what is Positive Psychology
What is positive psychology?

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.

In a more illustrative way, positive psychology may be explained as following:

It 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. However, it does not intend to replace the traditional 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 (CSV).

They designed and wrote this book as a counterpoint to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), presently in its 5th version called DSM-5). Just as the DSM identifies and classifies the psychiatric disorders, the CSV details and classifies the various human strengths that help people thrive. The CSV identifies the 24 character strengths, organized under six overarching virtues — Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence.

VIA Strengths by VIA Institute on Character
VIA Strengths by VIA Institute on Character

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

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.

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.

Emilia Lahti

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

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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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