After the Second World War, the focus of psychology was on treating abnormal behaviors and mental illnesses. Dissatisfied with this approach, humanist psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Eric Fromm helped renew interest in the more positive aspects of human nature.
In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association and it was then that Positive Psychology became the theme of his term as president. He is widely seen as the father of contemporary positive psychology (About Education, 2013).
Most people see Seligman as the face of Positive Psychology even though he didn’t found the field by himself and wasn’t the first ‘positive psychologist’. The founders of Positive Psychology, including Seligman, emerged at separate times but all shared similar views that eventually lead to what Positive Psychology is now. You can read about them below:
James was a philosopher, physician, and psychologist and he was the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He argued that in order to thoroughly study a person’s optimal functioning, one has to take in how they personally experience something, otherwise known as subjective experience.
He also saw the importance in combining both positivistic and phonological methodology, which is what many refer to now as “radical empiricism” because he was interested in what was objective and observable. However, many still consider him to be America’s “first positive psychologist” (Froh, 2004) because he was deeply interested in the subjectivity of a person, as “objectivity is based on intense subjectivity” (2004).
The humanistic movement was about adding a holistic dimension to psychology. In other words, its interest was to study the whole person. Humanistic psychologists believe that our behavior is determined by our perception of the world around us and its meanings, we are not the sole product of our environment or biochemistry, and that we are internally influenced and motivated to fulfill our human potential.
The humanist psychologists were aware that there was a lack of research on the positive side of life and wanted to look at what drives us to want to grow and achieve fulfillment. It must be noted that even though conceptual ideas of human nature did influence future positive psychology practitioners and researchers, they wanted to separate themselves from the humanistic discipline based on the differences in methodology and wanting to take a more scientific epistemology of understanding human beings.
The term “positive psychology” originated with Maslow, who first coined that term in his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality”.
Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, did not like how psychology concerned itself mostly with disorder and dysfunction, arguing that it did not have an accurate understanding of human potential. He emphasized how psychology successfully shows our negative side by revealing much about our illnesses and shortcomings, but not enough on our virtues or aspirations (Maslow, 1954, p. 354).
The later psychologists, such as Martin Seligman, distanced themselves from Humanistic Psychology because of their use of unscientific methods and lack of empirical data. But it is still important to take into account that despite the different ways of studying behavior (humanistic psychologists rely on qualitative methods more, while positive psychology practitioners use more rigorous and quantitative methods), they both had a dislike for the direction psychology was taking in studying behavior and they both wanted to look at the more the positive side of human nature.
Seligman is an American Psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. He is famous for learned helplessness experiment and theory among the scientific and clinical psychologists and famous for being the founder of Positive Psychology.
His work in learned helplessness and pessimistic attitudes garnered an interest in optimism. He worked with Christopher Peterson to create a positive side to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In their research they looked at different cultures over time to create a list of virtues that are highly valued and included it in their Character Strengths and Virtues section in the DSM: wisdom/knowledge, courage, transcendence, justice, humanity, and temperance.
In 1996, he was elected President of the American Psychological Association and the central theme he chose for his term was positive psychology. He wanted mental to be more than just the “absence of illness” and with that he was determined in bringing psychology to a new era that focused on what makes people feel happy and fulfilled. Today he is the director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Czikszentmihalyi was born in Hungary in 1934, and like many other people of that time, he was deeply affected by the Second World War and it showed in his life and later work.
He was stripped from his family and friends as a child and was put in an Italian prison. It was there he had his first idea of working with flow and optimal experience (“Csikszentmihalyi and Happiness,”).
He also had an affinity for painting, noting that the act of creating was sometimes more important than the finished work itself-he began delving deeper into his fascination with what he called the flow state. This is when a person is completely immersed in an activity that requires intense focus and creative engagement. He set his life’s work to scientifically identifying the different methods one could achieve such a state.
He conducted a famous Experience Sampling Body experiment as a way to measure happiness: A group of teens were given beepers that went off at random times during the day and they were asked to record their thoughts and feelings at the time of the beeps.
