptance, Personal Growth, Purpose, Autonomy, Positive relations, and Mastery.
  7. Pleasant Life: The “good” life where people are happy, content, and fulfilled.
  8. Engaged Life: Happiness focused on involvement in activities, ability to express talent, strengths, and purpose.
  9. Meaningful Life: Happiness derived from going beyond self-interests, like religious community, charity, or political cause. Connection to something “larger than the self.”
  10. Positive relationships: The ability to form and maintain supportive, warm, and trusting relationships with others.
  11. Positive Affect: Refers to emotions such as cheerfulness, joy, contentment, and happiness. Negative Affect: Refers to emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and disgust.
  12. Autonomy: the belief that we are reasonably in control of what happens to us (rather than others, fate, or luck being in total charge).
  13. Self-Acceptance: the ability to like and accept most things about ourselves.
  14. Self-Determination Theory (SDT): States that wellbeing and happiness result from the fulfillment of three basic psychological needs: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (close connections to others).
  15. Broaden-and-Build Theory: Describes how positive emotions open up our thinking and actions to new possibilities, and how this expansion can help build well-being. Proposed by Barbara Fredrickson.
  16. Savouring: The capacity to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in life.
  17. Resilience: Characterized by good outcomes, despite serious threats to adaptation or development. “Maintenance, recovery, or improvement in mental/physical health following challenge”
  18. Posttraumatic Growth (PTG): Experiencing an increased appreciation of life, etc following trauma. Overcome challenges of belief in personal invulnerability, perception of a meaningful world, and the view of ourselves as positive.
  19. Affective Forecasting: People consistently overestimate their emotional reactions to future events.
  20. Maximizing: Getting or trying to get the best possible option in any situation. Sufficing: Getting what they need, but settling for something that isn’t the best, but still gets the job done.
  21. Hedonic Treadmill: The belief that people are doomed to a certain level of happiness. People will experience “positive affects” but will later return to an average level of happiness.
  22. The Good Life: A combination of three elements: connections to others (as love, altruism, forgiveness, spirituality), positive individual traits (as honesty, playfulness, creativity, courage, humility), and life regulation qualities (a sense of individuality or autonomy, healthy self-control, wisdom).
  23. Love: According to Barbara Fredrickson, “Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.” According to the triangular theory of love, it consists of three essential components: passion, intimacy, and commitment.
  24. Gratitude:  A sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit given by someone or a fortunate coincidence.
  25. Meaning (Transcendence): The three needs for meaning are purpose, value, and self-efficacy.

PERMA Theory of Wellbeing

PERMA is an acronym that stands for the five core elements of happiness and wellbeing proposed by Martin Seligman: Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishment.

PERMA Theory of Wellbeing
PERMA Theory of Wellbeing (Source: Authentic Happiness)

P – Positive Emotions

To have feelings of joy, pleasure, and comfort. Such positive emotions allow one to succeed and flourish in what they focus on and change their mindset to serve their highest good.

While we can not be happy all the time, but we can make sure we often experience positive emotions such as pleasure, happiness, contentment, peace, joy, and inspiration.

E – Engagement

When we are fully engaged in a task or project, we experience a state of flow: a mental state in which we lose our sense of time, we lose focus of our sense of self, and we can not observe things outside the task at hand in the present moment.
Engagement closely identifies with the act of creation, but one can also experience it when playing sports, spending time with friends, or working on attention-grabbing projects. We have a greater chance of being engaged when we work from our positive character strengths, as outlined in the VIA-CSV.

R – Relationships

Humans are social beings, and good social relationships are at the core of our wellbeing. The strongest predictor of our happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.

Most of our life experience revolves around other people. And research has shown that having a robust social support network reduces the risks of stress and depression, cuts down death rates, and improves health in terms of better self-care and lower self-neglect.

Building positive and supportive relationships take time and hard work, and they only form when we make active efforts to connect with others. So. commit to spending meaningful time with a friend or family member regularly.

M – Meaning

We are not here on earth only to eat, work, play, have children, and die. We are here for more. And that is finding the actual purpose of our existence.

Finding the meaning of our life is vital to our overall sense of wellbeing. Meaning looks at our sense of purpose and path in life, being connected to something greater than our selfish motivations and ambitions.

