What is positive psychology?

What is positive psychology?

{Biswas-Diener, 2008. Invitation to Positive Psychology: Research and Tools for the Professional. A 6-week Course.}

Chris Peterson asks, “Is positive psychology anything more than what my Sunday school teacher knows?” (Peterson, 2006)

This is a legitimate question that anyone hoping to use positive psychology professionally must address honestly, openly, and effectively.

The final answer is yes; positive psychology produces many counter-intuitive, generalizable insights beyond the scope of simple common sense.

Peterson’s other relevant point to this article is that “learning about positive psychology is not a spectator sport.”

The tools and techniques of positive psychology are so universally relevant and often so powerful they must be experienced rather than viewed.

I encourage you to approach this article as a highly interactive endeavor in which you will read, reflect, write, wonder, question, challenge, and apply.

You will benefit the most from this article if you engage with it as a highly interactive tool, approaching the exercises with seriousness and giving these concepts the depth of thought they are due.

What You Will Get Out of this Article

This article introduces some foundational topics in positive psychology.

It covers positive psychology interventions, the emotional meaning of happiness, strengths, hope and optimism, and what positive psychology is.

Specific skills and knowledge to gain from engaging with this content and practices:

How to use research evidence to make a case for positive psychology;

How and when to best apply empirically supported positive psychology interventions;

Why to advocate for the many benefits of positive emotion;

How to use a new strengths assessment to guide your work;

How to increase hope, and why you ought to;

How to keep abreast of new developments in positive psychology.

What is positive psychology?

Positive psychology is a new field concerned with mental health, strengths, positive emotions, positive institutions, and optimal functioning.

Positive psychology is a science built on careful study and empirical evidence.

Research results suggest as much, or more, to be gained from capitalizing on strengths and positivity as from trying to overcome weaknesses. This finding applies to many domains ranging from business to education.

Positive psychology is more than a passing fad. Many lasting institutions, such as graduate education programs, research grants, and professional journals, suggest it is enduring.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and an applied approach to optimal functioning.

The research foundation of positive psychology spans all walks of life, from teenagers and the elderly to executives and tribal people, and can be applied across all domains of life.

This article’s major lessons and important points are as applicable to you personally as they are to you professionally.

In the last two decades, positive psychology research has produced new insights into when and how people function best.

This article introduces you to the foundational studies of positive psychology, as well as to the newest theories and latest interventions.

At its heart, positive psychology is a radical idea.

Most of us spend a portion of each day worrying about what could go wrong, complaining about what did go wrong, beating ourselves up for opportunities missed, or feeling frustrated with life’s many setbacks and disappointments.

This makes sense….

There is much to worry and complain about: housing prices are high, commutes are tiresome, organizational culture can be frustrating, and our clients, employees, colleagues, and supervisors can be challenging.

A body of research evidence shows that folks are actually “hard-wired” to pay attention to threats and problems. So, from an evolutionary point of view, being vigilant for all that could go wrong makes sense.

Problems often require an immediate response, and, at least historically speaking, the people who were better able to adapt quickly and respond to threats were better able to survive and function. For example, being alert could have helped certain people distinguish between sticks and snakes on the ground or given them precious time to escape when seeing a predator approach.

From the long perspective of evolutionary history, this all makes logical sense. But what might seem logical in the case of poisonous snakes or saber-toothed tigers likely does not hold for your current career.

Missed deadlines, communication difficulties, and problems with productivity are not matters of life and death, even though they feel pressing.

The vigilance so important to pre-industrial tribal people living in inhospitable places may not translate well to the average urban commuter or office worker.

It makes sense to step back and ask yourself: How is my vigilance for problems helping me?

And, perhaps more importantly, is paying attention to what does and could go wrong the best route to accomplishing my goals?

To this last question, positive psychology provides a revolutionary answer: try looking at the positives, what could go right, and see what this new approach buys you.

Instead of planning for and dealing with problems, positive psychology suggests that looking at opportunities, successes, and strengths as we go about the business of living might be fruitful.