Czikszentmihalyi found that when their energies were focused on a challenging task that required creativity, they were more upbeat. His studies and finding gained much popular interested and today he is considered as one of the founders of positive psychology.
Peterson was the professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and the former chair of the Clinical Psychology department. He was the co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues with Seligman and is noted for his work in the study of optimism, hope, character, and well-being and his important findings make him one of the founders of Positive Psychology for helping to bring Psychology to its new era.
The following positive psychology researchers deserve a special mention.
Dweck conducted research on the notion of growth vs. fixed mindset. It has been used with parents, teams, students, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. It is a positive psychology tool that is used widely and praised highly, bringing people more interest to the world of positive psychology.
Dr. Ed Diener, aka “Dr. Happiness”, is a leading researcher in PP who coined the term “Subjective well-being” as the aspect of happiness that can be measured scientifically. His argument that there is a strong genetic component to happiness has led to a huge amount of data studying the internal and external conditions of happiness and how one can change it. He even researched the relationship between income and well-being, as well as cultural influences on well-being. His publications have been cited over 98,000 times and his fundamental research on the subject is what earned him his nickname. He has worked with researchers Daniel Kahneman and Martin Seligman and is a senior scientist for the The Gallup Organization.
Sheldon was present at the conference where positive psychology emerged as a new direction and a decade later he served as lead editor of “Designing the future of positive psychology: taking stock and moving forward”. His grounding work on Self-Determination Theory helped him update the hierarchy of needs that was originally identified by Abraham Maslow.
His update states that we have evolved into having three major needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (connecting to other people). Furthermore, his work on how to boost happiness contributed to a “sustainable happiness” model.
Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory originated from his Social-Cognitive theory. It relates to a person’s perception of their ability to reach a goal and the belief that one is capable of performing it in a certain way in order to reach them. This concept has served to be of great impotence and use in positive psychology.
Seligman stated that Clifton followed a similar path that he did when he came up with Strengths-based psychology. He studied successful individuals and wanted to know what they did right to achieve top performance.
His work gave employers solid recommendations on how to find a fulfilling career that is suitable for them. He was honored in 2002 by the American Psychological Association with a Presidential Commendation as the Father of Strengths-based Psychology. His work on strengths science allowed him to contribute as well to positive psychology. He has been called the “grandfather of Positive Psychology” (Snyder, Lopez, & Pedrotti, 2015, p. 66).
Please note that there are so many other influential positive psychology researchers that haven’t been mentioned in this article. We’ve created a list that features all of them on this webpage.
About Education. (2013). What Is Positive Psychology? Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/branchesofpsycholog1/a/positive-psychology.htm
About Education. (2013). Martin Seligman – Biography and Psychological Theories. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/profilesmz/p/martin-seligman.htm
Bandura’s Self-efficacy Theory. (2012). Retrieved from http://nursingplanet.com/theory/self_efficacy_theory.html
Csikszentmihalyi and Happiness. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi/
Froh, J. J. (2004). The History of Positive Psychology: Truth Be Told.
Further praise for Carol Dweck | LVS Consulting by Lisa Sansom (2012). Retrieved from http://www.lvsconsulting.com/2012/07/11/further-praise-for-carol-dweck/
Hefferon, K., & Boniwell, I. (2011). Introduction to Positive Psychology. In Positive psychology: Theory, research and applications. Maidenhead, Berkshire: McGraw Hill Open University Press.
Mentor Coach. (2014). BEN’S INTERVIEW WITH KENNON SHELDON, PhD. Retrieved from http://www.mentorcoach.com/sheldon/
Park, N., Oates, S., & Schwarzer, R. (2013). Christopher Peterson “Other People Matter”. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 5(1), 1-4. doi:10.1111
Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., & Pedrotti, J. T. (2015). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths (p. 66).
The Pursuit of Happiness. (2015). Diener and Happiness. Retrieved from http://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/ed-diener/