Those who say they have more meaningful lives also say they are relatively happy and content with their lives as a whole.

Find out How To Find The Meaning of Your Life?

A – Accomplishment

There is no question that a feeling of achievement or accomplishment gives us great satisfaction. Achieving our goals from both an external point of validation and an internal sense of success is a crucial driver of happiness.

However, if you feel your life revolves mostly around achievements and success, and the rest of your life is out of balance, then you might do well by pulling back and focusing on the other elements of the PERMA Model. 

Find out what the Cross-Cultural Comparison of The PERMA Model of Wellbeing says.

Seligman’s TED Talk On Positive Psychology

The new era of positive psychology | Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, in his 2004 TED Talk says:

The first happy life is the pleasant life. This is a life in which you have as much positive emotion as you possibly can, and the skills to amplify it. The second is a life of engagement: a life in your work, your parenting, your love, your leisure; time stops for you. That’s what Aristotle was talking about. And third, the meaningful life.

The “Hamburger” Model of Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar first conceived the “Hamburger” Model of Happiness when he sat down to eat four burgers after winning the Israeli National Squash Championship in 1986. He later developed this model while at Harvard, from where he graduated in philosophy and psychology, and later, did his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior.

The “hamburger” model represents four different hamburgers and how they relate to how happy a person is.

the hamburger model of happiness by tal ben shahar

1. The Rat-Racer: Eats The Vegetarian Burger

It is a healthy but not tasty burger. It relates to people who only know pain and discomfort as the path to future happiness. All they want is future unhappiness, and sacrifice all present moments of joy for that.

The problem is that such people begin to believe happiness is something that we can only achieve in the future. They live according to the principle of present-pain for future-profit and renounce the present joys to benefit in the future.

But once the future arrives, mostly it doesn’t look like what they expected it to look. Meanwhile, this person is still too busy to enjoy the moment and pushes away the joys even farther into the future.

Their lives have become a rat-race. A rat-race is an endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit. They live in a constant struggle for survival and the pursuit of profit at the expense of the joys and pleasures of life today.

2. The Hedonist: Eats The Junk Food Burger

It is a tasty but unhealthy burger. It relates to people who only know pleasure as the only path to happiness. They want to be happy now at the cost of future unhappiness.

When people get asked what a happy life means to them, they often think of a life full of joy and devoid of pain. These are the hedonists – who live only in the moment and worry little about future consequences.

To understand this, suppose you ate your favorite food every time. Can you enjoy the experience of eating the same food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for weeks on end? Instead, why not ask yourself how long it would take you to get sick of it?

Similarly, what would happen if your life was always about pleasure? You would utterly fail to distinguish one pleasurable activity from the other. Such a life would soon become empty and stale.

3. The Nihilist: Eats The Worst Burger

It is the tasteless and unhealthy burger, and obviously, the worst kind. It relates to people who believe their lives are pointless and can never be happy. So, they are always miserable and demoralized, as they have lost all hopes of happiness.

A phenomenon called “learned helplessness” shows how easy it is to learn you have no control over your own life and that every effort of yours will go futile. When you ask yourself why you would eat this kind of burger, the only explanation you can give is that your life is pretty pointless.

You give up the present and the future, both. You spend time thinking about what could go wrong in the future as well as ruminating over what things went wrong in your past life.

Ben-Shahar describes this desperate place as “nihilism,” but fortunately, we can turn around learned helplessness into Learned Optimism.

4. The Happiest: Eats The Ideal Burger

It is a healthy and tasty burger. It applies to people who know how to be happy in the present, as well as in the future. It represents those who have reached fulfillment and purpose in their life.

It is a place where you can enjoy a healthy dose of self-indulgence, a bit of fun, and a lot of good food.

It sounds simple, but there are two crucial points.

First, take a moment to rethink your personal definition of happiness, and be careful if you think you want to experience pure bliss for the rest of your days. Leading psychiatrist Dr. Raj Persaud suggests that we really should aim for nothing more than “mild contentment,” and that’s about as good as it gets.

Second, ask yourself, does your definition of happiness include activities as well as feelings? If not, rethink your definition. If you want to be happy, then you have to do things that create meaning and purpose in your life.