It is not that positive psychologists advocate only a positive perspective approach to life. Too often, however, downside risks, setbacks, and pitfalls take up the lion’s share of our attention.

Positive psychology suggests much to be gained in expanding your focus to include life’s better points.

This is more than a philosophical approach of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses; there is strong empirical support that a solutions orientation and strengths focus work.

Some Historical Antecedents to Positive Psychology

In many ways, positive psychology is not a new concept.

Philosophy students will recognize that great thinkers have attended to matters of the good life and living a moral and virtuous existence.

In ancient Greece, for instance, Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, which outlined the good life for the individual and the community.

He suggested that happiness included favorable circumstances, pleasant feelings, and living according to virtue. Aristotle also emphasized civic responsibility as an integral part of individual success.

Other philosophers from the classical Greek period emphasized personal freedom, the pursuit of pleasure, and the development of self-control as crucial components of the good life.

Religious texts and spiritual leaders throughout history have likewise emphasized the importance of good living and positive character.

Even a cursory look at the Western monotheistic religions, for example, suggests that certain personal virtues such as forgiveness, self-sacrifice, faith, and loyalty are commonly prescribed as the most valuable attributes and likely to lead to success in this world and, according to scripture, reward in the next.

In recent times thought leaders of the humanistic movement have emphasized the possibility of individual growth.

In its early days, positive psychology was cobbled together by a handful of researchers studying hope, happiness, play, creativity, wisdom, and gratitude.

Seligman used his influence to bring together these pioneers and establish a loosely organized research literature that spoke about people at their best.

The term positive psychology appeared in print as early as 1954 and may even pre-date that time.

Positive psychology caught on for various reasons; its empirical foundation, positive emphasis, Seligman’s effortful popularization, and the psychological climate in the wake of the September 11th terror attacks.

Scholars hoped to research meaning in life, character strengths, and other topics related to optimal functioning; businesses were attracted to the model because it had the potential to provide valuable insights into motivation, productivity, and high performance. In addition, educators saw the value in using student assets to improve learning, counselors recognized the utility of tapping strengths to overcome problems, and the general public took to the topic.

For laypeople, positive psychology offered a re-defined approach to self-help and self-growth based on cutting-edge science.

The field of positive psychology has become increasingly international. For example, the 1st Applied Positive Psychology Conference in April 2007 was attended by 230 delegates from 24 countries.

Positive psychology has become more sophisticated in its methods and more applied. As a result, it has a more cohesive identity than in its early days.

It has three major foci: positive subjective states such as happiness, positive traits such as character strengths, and positive institutions such as schools or businesses.

One of the most interesting trends in the evolution of positive psychology is its transformation from a basic science to an increasingly applied science, as it is now about how best to use research programs on strengths, optimism, and happiness.

Positive psychology is a powerful tool for improving workplace culture, team building, therapy, and educational curricula.

Research evidence suggests that students gain more by working with their strengths than shoring up weaknesses, therapies with a solutions focus are briefer than long-lasting counseling techniques, businesses profit by attending to workers’ best qualities, and positive psychology transcends simple self-help advice or common sense wisdom.

Jim Clifton, the former CEO of the Gallup Organization, once said that positive psychology works because the research shows it works.

CAPP’s work with leading international organizations such as Unilever and Norwich Union shows that leaders in the business world have noticed positive psychology.

This article will teach you how to make it work for you.

Why a Positive Focus?

Positive psychology is often seen as a counter-intuitive approach to addressing underperforming workers or client problems.

However, research has shown that using strengths and tapping positivity can provide larger gains than dealing with weaknesses and focusing on problems.

Businesses and organizations have received the most attention from positive psychology researchers, with studies showing tremendous benefits of positivity in the workplace.

The Gallup Organization reports that “disengaged workers” cost companies billions of dollars annually in lost customers, healthcare, and turnover cost.

In contrast, happy workers are more likely to receive high supervisor and customer evaluations, take fewer sick days, show up to work on time, help their colleagues, make more money, and lead happier lives.

Positive psychology benefits many areas, such as the workplace, education, coaching, and therapy.

