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.
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The story of roses
Although not an experiment, the story of Seligman and his rose garden has become a folk legend in the discipline of positive psychology. By his own account, positive psychology started from an epiphany he experienced while attending to his rose garden.
His daughter, who was 5 at the time, had been trying to get her father’s attention. Seligman turned to her and snapped. Unhappy with this response, his daughter asked him whether or not he remembered how she used to whine when she was 3 and 4?
She told him that when she turned 5 she decided to stop – and if she was able to stop whining, then he was able to stop being a grouch!
This revelation of developing what was right, rather than fixating on what was wrong, sparked what Seligman would go on to promote during his career as APA president: that we should be teaching our children and ourselves to look at our strengths rather than weaknesses (Seligman M & Csikszentmihalyi, M, 2000).
Positive psychology, as the name suggests, is psychology with a positive orientation. It does not imply that the rest of psychology is all negative and useless. In fact, the term “psychology as usual” has been coined to denote the rest of psychology.
Positive psychology can be viewed as the “fourth wave” in the evolution of psychology, the first 3 waves being, respectively, the disease model, behaviorism and humanistic psychology.
This approach contrasts with how , in its early years* (* the second half the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th), the practice of psychology focused mainly on curing psychic ailments, a negative focus.
This orientation was undoubtedly important and useful, and was associated with some of great names in psychology : Sigmund Freud, Adler and Carl Jung. However, over time, psychology began to acquire a negative outlook and character, with its focus on the dark chambers of the human mind, to the near total exclusion of its sunlit uplands.
The Four Waves of Psychology
The 1st Wave: The Disease model
During the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, psychology was concerned with curing mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and complexes of various kinds ( inferiority, power, electra, oedipus, other). And why not ? There has always been, and will perhaps always be, a significant incidence of mental illness in all communities, irrespective of race or religion, caste or creed.
The attempt of psychologists to cure these ailments was quite natural and laudable, and the work of early psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud, Adler, and Carl Jung was indeed very useful. (Note : It must be added here that of these 3 pioneers, the big 3 of Vienna as they were called, Carl Jung was perhaps the earliest to recognize, and be troubled by, psychology’s negative focus).
Over time, this negative focus pushed psychology into the dark recesses of the human mind and away from the deeper well-springs of human energy and potential. As highlighted by Martin Seligman, in his 2008 TED talk on Positive Psychology in 2008, this negative focus of psychology resulted in three major drawbacks:
- Firstly, psychologists became victimologists and pathologizers (they forgot that people make choices, that they have responsibility).
- Secondly, they forgot about improving normal lives and high talent (the mission to make relatively untroubled people happier, more fulfilled, more productive), and,
- Thirdly, in their rush to repair damage, it never occurred to them to develop interventions to make people happier.
The 2nd Wave: Behaviorism
B. F. Skinner of the Harvard University, was the originator, along with John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov, of this important approach to psychology. Skinner believed that free will was an illusion, and human behavior was largely dependent on the consequences of previous actions.
If a particular behavior attracted the right type of rewards, it had a high probability of being repeated, and if, on the other hand, the behavior attracted punishment, it had a good chance of not being repeated (Schacter, Daniel L., and Gilbert Daniel, 2011).
Skinner believed that, given the right structure of rewards and punishments, human behavior can be totally modified, in almost a mechanical sense.
This theory undoubtedly has much merit, particularly the idea of positive reinforcement, and has relevance to the workplace and the home, in terms of influencing behavior, through a well-conceived reward system. But Skinner’s total rejection of free will is disturbing.
It goes against all that human history stands for – the ultimate, and enduring, triumph of the human spirit against overwhelming odds. Also, his idea of behavior modification, meaning the manipulation of behavior through properly structured rewards, is open to gross abuse by autocrats and dictators, in terms of oppressing their subjects. And not just in society at large, but in the workplace as well. J E R Staddon and Noam Choksy were among Skinner’s major critics (Staddon, J., 1995; Chomsky, Noam 1959).