How to Be Happier – Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD

The paradox is that when we accept our feelings — when we give ourselves permission to be human and experience painful emotions — we are more likely to open ourselves up to positive emotions.

— Tal Ben-Shahar

The VIA-CSV Directory of Positive Psychology

To counteract the traditional focus of psychology on the diseases, Martin Seligman (Father of Modern Positive Psychology), and Christopher Peterson, standardized the principles of positive psychology in the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification.

The Values In Action (VIA) classification of Character Strengths And Virtues (CSV) is the positive psychology counterpart to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used in traditional psychology and psychiatry.

Just as the DSM, presently in its 5th version called DSM-5, identifies and classifies the psychiatric disorders, the CSV details and classifies the various human strengths that help people thrive.

The VIA-CSV allows people to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses of character and learn how to work on them. The VIA-CSV identifies the 24 character strengths, organized under 6 overarching virtues — Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence. It consists of 240 questions.

Download the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues.

PP2.0 (Positive Psychology 2.0 or Second Wave)

To know what PP2.0 is about, watch Itai Ivtzan and Tim Lomas share the findings from the new “second wave” of Positive Psychology research, including the unexpected benefits of embracing the darker side of life:

Positive Psychology 2.0 - new ideas for happier living

Timeline of Milestones In Positive Psychology

  • 1954: The term “positive psychology” was first used by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, to describe his emphasis on creativity and self-actualization.
  • 1998: In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected the president of the American Psychological Association and he made Positive Psychology the theme of his term. In the first sentence of his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman wrote: “…for the last half-century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only — mental illness.” Today, Seligman is regarded as the Father of Modern Positive Psychology.
  • 1999: The first Positive Psychology Summit took place in 1999.
  • 2000: In the year 2000, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined positive psychology as “a science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions.”
  • 2002: In 2002, the first International Conference on Positive Psychology was held.
  • 2006: In 2006, the Happiness 101 course by Tal Ben-Shahar at the Harvard University became wildly popular.
  • 2009: In 2009, the first World Congress on Positive Psychology took place in Philadelphia.
  • 2011: Positive Psychology 2.0 by Paul T. P. Wong. PP 2.0 identifies the four pillars of the good life as meaning, virtue, resilience, and well-being, which are all shaped by culture.

5 Online Courses (MOOCs) On Happiness

These are the five best courses on happiness and wellbeing you could take from the comfort of your home:

  1. The Science of Well-Being by Yale University
  2. The Science of Happiness by Berkeley University of California
  3. Positive Psychology Course by Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard
  4. A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment by Indian School of Business
  5. Positive Psychology by Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina

If you’re interested in increasing your wellbeing, you can find how to apply positive psychology interventions online at the University of Pennsylvania’s site Authentic Happiness and Positive Psychology Center.

Final Words

Everyone’s life has both highs and lows. Positive psychology believes life is more than just avoiding or undoing the troubles that come with the lows. Its main premise is this: The good things about life are as important as the bad ones, and therefore deserve similar attention from the science of psychology.

Finally, the 5 takeaways from the science of well-being are:

  1. Simple pleasure and hedonism are not the best paths to well-being.
  2. Happiness or positive emotions is not the only criterion of well-being.
  3. A stress-free life with no challenges is not the most desirable life.
  4. Trying to suppress negative emotions does not eliminate them.
  5. Positive relationships, love, emotional bonds, virtues, good character, self-transcendence, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, are all important for well-being.
Happiness Pleasure Engagement Meaning


What are the elements of positive psychology?

According to Martin Seligman, the five elements of flourishing are Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and purpose, and Accomplishment (PERMA).

Why is positive psychology important?

There are many advantages of practicing positive psychology, as gaining grit, reinforcing resilience, building strong relationships, cultivating an optimistic outlook on life. Research in the field of positive psychology shows gratitude, forgiveness, altruism, social interaction, and compassion are all important values to living our best lives.

What is the main focus of positive psychology?

The main focus of positive psychology is the study of the good life or the positive aspects of human existence that make life worthwhile. Positive psychology is concerned with eudaimonia, that is, a life of flourishing.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.

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