It has been found that workers are more productive when they have the opportunity to “do what I do best each and every day” and that having the opportunity to employ their strengths can boost their self-esteem.

Additionally, studies have shown that students of all abilities benefit from special education programs. As a result, top private schools in Australia and North America are incorporating positive psychology into their curricula to give their students a competitive edge.

Finally, positive psychology has its scientific stamp of approval, making it perfect for clients or supervisors wary of new and untested approaches to work.

Further Skepticism about Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a growing movement. However, many still wonder what it is and why it is important.

These concerns can be put to rest. If you are looking for evidence of positive psychology’s long-lastingness, it is important to seek out positive psychology institutions that have the promise of outlasting its prominent contributors (such as Martin Seligman) and enduring long into the future.

Examples of these include positive psychology educational programs around the globe.

Positive psychology is a widespread phenomenon, and it is most important to experience it as a larger whole.

As a student engaged in distance learning, it would be a shame to miss out on the sense of being plugged into a wider community of people who share your interest in this topic. So spend time online this week to understand how large and fascinating positive psychology is.

Short descriptions of the coming sections are given below.

Understanding Emotions

Positive affect and positive emotions:

originate from the brain: neuroscience;

result from people’s progress toward goals;

have constructive functions;

can be identified with relevant questionnaires;

broaden-and-build resources, capacities, and action repertoires;

are influenced by genetics and personality;

can be used intelligently, forming part of emotional intelligence;

have an optimal ratio (relation) to negative emotions;

can have beneficial (and harmful) effects.

Emotions are short-lived in our consciousness and focus on a specific event, whereas moods are unfocused and enduring.

We all have an affective style, our tendency to experience more positive or negative moods.

Research indicates aiming for 3:1 or higher positive to negative emotions if we are to flourish.

The experience of positive emotions broadens our thoughts and builds resources to gain resilience.

Genetics and personality influence emotions.

Positive psychology contributes to our understanding of emotional intelligence.

Two types of models within emotional intelligence research are “ability” and “skill” or mixed.

Emotions serve a specific purpose. They help us function by providing useful feedback about our lives.

Positive emotions, in particular, broaden and build many of our resources.

Happiness is a worthwhile topic: positivity is directly linked to social, personal, health, and work benefits.

Positivity can be increased.

Research on peak-end theory suggests that people give extra weight to the most intense (peak) moment and the last (end) moment of an event, virtually ignoring the duration of an event (duration neglect).

This has direct implications for customer service, customer-product interface, and decision-making.

Flow is the state of total absorption that comes when skills and challenges are optimally balanced and can be used diagnostically to assess the amount of challenge or skill a client has.

Empirically Tested Interventions

Many empirically tested interventions have been shown to increase positivity, decrease depression, and enhance creativity and productivity.

There are many ways to use these exercises. Taking just the example of the powerful intervention of promoting gratitude, there are various ways to apply this, from keeping a gratitude journal to conducting a gratitude visit. You can be creative in your implementation of positive interventions.

Positive psychology is not one-size-fits-all. Be sure to tailor interventions to fit your situations and clients.

Positive psychology has produced good theory and practical applications for positive interventions, extending beyond the “easy steps” and “secrets” of the self-help movement.

Scientists test interventions to see which ones appear to be most effective, for whom, and why.

Positive psychology interventions are about making individuals happier and also focus on group and organizational strategies. Both individual and organizational interventions can help students and clients to function even better.

A Strengths Focus

Studies show the greatest gains are made from cultivating and using strengths while managing weaknesses.

Everyone has strengths, and identifying and using your strengths can lead to tangible benefits at home and work.

We now have sophisticated measures of strengths to use effectively with students and clients.

A strengths focus does not mean that we should neglect our weaknesses.

A Case for Hope and Optimism

As breezy a topic as hope and optimism sound, they are entirely appropriate to the work and school setting. Moreover, studies show they are linked to desirable outcomes in these environments.

Optimism does not necessarily mean being unrealistic.

Goals and resources need to be matched well with one another.

You can increase hope by increasing creativity or self-confidence.