Criticisms of his theory notwithstanding, Skinner stands tall — a brilliant Harvard psychologist and prolific writer, with 21 books and 180 articles to his credit, and who in a 2002 survey, was voted the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century (Haggbloom, Steven J. et. al, 2002).
The 3rd Wave: Humanistic Psychology
This wave is known for two major strands of thought – existentialist psychology (Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Paul Sartre) and humanistic psychology (Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers).
According to Sartre, every human being is responsible for working out his identity and his life’s meaning, through the interaction between himself and his surroundings. No one else can do it for him, least of all a non-existent God. . For this reason, meaning is something truly unique to each person – separate and independent (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946).
One cannot quarrel with this strand of thought, particularly the responsibility of the individual for his own destiny, but the underlying atheism is disturbing. What about people who cannot, on their own, find their identity and their life’s meaning?
Uncontrollable anxiety would be their inevitable lot, particularly in the absence of faith in a supernatural being, an idea rejected by existentialism. This anxiety is recognized in psychotherapy, is labeled “existential anxiety” and has been a major therapeutic concern of some leading psychologists, particularly Victor Frankl, originator of logo-therapy.
There can be considerable divergence of views on the question “What is life’s meaning?” and , clearly, each one needs to work it out for himself, in his own unique experience and surroundings. Here is a very thoughtful quote from Kierkegaard, arguably the earliest exponent of existentialism,
“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (…) I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all” (Kierkegaard, Soren, 1962).
Humanistic psychology rose to prominence in the mid-20th century in response to the limitations of the disease model discussed earlier (Benjafield, John G., 2010). This approach emphasizes the inherent human drive towards self-actualization, the process of realizing and expressing one’s own capabilities and creativity.
The 5 basic principles or postulates of humanistic psychology are:
- Human beings, as human, supersede the sum of their parts. They cannot be reduced to components.
- Human beings have their existence in a uniquely human context, as well as in a cosmic ecology.
- Human beings are aware and are aware of being aware – i.e., they are conscious. Human consciousness always includes an awareness of oneself in the context of other people.
- Human beings have the ability to make choices and therefore have responsibility.
- Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity.
It is hard to miss the significant influence that the humanistic approach has had on positive psychology.
The 4th Wave: Positive psychology
As already pointed out earlier in this article, positive psychology is psychology with a positive orientation. It is concerned with authentic happiness and the good life.
The term “positive psychology” first appeared in the last chapter of Abraham Maslow’s book “Motivation and Personality” (1954), the title of which was, “Toward a Positive Psychology.” In this chapter, Maslow maintains that psychology itself does not have an accurate understanding of human potential, and that the field tends not to raise the proverbial bar high enough with respect to maximum attainment.
“The science of psychology has been far more successful on the negative than on the positive side; it has revealed to us much about man’s shortcomings, his illnesses, his sins, but little about his potentialities, his virtues, his achievable aspirations, or his full psychological height. It is as if psychology had voluntarily restricted itself to only half its rightful jurisdiction, and that the darker, meaner half” (Maslow, 1954, p. 354).
The old psychology focused on flaws, overcoming deficiencies, avoiding pain, and an escape from unhappiness. The new psychology, or positive psychology, as it has come to be known, focuses on wellbeing, contentment, excitement, cheerfulness, the pursuit of happiness and meaning in life.
If I may hazard a personal view here, psychology may at last be converging into the quintessence of the world’s great religions. It may be discovering that the key to human evolution lies in a fine blend of the mind and the spirit, or, in purely biological terms, the central nervous system. It may, at last , be moving away from the dark chambers of the human mind into its sunlit uplands.
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.
Professor T.S. Srinivasan is currently Visiting Professor in three of India’s national institutes of management – at Lucknow, Kashipur, and Trichy. Formerly, Professor, International Management Institute, at Delhi, India, and at Kiev, Ukraine.
Professor Srinivasan has more than 30 years of experience in management education and training, including industrial experience of twelve years. He also attended the Indian Institute of Management, India’s top business school for nearly half a century.
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