Xav: An Introduction to Positive Psychology

Compared to more established specialisations such as clinical psychology, positive psychology is a relatively newer field that emerged in the late 1990s.  Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, revolving around how we can be happier and more productive (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).  With the past decades of psychological studies placing more emphasis on the more negative aspects of humanity (e.g. bias, abnormality, etc.), positive psychology offers a refreshing take on psychology, choosing to focus on well-being, without overlooking inevitable aspects of human functioning such as negative emotions.

TED Video: "The new era of positive psychology" featuring Martin Seligman

Positive psychology began as a new domain in 1998 when Martin Seligman, the then-president of American Psychological Association (APA) decided to focus on well-being and happiness as the theme of his presidency.  At that point, humanistic psychology was already established, and positive psychology served to build on the foundation of humanistic psychology.

How do humanistic psychology and positive psychology differ? (Waterman, 2013; Friedman, 2008)

Humanistic Psychology
Positive Psychology
-  Concerned with understanding human needs and meaning of life
-  Focus on fulfilling human potential
-  Concerned with merging humanistic theories with research
-  Focus on understanding factors that lead to success despite adversities
Preference for qualitative approaches
Preference for quantitative approaches

Humanistic psychology has been largely criticised for its lack of empiricism (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), offering a rose-tinted view of how every individual has free-will to pursue a better life (McMullen, 1982) and an overly optimistic yet vague view of the mind (Rowan, 2001, Ordinary Ecstasy: The Dialectics of Humanistic Psychology [Book]).

Thus, we have the birth of positive psychology.

Positive psychology adopts a more holistic approach to research  -  covering different aspects of life such as biology and relationships (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).  The main research focus are on positive emotions, positive human traits and positive institutions- all to which interact to create a wholesome life for an individual (Seligman, 2007).

Main theories in positive psychology

Theory 1.  The 3 Paths of Happiness (Seligman, 2002, Authentic Happiness [Book])
  • Pleasant life  -  How people optimally experience life through feelings and emotions.
  • Good life  -  Interactions between a person’s strengths and task he/she is engaged in.
  • Meaningful life  -  How individuals obtain meaning and positive self-conception through being part of a community.
Theory 2.  PERMA Theory (Seligman, 2011, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing [Book])
The 5 building blocks of well-being and happiness, as mentioned included:
  • Positive Emotions  -  Emotions such as excitement, jubilance are linked to happier outcomes.
    • For example, children with executive functioning difficulties who have more optimistic caretakers see more developed functioning (Ylvisaker and Feeney, 2002).
  • Engagement  -  Participation in activities that are challenging yet doable, allows us personal growth.
  • Relationships  -  Relationships strengthen our well-being and ensure healthy functioning of our brain.
    • In an interview with Dr. Mitch Printein (2015), there is more activity in our brain’s pain centres when we are at a risk of isolation. Undoubtedly, relationships are essential to humans as social creatures.
  • Meaning  -  Having a meaningful purpose in life allows us to enjoy our daily activities and increases our satisfaction levels.
  • Accomplishments  -  Setting realistic goals and having ambition allow us to obtain a sense of satisfaction when we achieve them. 
Theory 3.  Character Strengths and Virtues (Seligman and Peterson, 2004)
There are 6 virtues and 24 strengths as follows:
  • Wisdom: Creativity, curiosity, judgment, love-of-learning, perspective 
  • Courage: Bravery, honesty, perseverance, zest
  • Humanity: kindness, love, social intelligence
  • Justice: Fairness, leadership, teamwork
  • Temperance: Forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
  • Transcendence: Appreciation of beauty, gratitude, hope, humour, spirituality 
If you are interested in taking this, do click http://www.viacharacter.org/www

Criticisms and Implementations
But of course, like every other field, positive psychology is not without its limitations, especially since it is still a young field with more research that can be done.  Positive psychology is criticised for its one-size-fits-all approach towards happiness (Held, 2004).  Additionally, it does not explain major historical events such as genocides and wars (Schneider, 2011).
Despite that, positive psychology has successfully complemented other psychological fields.  For example, treatment methods implementing positive psychology have been found to significantly alleviate depressive symptoms and improve well-being (Sin, 2009).  Positive psychology could also be adopted in educational curriculums to improve well-being amongst students and develop their purpose in life (Pluskota, 2014).

In conclusion:  
A young field, positive psychology has many more years of research to develop and presents itself as a promising addition to the field that traditionally revolves around human flaws and the lack of free-will.
Stay tuned to the next post on Positive Psychology!!
In the meantime, also look at our previous post which also discussed positive psychology:  SGPsychStud: Current Trends in Psychology