Positive psychology, in simple terms, is the study of happiness and things that make us happy. It is a relatively newer branch of psychology that made its debut in 1998. Founded by Martin Seligman, its core topics include happiness, wellbeing, resilience, flow, and mindfulness, among others.
What Is Positive Psychology
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. It may be called the scientific study of happiness, wellbeing, and positivity. In essence, it is the study of every aspect that makes life most worth living.
Positive psychology focuses on positive states, positive traits, and positive institutions:
- Positive states mean feeling great, feeling grateful, feeling proud, feeling alive.
- Positive traits mean character, and also things like talents and interests that we consider to be positive characters, along with grit, self-control, kindness, sense of humor.
- Positive institutions indicate our schools, our religious places, our sports teams, our cultural traditions, the things that really support us in feeling good and being good.
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.
Positive psychologists study the strengths, virtues, and talents that play a vital part in the successful functioning and flourishing of individuals and communities. 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.
Why do we need positive psychology?
- 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 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.
- 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.
Definitions of Positive Psychology
Here is how the experts in the field define positive psychology:
Positive psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. The field is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play.— The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania
Positive psychology is not a self-help movement or a re-packaging of “the power of positive thinking.” It is not American-style “happy-ology,” and it is not a passing fad. Positive Psychology is a science that brings the many virtues of science … to bear on the question of how and when people flourish.— Robert Biswas-Diener, 2008
Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal functioning. It has also been defined as the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communities, and organizations to thrive.— Sheldon and King, 2001, Gable and Haidt, 2005
We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise that achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving in individuals, families, and communities.— Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Positive psychology is the opportunity to change the happiness of the world.— Acacia Parks, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hiram College and Chief Scientific Advisor at Happify
Positive psychology is all about the study of what’s right with people.— Alex Linley, co-author of Adolescence Life Satisfaction
Positive psychology is exactly the study of what goes right in people’s lives.— Kathryn Britton, Speaker, Coach, and Teacher of positive psychology
Positive psychology is the science of happiness. More specifically, positive psychology is about focusing on what works … on love, happiness, strength, and virtues.— Tal Ben-Shahar, Founder at Happiness Studies Academy, Former lecturer at Harvard
Positive psychology is a way of looking at things … in a strengths-based way. We begin to look at people and ourselves from the perspective of their and our best qualities, so that our behaviors, our feelings, our thinking is curious, fair-minded, grateful.— Ryan Niemiec, Education Director of the VIA Institute on Character
Positive psychology looks at what works well with people, what makes people happy, what makes people flourish, what makes people resilient, what makes people have great relationships, and what makes people find meaning in their lives.— Lisa Sansom, Positive Interventionist
Positive psychology is the scientific study of wellbeing or the scientific study of what makes life worth living. It is the possibility of giving language to a huge range of the best of human experience.— Piers Worth, Associate Professor (the local title is “Reader”) in Psychology
Positive psychology is the study of how to bring out the best in people and organizations, in spite of the dark side of life. I believe the best way to achieve the objective of our technology is to increase the dark side of human existence. So if we want to optimize wellbeing, we have to learn to manage the upside of the dark side, and the dark side of the bright side.— Paul T. P. Wong, Founder, and President of the International Network On Personal Meaning
Positive psychology is the study of positive states and positive traits and positive institutions that support these two.— Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania
Positive emotions are concerned with being content with one’s past, being happy in the present, and having hope for the future. Positive individual traits focus on one’s strengths and virtues. Finally, positive institutions are based on strengths to better a community of people.— Wikipedia
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.
10 Key Findings From Positive Psychology
The following 10 pivotal findings from positive psychology are:
- Most people declare themselves to be happy and are actually happy.
- Happy people make good things happen. And happiness is a reason for good things in life and a precursor to success and good outcomes.
- Politically, the conservatives are happier than liberals.
- Most people are resilient and can bounce back fine from adversities.
- Happiness, good relationships, and strengths of character shield against the harmful effects of failures and setbacks.
- Religious people are happier and cope better with stress as compared to non-religious people.
- 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).
- For a satisfying life, a life of meaning (eudaimonia) outdoes a life of pleasure (hedonism).
- Good days are marked by a feeling of autonomy, competency, and connection to others.
- The principles of a good life can be learned and taught.
25 Positive Psychology Terms
A glossary of twenty-five important terms used frequently in positive psychology:
- 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.
- Virtue: A character trait that makes it possible for people to pursue worthwhile goals and is beneficial to one’s psychological health.
- 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.
- 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.
- Subjective Well-Being (SWB): Involves life satisfaction, the presence of positive affect, and the relative absence of negative affect. Associated with hedonic happiness.