Failure and fear of failure are natural and worthwhile.

Perfectionism is toxic to wellbeing.

Resilience, Posttraumatic Growth, Positive Aging

Stress, limitations, challenging situations, loss, significant life changes like getting older, and even death are inevitable parts of being human.

Although on the surface, these issues sound like nemeses of positive psychology, some researchers argue that, instead of ignoring them, positive psychology should study how managing them can contribute to a life well lived.

We focus on the topics of resilience and growth as well as how to embrace aging with a positive perspective.

We critically discuss the role of a sense of coherence in facilitating well-functioning.

We critically evaluate available research evidence that aging can be associated with positive outcomes.

There are three main psychological responses to trauma: succumbing, resilience, and post-traumatic growth.

A sense of coherence is important for wellbeing.

There are five main components within post-traumatic growth (PTG).

Wisdom and its place in the developmental process.

The human race is getting older, but we can enhance wellbeing through positive aging.

Key References

Allport, 1966. Traits revisited. American Psychologist, 21, 1-10.

Aspinwall & Richter, 1999. Optimism and self-mastery predict more rapid disengagement from unsolvable tasks in the presence of alternatives. Motivation and Emotion, 23, 221-245.

Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenaeur, & Vohs, 2001. Bad is stronger than good. General Review of Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Baylis, 2005. Learning from wonderful lives: Lessons from the study of wellbeing brought to life by the personal stories of some much-admired individuals.

Berg & Szabo, 2005. Brief coaching for lasting solutions.

Buckingham & Clifton, 2001. Now, discover your strengths.

Cattell, 1945. The principal trait clusters for describing personality. Psychological Bulletin, 42, 129-161.

Clifton & Harter, 2003. Investing in strengths. In Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, (Eds), Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline.

Diener & Fujita, 1995. Resources, personal strivings, and subjective well-being: A nomothetic and idiographic approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 926-935.

Emmons, 1999. The psychology of ultimate concerns: Motivation and spirituality in personality.

Fredrickson, 2001. The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 58, 218-226.

Frisch, 2006. Quality of life therapy: Applying a life satisfaction approach to positive psychology and cognitive therapy.

Gilbert, 2006. Stumbling on happiness.

Isen & Levin, 1972. The effect of feeling good on helping: cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 107-112.

Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987. Positive affect facilitates creative problem-solving. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21, 384- 388.

Ito & Cacioppo, 2001. The psychophysiology of utility appraisals. In Kahneman, Diener, & Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 470-488).

Jackson & McKergow, 2007. The solutions-focus: Making coaching ad change simple (2nd ed.).

Linley, 2008. Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others.

Linley & Page, 2007. Playing to one’s strengths. HR Director (April).

Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005. The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Maslow, 1954. Motivation and personality.

Matlin & Gawron, 1979. Individual differences in Pollyannaism. Journal of Personality Assessment, 43, 411-412.

Novemsky & Kahneman, 2005. The boundaries of loss aversion. Journal of Marketing Research, 42, 119-128.

Peterson, 2006. A primer in positive psychology.

Peterson & Park, 2006. Character strengths in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 27, 1149-1154.

Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2006. Greater strengths of character and recovery from illness. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 17-26.

Peterson, Ruch, Beermann, Park, & Seligman, 2007. Strengths of character, orientations to happiness, and life satisfaction. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 149-156.

Peterson & Seligman, 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.

Rath, 2007. Strengths Finder 2.0.

Rath & Clifton, 2004. How full is your bucket? Positive strategies for work

and life.

Segerstrom & Nes, 2006. When goals conflict but people prosper: The case of dispositional optimism. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 675-693.

Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005. Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

Snyder, 1994. The psychology of hope: You can get there from here.

Special Issue of American Psychologist (Vol. 55, Issue 1) on Positive Psychology, January 2000.

Further Reading

Linley, Joseph, Harrington, & Wood, 2006. Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.

Lyubomirsky, 2008. The how of happiness: A practical guide to getting the life you want.

Seligman, 1991. Learned optimism.

Seligman, 2002. Authentic Happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment.

Seligman, 2011. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being.