When positive psychology emerged in the late 1990s, it critiqued mainstream psychology for neglecting the more positive regions that exist within humanity. Positive psychology practitioners described mainstream psychology’s method as an “inappropriately negative view of human nature and the human condition” (Keyes and Haidt, 2003).
They found that the focus should be on the prevention of mental illness through methods such as building people on their strengths, hope, optimism, courage, and insight; Seligman found that this shift would work better as a buffer against depression as opposed to the disease model (the biological approach to mental illness), which does not move us closer to the prevention of many serious problems.
The Desire For Change
Martin Seligman and his fellow researchers were particularly unhappy with the direction mainstream Psychology was going and wanted to find an epistemology and philosophy that would change this. Among other influences, they were inspired by the Greek philosophers who were seeking to understand what brings people closer to “eudaimonia” (Greek word for happiness). They aimed to shift the perspective of psychology to the study of happiness, strength, and virtue. The Aristotelian principle is a major contribution to positive psychology, which concentrates on positive experiences, character, and virtues.
The field associates itself with the Aristotelian principle model of human nature:
- Happiness for positive psychology practitioners refers to each individual having a sense of well-being that is achieved through “good living” (Seligman, 2002). This is Aristotle’s eudaimonia, which refers to Aristotle’s way of achieving happiness: activities that are in accordance with our virtues and the person having a noble purpose in those activities.
- Virtue in positive psychology and the Aristotelian principle is also a necessary condition of happiness, giving the individual the freedom to discover their own virtue and how to lead them into greater happiness.
- Both approaches view the pursuit of happiness coming when one introspects and realizes that the conditions for happiness are found within themselves. This pursuit leads the person to evaluate their relationships and work in order to discover which aspects fosters “good living”. This brings the person closer to finding a sense of purpose and meaning in their own lives.
- Aristotle and Positive Psychologists see happiness as having a value that is both instrumental and intrinsic.
- Happiness and psychological growth is a sign that a person has achieved “good living”.
- PP and the Aristotelian approach see each person as capable of achieving increases in happiness through self-sustainment. This is supported through Barbara Fredrickson’s work who found that the positive emotions that come with psychological growth expands our mental set, which enables us to have better friendships, health, and achievements.
- Positive Psychologists and Aristotle see psychological growth coming from activities that exercise our capabilities. These activities include a good deed, winning an athletic event, a stimulating conversation, and so on.
- Positive psychologists also align themselves with Aristotle’s view that we are pre-programmed with a software of justice, fairness, kindness, and so on but we must practice prioritizing those qualities over our more selfish ones.
Why Positive Psychology Is Not Aristotelian Psychology
It’s important to keep in mind that ancient Greek philosophers understood the world in a different social, cultural, and material context. While the Aristotelian principle has a major influence on positive psychology, it is important to note that positive psychology research reshapes its approaches and questions on human life situations and the conditions to these modern times. For instance, Aristotle argued that a society requires both men and women to be happy in order to achieve success, but that women were inferior to men and that their place in the world is lower than men but higher than slaves. Positive Psychology practitioners would certainly disagree with that statement and see all people deserving of equal treatment.
Yes, the human being is programmed with a set of morals but we must still take into account that humans are also shaped by history and culture. We cannot only look intrinsically, but must care socially, culturally, and economically as well. Aristotle also aspires for a person to keep their strengths and virtues independent so one can become as virtuous as possible in order to achieve happiness. PP seeks to integrate both values by encouraging the person to link virtues with our unique strengths in order to not only have positive emotions, but feel entitled to them as well.
Was Aristotle the first Positive Psychology Practitioner?
No he was not. There are some factors that could make him seem as the first positive psychology practitioner of his time but the reformulation of understanding society and people changed so much that many of his views are considered outdated and sexist. However, he still is a major influence on psychology and philosophy and many practitioners draw a lot of their conclusions on many of his views. Despite the differences in perspective, positive psychology and Aristotle views can be seen with the same lens. Positive psychology is an excellent example of the greatness that comes with connecting the past with our future, of understanding the history and philosophy of happiness, and appreciating the many commonalities of humanity.
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Martin, T. E. (2000). An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander,New Directions in Philosophy and Education, Aristotle on Slaves and Women. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0009%3Achapter%3D15%3Asection%3D14
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