- Psychological Well-Being: includes Self-Acceptance, Personal Growth, Purpose, Autonomy, Positive relations, and Mastery.
- Pleasant Life: The “good” life where people are happy, content, and fulfilled.
- Engaged Life: Happiness focused on involvement in activities, ability to express talent, strengths, and purpose.
- Meaningful Life: Happiness derived from going beyond self-interests, like religious community, charity, or political cause. Connection to something “larger than the self.”
- Positive relationships: The ability to form and maintain supportive, warm, and trusting relationships with others.
- 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.
- Autonomy: the belief that we are reasonably in control of what happens to us (rather than others, fate, or luck being in total charge).
- Self-Acceptance: the ability to like and accept most things about ourselves.
- 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).
- 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.
- Savouring: The capacity to attend to, appreciate, and enhance the positive experiences in life.
- Resilience: Characterized by good outcomes, despite serious threats to adaptation or development. “Maintenance, recovery, or improvement in mental/physical health following challenge”
- 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.
- Affective Forecasting: People consistently overestimate their emotional reactions to future events.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- Gratitude: A sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit given by someone or a fortunate coincidence.
- Meaning (Transcendence): The three needs for meaning are purpose, value, and self-efficacy.
Learn More About Positive Psychology
Positive psychology, a new branch of psychology introduced to the world by Dr. Martin Seligman in 1998, is the scientific study of what makes us flourish, what is going right in our lives, and what good things we are into when we are happy.
- Read this excellent chapter by Dr. Happy, that is, Edward Diener: Happiness: The Science of Subjective Well-Being.
- Steal The 10 Secret Happiness Hacks For You From Authentic Science!
- Bookmark these 5 Habits of Happiness Backed by Science to get five clear and practical keys to happiness in life.
- Did you know people with a positive mindset have 6 characteristics: MOGRAH: 1. Mindfulness 2. Optimism 3. Gratitude 4. Resilience 5. Acceptance 6. Honesty? Learn what your most friends wouldn’t know about How To Cultivate A Positive Mindset.
- If you’re new to positive psychology, then you must own this excellent book by Sonja Lyubomirsky, where she tells us how to build a fulfilling and contented life, how to check our levels of subjective well-being, and how to create our happiness — all based on authentic research. Catch the book summary here: The How of Happiness.
- Hard-To-Believe-Fact: As a lecturer at Harvard University, Tal Ben-Shahar created the most popular course in Harvard University’s history: Positive Psychology 1504!
- A quote by Brené Brown finds a place here because we normally assume that vulnerable people can’t be happy; but that idea is plain wrong as she proves in her The Power of Vulnerability.
- We normally link happiness and positivity with the extroverted nature and hold that extroverts are happier people. But Susan Cain, who features here, argues otherwise in her international bestseller Quiet. Watch her TED talk that still stands today as one of the most viewed of all time.
- Did your wish ever manifest as your reality? If it did, then that is called a self-fulfilling prophecy in psychology. Actually, the law of attraction was built around this concept.
- Dr. Barbara Fredrickson gave the world the Broaden-And-Build Theory (BBT) of Positive Emotions. The BBT suggests building up positive emotions will tend to broaden our creative openness, understanding, and behavior. For example, joy makes us want to play, curiosity makes us want to explore.
- What is Flow? According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people are at their optimal level of happiness when they are in a state of “flow.” This is a state of complete immersion – mentally, physically, and emotionally. During flow, people are so engrossed in their activities, they fail to notice even hunger and time. People in flow are less concerned with external rewards; they do the activity out of sheer pleasure. Find out how to achieve the “flow” state of optimal happiness.
- If you’re loving this, and are interested to get a few great books based on positive psychology, then check this out: 50 Best Books For Happiness and Positivity.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
5 Online Courses (MOOCs) On Happiness
These are the best courses on happiness and wellbeing:
- The Science of Well-Being by Yale University
- The Science of Happiness by Berkeley University of California
- Positive Psychology Course by Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard
- A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment by Indian School of Business
- Positive Psychology by Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina
- Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) by The Flourishing Center
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.
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:
- Simple pleasure and hedonism are not the best paths to well-being.
- Happiness or positive emotions is not the only criterion of well-being.
- A stress-free life with no challenges is not the most desirable life.
- Trying to suppress negative emotions does not eliminate them.
- Positive relationships, love, emotional bonds, virtues, good character, self-transcendence, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, are all important for well-being.
- Now, you might want to take a look at the 50 Greatest Positive Psychology Quotes.
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.
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a 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.
√ If you enjoyed this, please share it on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn.