what is Positive Psychology
What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is the branch of psychology focusing on the strengths, virtues, and talents that play a vital part in the successful functioning and flourishing of the individuals and communities. The core topics of this branch include happiness, resilience, wellbeing, flow, and mindfulness.

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

What Is Positive Psychology

Definition: The science of positive psychology may be defined as:

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.

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.

However, this new science does not intend to replace the traditional psychology.

VIA-CSV Model

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.


PERMA Model of Wellbeing

PERMA is an acronym that stands for the five core elements of happiness and wellbeing proposed by Martin Seligman. PERMA stands for Positive Emotion, 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 wherein 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 is closely identified with the act of creation, but one can also experience it when playing sports, spending time with friends, or working on interesting 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.

Most of our life experience revolves around other people and it has been shown that having a robust social support network reduces risks of stress and depression, cuts down the death rates, and improves health, such as better self-care and lower self-harm rates.

Building positive and supportive relationships take time and hard work, and they only form when we make active efforts to connect with others. So. make a commitment to spend meaningful time with a friend or family member on a regular basis.

M – MEANING

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

Finding meaning of our life is important to our overall sense of wellbeing. It looks at the sense of purpose and path in life, being connected to something greater than selfish motives, 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. 

Read the Cross-Cultural Comparison of The PERMA Model of Wellbeing:


Hamburger Model of Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar developed the Hamburger Model of Happiness. This model represents four different hamburgers and how they relate to how happy a person is.

Hamburger Model of Happiness
Hamburger Model of Happiness (Source: HealthyHappyHumanBeings.com)

1. The Junk Food Burger

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

When people are 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? Rather, ask yourself how long would it 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 another. Such a life would soon go all empty and stale.

2. The Vegetarian Burger

This is the 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 can only be achieved in the future. They live according to the principle of present-pain for future-profit, and renounce the present joys in order to benefit in future.

But once the future arrives, mostly it doesn’t look like what they expected it to look like. They are still too busy to enjoy the moment and push away the joys even farther into future.

Their lives have become a rat race, with a constant struggle for survival and the pursuit of profit at the expense of the joys and pleasures of life today.

3. The Worst Burger

This is the tasteless and unhealthy burger, and obviously, the worst kind. It relates to people who believe their lives are pointless and they can never be happy. So, they are always miserable and dejected, 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 Ideal Burger

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

This 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 personal 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

Timeline of Important Developments In Positive Psychology

  • 1954: The term “positive psychology” was first used by psychologist Abraham Maslow in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality.
  • 1998: In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected 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.

A Little More On Positive Psychology

Happiness Pleasure Engagement Meaning

Positive psychology is concerned with three issues: positive emotions, positive traits, and positive institutions.

However, this does not involve ignoring the very real problems that people face and that other areas of psychology strive to treat. “It’s value is to complement and extend the problem-focused psychology that has been dominant for many decades,” as Christopher Peterson, author of A Primer in Positive Psychology, explained in 2008.

  • Character strength: A positive trait or quality considered morally good and valued for itself as well as for promoting individual and social wellbeing.
  • Virtue: A character trait that makes it possible for people to pursue worthwhile goals.
  • Flourishing: Living optimally and striving for wellbeing in terms of positive emotions, pleasure, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments.

Some of the key findings from positive psychology are:


And this is what Emilia Lahti, a crusader of SISU and an outspoken anti-domestic violence advocate, writes:

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living. It is the empirical exploration of how people, institutions and communities flourish, and is based on the premise that mere absence of illness is not conducive to well-being and a fulfilling life.

In order to increase our knowledge of the determinants of ‘the good life’, positive psychology seeks to understand all the domains of human experience related to our well-being, and is relentlessly pursuing new channels through which to do so.

It rests soundly within the field of psychology and is best acknowledged for its contribution in focusing attention and resources to the study of topics such as hope, wisdom, creativity, future-mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, resilience and perseverance.

Positive psychology strives to discover what well-being and happiness are, not merely in terms of positive emotion and pleasure, but in term of living a good life.

Positive psychology is not about fake smiles, telling people to ‘just be happy’ and to deny the existence of genuine hardships. What positive psychology does tell us is that when (not if) we encounter challenges or extreme hardship, we do not need to be unarmed and unprepared for the trial ahead.

We can educate ourselves about what makes us more resilient, mentally strong and optimistic, and cultivate response models which enable us to meet adversity with mindful observation and contemplation.

The science and wisdom of positive psychology is about using your strengths and the knowledge acquired through past experiences to push through the turbulence, and to even harness it to elevate you up to higher altitudes.

Nobody lives only to be free of anxiety and illness. A life well lived consists of other elements than those which contribute to merely surviving, and these are the matters which positive psychology seeks to understand.

sisu_lahti
Emilia Lahti

Leading Experts On “What Is Positive Psychology?”

Positive psychology focuses on positive emotions, positive institutions and personal strengths. Here is what the experts speak on what is 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 University of Pennsylvania

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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

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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 organisations to thrive.

Sheldon & King, 2001, Gable & Haidt, 2005

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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

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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

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Positive psychology is all about the study of what’s right with people.

Alex Linley, Founding Director of The Centre of Applied Positive Psychology

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Positive psychology is exactly the study of what goes right in people’s lives.

Kathryn Britton, Speaker, Coach, and Teacher of positive psychology

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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

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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

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Positive psychology is the researched ideas and practices that can help you navigate the highs and lows that we all experience from time to time, so that instead of just getting by, we can actually flourish more consistently.

Michelle McQuaid, Author, Workplace wellbeing teacher and Playful change activator

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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

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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

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Positive psychology is the study of how to bring out the best in the 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

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Positive psychology is the study of positive states and positive traits, and positive institutions that support these two. By positive state, I mean feeling great, feeling grateful, feeling proud, feeling alive. By positive traits, I 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, and so on. By positive institutions, I mean our schools, our faith institutions, our sports teams, our cultural traditions, the things that really support us in feeling good and being good.

Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania

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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

Martin Seligman’s TED Talk On Positive Psychology


Five Online Open Courses (MOOCs) on Happiness and Wellbeing

  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

Final Words

FAQs

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


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